Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY
Have a look at your smartphone bill. You're paying what, 75, 80 bucks a month? More?
So you'd figure I was peddling snake oil if I told you that you could pay as little as $19 a month (plus tax) for an Android smartphone that provides unlimited voice, data and text - without having to sign the customary wireless contract.
Due in large part to the use of Wi-Fi, $19 is the remarkably low amount that Raleigh, N.C.-based Republic Wireless is charging to tap into its basic wireless service network.
I know what you must be thinking. Republic has to be giving you one really crappy cellphone at that monthly rate. Or you'll have to stand on one foot and tie the phone to a kite to get any kind of decent coverage.
You won't have to go through such hoops.
The phone is the Motorola Defy XT, for sure not the sexiest or most feature-rich device you can buy today, but a fully capable midtier Android handset just the same. The dust-proof and water-resistant device runs the older Gingerbread version of Android, not the newer Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean iterations. But I was able to run several Android apps, including Angry Birds, Slacker, Quickoffice and YouTube, and fetch apps from the Google Play store.
The 3.7-inch Gorilla Glass display on the phone is relatively puny by today's Android standards. And the rear-facing 5-megapixel camera and front-facing VGA webcam, while functional, are not standouts.
But for most people, Republic's appeal has more to do with its disruptive pricing scheme rather than the Motorola phone, currently the only hardware that is compatible with the carrier's offerings. (Republic used to offer the LG Optimus phone as well, but it is no longer in the lineup.)
You do have to fork over $259 for the Defy phone to activate your account. If that seems like too much up front, Republic has just introduced a second pricing plan that will let you drop the cost of the phone to $99, while upping the monthly tab to a still very reasonable $29. Either way, Republic will let you bail after 30 days. And Motorola is offering a $50 credit to customers who buy the phone until March 18.
According to Republic, if you're a family of three paying $80 per line to a national carrier with a two-year contract and a subsidized cost of $50 per device, you can save $3,765 over two years on Republic's $19 service plan and $3,515 on its $29 plan.
Republic isn't the only wireless company to target budget consumers. T-Mobile jumped into the fray Tuesday by launching its GoSmart Mobile brand, with no-contract unlimited talk and messaging plans starting at $30 a month. Unlimited Web costs $5 more a month.
Republic has configured the Defy XT so that it can make and receive calls - and handle all your other data requirements - over Wi-Fi, which in fact you're encouraged to do. The idea is that you'll be able to make calls in areas such as your basement or office where it may be difficult if not impossible to get a cellular signal. Absent workarounds or third-party apps, Wi-Fi calling is not something you can typically do on a regular cellphone. Republic is owned by Bandwidth.com, whose Internet voice technology is used by Skype, Google Voice and Pinger.
The downside, of course, is that you don't have access to Wi-Fi all the time. That's where Republic's Wi-Fi Hybrid Calling technology comes in. Under those circumstances, calls are handled via Sprint's nationwide cellphone network. Sprint has a wholesale business relationship with Republic.
Alas, on the Defy handset there isn't a smooth "handoff" if you begin a call on Wi-Fi then move to a cellular-only area. Instead, the call is dropped and the phone automatically redials the number on the cell network. (Republic is technically still in beta.)
There is what Republic refers to as an "escape hatch." While you are connected to Wi-Fi, if you open the phone dialer and dial a number, you will notice as the call is connected a small Wi-Fi icon on the screen. If you click that icon, the call is automatically redialed over cell.
Republic says there'll be a more seamless handoff experience on future devices. One positive: Republic lets you make 911 emergency calls even over Wi-Fi.
Domestic roaming on the Republic network is free, but you can't make international calls over cellular. You can use Wi-Fi, though, to make calls anywhere in the world.
When you're on cellular, you are tapping into Sprint's slower 3G network, not the speedier emerging 4G LTE network. I found the poky surfing and slower download speeds during a bus commute into New York City frustrating at times.
Another limitation: You cannot text pictures and videos via MMS using Republic's network, though you can still send them through e-mail or a third-party app such as Facebook.
The absence of physical retail stores is one way that Republic keeps costs down. Sales are handled online, and so is technical support: Republic is built around what it says is a robust online support community.
The other rub, of course, is that for now only the one Motorola Defy model works with Republic. Republic CEO David Morken says it will expand the product lineup this summer, including devices that run the latest version of Android, as well as those that tap into LTE.
Republic Wireless isn't suitable for every consumer, of course, especially those who want to employ the latest devices and fastest networks. But it's awfully hard to quarrel with $19 a month.