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Republic Wireless snags more phones for cheap Wi-Fi calling

The startup says it will soon give customers more handset choices as well as a second wireless service to act as a backup to Wi-Fi calls.

Wireless customers looking to save a buck with a mobile service based on Wi-Fi won't be restricted to one or two budget phones any longer.

Republic Wireless will soon add seven new Android devices to its lineup for inexpensive mobile service that relies on Wi-Fi.

Republic Wireless

Republic Wireless said Wednesday it will dramatically expand its handset options in July with seven new Android phones, including Samsung's popular Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. Republic also said it will give customers a second choice for cellular roaming when Wi-Fi is not available.

The small wireless operator uses both Wi-Fi hotspots and traditional cell phone networks to deliver voice and data service for smartphones at a much lower price compared with plans from larger rivals.

Since launching in 2011, Republic has offered only one or two budget devices from a single manufacturer, Motorola. It also had only one roaming partner: Sprint. The limitation meant that customers interested in the service, which starts at just $10 a month, had to sacrifice access to the hottest devices and were restricted to Sprint as their carrier when Wi-Fi wasn't working.

The Raleigh, North Carolina, startup said customers have been demanding more.

"Customers were loud and proud to tell us they didn't want to settle when it came to handsets or network choice," Republic CEO David Morken said in an interview. "Going forward, we will be among the first to get flagship Android phones as they're introduced."

Republic is one of a handful of companies, including Google, that are shaking up the wireless industry by using Wi-Fi as the primary network to deliver inexpensive voice and data service. It's the use of cheap public Wi-Fi that helps these carriers offer big discounts on service. When Wi-Fi isn't available, Republic leases capacity from a wireless provider so customers can seamlessly roam onto a cellular network. Because there is some technical magic that needs to happen on the device when switching between Wi-Fi and cellular in the midst of a call or data session, Republic, Google and others have until now only offered a limited number of handsets.

But the latest version of the Android operating system, Marshmallow, is better able to make the hand-off between Wi-Fi and cellular, which means that any device supporting the update will work on Republic's network. Notably missing from the lineup is Apple's iPhone, although Morken said he'd gladly offer the device if his tiny company could get Apple's attention to make the necessary software tweaks.

Republic is also adding another cellular carrier to back up the Wi-Fi service, giving customers a choice other than Sprint. Republic hasn't officially named the second "GSM carrier," but CNET has confirmed it's T-Mobile.

Google's Project Fi also uses a combination of cellular coverage from T-Mobile and Sprint and local Wi-Fi networks. But unlike Project Fi, which uses technology to dynamically determine which cellular signal is best, Republic's customers choose their backup cellular service when they sign up.

Republic said it also plans to tweak pricing and offer device financing for the first time. Details haven't been released, but Morken said the company will offer a $20 tier that includes unlimited talk and text and 1GB of cellular data. Currently that offer from Republic costs $25 a month. A similar plan from Project Fi is $30 a month.