Is Republic Wireless too good to be true?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers advice on whether Republic Wireless' cut-throat pricing is a deal to be embraced or avoided.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
11 min read

How much would you sacrifice for cheap smartphone service?

That's a question a lot of consumers are asking themselves these days as they shop for a better deal on their wireless service. Some consumers don't want to sacrifice anything. They want rock solid reliability, a wide selection of the hottest new phones and stellar customer service. But all those things cost money. If you're looking for the absolute best deal in wireless, you may have to lower your expectations slightly.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer advice on whether the upstart carrier Republic Wireless -- which uses Wi-Fi primarily to deliver voice, text messaging, and data services -- is ready for prime time and a good alternative to expensive wireless service. I also advise another reader on how he can get an inexpensive smartphone service without the expensive carrier data service.

Cheap for a reason

Dear Maggie,
I've been hearing a lot about Republic Wireless lately and I was wondering what you thought of it. I know it's been around for awhile and I've heard some mixed things about the service. But the prices seem like they can't be beat! I am already spending over $200 a month for service for my husband and me. And now my son wants a smartphone and I'm cringing thinking of how much more we will have to pay to add him to our service. I'd love to find a way to cut our cost down on this bill. Would you recommend this service? What are the benefits and drawbacks?


Dear Elaine,
You are right about Republic Wireless' prices. They are hard to beat.

I wrote about this service in the Ask Maggie column two years ago when it first launched. Back then, I thought the $19 service was a little too green for most consumers. Two years later, the company has improved the service thanks in large part to the addition of the new Moto X from Motorola to its lineup of devices.

Republic Wireless

The addition of the popular Moto X is a positive step forward, but there are still kinks in the service that need work.

That said, there are plenty of people who are big fans of Republic Wireless. In fact, CNET blogger Rick Broida, a self-professed cheapskate, said he plans to make the Moto X on Republic Wireless his next smartphone. He has already ditched AT&T and is now using T-Mobile's prepaid service for his iPhone 4S. But when it's time for a new smartphone he said it's a no-brainer for him.

"This is the phone (and phone service) I've been waiting for," he wrote in November when Republic Wireless made the Moto X available.

It's easy to see why Broida and others think that this service is a game-changer. There are plans that range from $5 a month for the most basic service that includes unlimited talk, text messaging, and data service while in Wi-Fi hot spots only, to a $40-a-month plan that offers unlimited voice, texting, and 4G LTE data service no matter where you are, even if you're not in a Wi-Fi hot spot.

There's no question that you would be able to get a lot of bang for your buck with any of these plans. But if you're like me, you're probably wondering if all these savings are too good to be true. And in a sense they are. Just like with anything in life that comes at a steep discount, there are a few catches. But if you're willing to live with the trade-offs then it may be a terrific bargain for you.

The network
First, let me explain how Republic Wireless works. It's a service that uses both Wi-Fi and cellular wireless technology to offer voice, text messaging, and data service. When Wi-Fi is unavailable, it automatically switches to a cellular wireless network. It leases capacity from Sprint, which means wherever Sprint offers cellular service is where you will be able to access Republic's network when Wi-Fi is not available.

The company claims that the switch between Wi-Fi and cellular is seamless. And you can even be on a call and roam from a Wi-Fi hot spot into cellular coverage without the call dropping. Of course, the actual experience customers using the service have may be very different. Keep in mind that switching between cellular networks and even some cell towers on a traditional cellular wireless network can be challenging. And many people experience dropped calls from even the most traditional and robust wireless networks.

Because Republic Wireless uses Wi-Fi whenever possible instead of leasing capacity from Sprint, it's able to keep the overall cost of its service very low. This is why the carrier can offer a $5-a-month service that includes unlimited talk, text, and data while in Wi-Fi coverage.

Here's the catch
But it doesn't come without drawbacks. As I mentioned earlier, there can be issues with the hand-off between cellular and Wi-Fi. That said, I have heard from customers that this experience is getting better as Republic Wireless improves its technology.

Another drawback is that because this technology that hands off between Wi-Fi and cellular is tricky to engineer, it requires customers to use specialized handsets. One of the first of these specialized devices was the Motorola Defy XT, which in all honesty was a mediocre Google Android smartphone that was using a 2-year-old version of the Android software. The voice quality on this phone was rather poor and lots of customers complained.

In November, the company introduced a new phone to the mix: the Motorola Moto X. This phone, which is also available on major carrier networks, is a newer, popular high-end Google Android phone. Customers who have used both devices say there is a huge improvement in terms of call quality with the Moto X over the Defy XT. And at $299, the price tag on this device is reasonable considering that it's a high-end smartphone that comes with lots of nifty capabilities. As I mentioned earlier CNET blogger Rick Broida was impressed with the Moto X on Republic Wireless. I have used the phone with AT&T service for several months, and I also think it's a terrific smartphone. It's small and light without sacrificing too much valuable screen space. And I really like the voice activation features, which allow you to activate many features like search by speaking the phrase "OK Google."

Republic Wireless

There has been talk that the carrier may also add the lower cost Moto G to the device lineup. This is a more stripped-down version of the Moto X, which unlocked sells for $99 without a contract. A good deal considering many smartphones cost $600 or more without a contract.

But there is a catch with the Moto X and eventually the Moto G, if Republic Wireless adds that to its lineup. Because the devices must be significantly modified to access seamless voice service on both Wi-fi and cellular networks, they will only work on Republic Wireless' network. This means that if you want to take your Moto X, or in the future a Moto G, to another service provider, you can't. In fact, the reverse is true as well. You also can't bring an existing smartphone to the Republic Wireless network.

Another big downside is the customer support. This has been a complaint of customers using this service from the early days, and it's still an issue. All of the customer support for the service and the devices is handled online. This helps keep Republic Wireless's costs very low, but it also means that customers who are having problems with the service never actually get to speak to a real human when there is a problem, which can be very frustrating.

The bottom line
Now to answer your real question. With all these drawbacks, is the service worth it? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to this. I'd say it depends.

Republic Wireless is great if keeping costs as low as possible is your main objective. But it's not for everyone. If you need ubiquitous cell phone coverage and you don't live in an area where Sprint service is available, or if customer service is important to you and you want a greater variety of devices, then this is not the service for you.

So what should you do? Like I said, this could be a great service for you and your family depending on your needs and priorities. But there are other low-cost options to consider. To be fair, $5- or $10-a-month service plans, which is how much Republic Wireless' most basic plans cost, are hard to beat. But you do have options.

As I wrote in a recent Ask Maggie column, AT&T and T-Mobile USA have changed pricing in the past year to offer much more competitively priced options. So if you are already a customer on one of these networks, you may want to simply check out the new pricing options to see if it will save you any money. These carriers have unbundled the cost of cell phone service from device subsidies to give customers who already own devices or can get one very cheap a good deal on service.

These carriers also offer some very good deals on their prepaid services. If you don't need unlimited voice and text messaging, and you're willing to live with some data limitations, you can find very affordable prepaid plans.

For example, T-Mobile offers a prepaid plan through its own service and also the WalMart Straight Talk brand that gives customers 100 minutes of voice time, unlimited text messaging, and so-called unlimited data, which really amounts to up to 5GB of data per month at top 4G speeds. After that threshold has been met, speeds slow to 3G speeds.

There are other prepaid plans that also offer lower-cost deals, such as Tracfone and the Sprint branded offerings, Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile. Of course, there are positives and negatives to each of these services, depending on your needs and where you live. So I suggest that you first figure out which services are available where you live and work. And then really ask yourself what's most important to you, whether it's the cost of the service, a breadth of devices to choose from, customer support, or whatever else strikes your fancy. Then check as many of these services as you can to see which one best fits your needs for the most value.

If you do decide to go with Republic Wireless keep in mind the limitations and the potential hiccups in service. If you're willing to live with these foibles for the low cost of the service, then go for it.

I don't want data with my smartphone

Dear Maggie,
Why must I pay for a data plan if I never, ever use it? I have wireless on my Pantech Discover (leashed to AT&T for a few more months) and use only wireless, via public hot spots and my home network, for any data traffic whatsoever. Yet AT&T demands that if I am to have a smartphone, I must also have (and pay extra for) a data plan. An unlimited texting plan I could use. But data? Isn't that synonymous with highway robbery these days? I mean, suppose I went into the grocery store to buy a steak, but the grocer refused to let me leave with it unless I agreed to buy the mashed potatoes, too. Even if I'm allergic to potatoes, the grocer seems to have me over a barrel. Am I saying I'm allergic to data plans! Well...maybe.

Are there options?

Art from Memphis

Dear Art from Memphis,
I hear you. You definitely make some good points. And I really like your analogy! But the first thing you have to understand when it comes to the big wireless operators is that they make money by selling you data services. They don't make money on voice or texting services. Those services, because they are so easy to deliver, have become commodities. So it's very hard to see a future in which people will spend more money for text messaging and voice services.

Data on the other hand is a different story. This is a service that is in high demand and people will want more of it over time. Therefore, the carriers can charge a premium for access to it. That's why most of the big guys have done away with unlimited plans. Consumers have fallen in line with carrier expectations and they are paying more for their wireless service than they did just a few years ago. According to a survey by JD Power and Associates, the average family spends about $149.07 a month on service today. This is about a 36 percent increase from 2010.

Data is the big driver in these price increases as more people buy smartphones, which require the data plans that you mentioned in your question.

In all fairness to the wireless operators, they have been spending a great deal of money building these data networks. The voice and text-messaging services that we get so cheap today use older technology that hasn't evolved in ages. But it is quite expensive to keep up with the growing demand for data services. So wireless operators need to make a comfortable profit to reinvest into their businesses.

Of course, that doesn't lessen the blow to your wallet every month.

There are some options you might want to consider if you are fed up paying the high cost associated with cellular data services. One option is to sign up for a prepaid service for a basic phone on a GSM network, such as AT&T or T-Mobile. You can put the SIM card for that service into your smartphone and keep the data service turned off. Some people have had good success with this. But just be aware that it violates these carriers' policies. And if they discover you are using a smartphone on an unauthorized plan, they could cancel your plan or force you to upgrade.

But there are some inexpensive ways to do this in a legit way too. For example, AT&T's least expensive smartphone prepaid plan is $25 a month for unlimited voice and text messaging service. And for $5 more a month you can get 50MB of data. That's a very small amount of data, which if you only plan on using Wi-Fi should be fine for you. So the service is only $30 a month. Not bad considering the least expensive post-paid AT&T plan, which offers unlimited voice and text messaging and 300MB of data is $85 a month.

Your absolute cheapest option is to consider Republic Wireless, the carrier I mentioned in the previous answer. This service primarily delivers voice, text, and data services using Wi-Fi networks. And when Wi-Fi isn't available, it uses Sprint's 3G and 4G wireless network to offer service. The way it works is that if you are in a Wi-Fi hot spot, the service uses Wi-Fi to deliver the voice, text, or data service. If you aren't in a Wi-Fi hot spot, it switches to Sprint's network. And you don't have to pay extra for the roaming.

The company offers several tiers of service. The one that would most likely match your needs costs $10 a month, and it gives you unlimited voice and text messaging on and off Wi-Fi. But you only can access data services when in a Wi-Fi network. This price is a real steal compared to what else is out there, such as the prepaid offers from carriers like AT&T.

As I mentioned above there are drawbacks to the Republic Wireless service. So you have to be certain you can live with these limitations if you want this service.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.