Cheap, wifi-based cell phone plan could challenge large providers

Republic Wireless offers unlimited calls, texting, and data for $19/month, trusting its customers to switch to wifi whenever it's available.
Written by Hannah Waters, Weekend Editor

We've all thought about it: instead of paying for a full cell phone plan, why can't we just purchase a 3G data plan and use a phone-like mobile app to replace calling?

Republic Wireless doesn't offer quite that, but it's close. For $19 per month, you get unlimited phone, data and text use with no contract. The catch -- if you could call it that -- is that the phone automatically switches to wifi when it's available. And when it's not, the phone hops back onto Sprint's 3G network.

This concept would seem to be profitable only if there were some kind of 3G cap to restrain service to those users who are regularly connected to wifi. But Republic has no such caps. Initially, the company laid out guidelines for acceptable use, covering 1,200 minutes, 3,600 texts, or 600MB each month. These still weren't caps -- users could go over the limit without losing access.

But the idea that these were just guidelines for the good of the commons was "too difficult of a concept to communicate," Kevin LaHaise, a Republic Wireless representative, told Ars Technica. "Whenever we gave example numbers of usage patterns that would be safely within the Fair Use Policy, people thought they were 'caps.' And they weren't."

It's an interesting philosophy for the company to take: it assumes that its users will respect the way the service works, only signing up if they have regular wifi access, and using wifi whenever possible as to not strain the 3G network. LaHaise told Ars that, if a user did severely overstep his or her bounds, they would probably cancel the service. But they haven't had to do that yet.

The model is certainly intriguing, if not because it's the most legitimate challenge to mobile providers that I've heard of. It provides a new option and, perhaps, a new model to free smartphone users from the tethers of large cell phone bills, two-year contracts, and the whims of the large companies.

The downsides, as Casey Johnston's Ars Technica review notes, are that it's tied to Sprint -- the third-slowest provider -- and that only one phone is available at the moment, the LG Optimus S running Android 2.3 Gingerbread. And because there is no plan, which usually offsets the cost of the actual device, there is an up-front cost of $199 to pay for the phone.

And another downside is that the phone will only be functional for people living in cities or other areas with consistent wifi access -- or else it could turn into a 'tragedy of the commons.'

"Nobody likes a cell-hog," as their site says.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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