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Is Republic's $19 cell phone service too good to be true?

Republic Wireless's $19 wireless service is a steal. But is it too good to be true? In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon highlights why you get what you pay for with this service.

Owning a smartphone usually means being stuck in an expensive two-year contract, but Republic Wireless is offering an unlimited everything service that will cost you as little as $19 a month.

Most smartphone services start at about $70 a month on one of the major carrier networks. Prepaid providers, like MetroPCS, offer similar unlimited everything deals for $50 a month. Now Republic Wireless is offering an unlimited data, voice and text messaging service for smartphones that is only $19 a month.

Wi-Fi calling

Dear Maggie,
I'm a college student, and my parents are dropping me from their cell phone service plan. That means that I will now have to pay for my cell phone service. I'd like to get a smartphone, but I can't afford the $100 price tag that goes along with those devices and services. I've heard about the Republic Wireless service that is only $19 a month and offers unlimited data and voice. It sounds like exactly what I need! But it seems too good to be true. Is there a catch to this service? Also, are there other low-cost options you'd recommend?

Bargain Hunter

Dear Bargain Hunter,
Republic Wireless's $19 a month plan, which includes unlimited voice, text messaging, and data, is a hard deal to beat. In fact, I don't know of any other cell service that can compete at that price. But your instincts about a "catch" are justified.

Motorola Defy XT

This isn't to say that you shouldn't consider Republic, but you should be aware of the limitations of the service. First, you have to understand how the service works. Republic is able to offer its service so cheaply because it uses Wi-Fi to handle most of the calls, text messages, and data sessions instead of a cellular network. Republic uses Wi-Fi when it's available because it's less expensive than using a cellular network.

But since Wi-Fi networks typically span only a short distance and are not available everywhere, Republic also has a deal with Sprint so that it can use Sprint's 3G wireless network when users are not in Wi-Fi hotspots.

It is free for Republic subscribers to use Sprint's network, but Republic pays Sprint for the use of its 3G network. Because Republic believes that its customers will be in Wi-Fi hotspots more often than they won't be, it's able to eat the cost of connecting via Sprint's network and thus keep the cost of its service lower than its competitors' prices.

The phone used on Republic's network is configured to make calls and send text messages over either Wi-Fi or a cellular network. This means that users don't have to launch a separate app to make calls over Wi-Fi. The phone is able to detect which network is available and which one is best for the call. If no Wi-Fi is available or the signal is too weak, the phone automatically dials the number over Sprint's cellular network. Users can also manually turn off the Wi-Fi calling feature to use Sprint's network.

But there are still some limitations to the service. For one, the hand-off between Wi-Fi and cellular networks is not seamless. What this means is that if you make a phone call while in a Wi-Fi hotspot, and you wander outside that hotspot, the call will be dropped. The service will then automatically redial the number again over Sprint's network. But the call will be interrupted briefly while it reconnects over the cellular network. Republic officials say they are working on improving this in future versions of the service.

The other potential drawback is that in order to use Republic's service, you must buy a Republic device. And right now, there is only one smartphone that works on Republic's network: the Motorola Defy XT. The device is considered a low-end Google Android smartphone. The specs on this device are far below what you would expect from any of the popular high-end Android smartphones, such as the HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S3. It has a smaller display, only 2GB of on-device storage, and it's running a two-year old version of Android called Gingerbread. But at $249 for the $19 a month plan, it's relatively cheap compared to what you'd pay for a full price iPhone 5 or Galaxy S3. If $249 is too rich for your blood, you can now get the device for $99 with a $29 a month plan.

There have also been complaints from some users that the call quality on the Defy XT is poor. And because it's using Wi-Fi when available, there can be congestion and quality of service issues.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't use Republic Wireless. The $19 a month price tag or even the $29 service with a subsidized device, is a bargain that's hard to pass up. But just remember that you get what you pay for. You won't have a choice in the device you use, and there are limitations to the service, as I have pointed out above.

The other thing you should keep in mind is that since Republic uses Sprint's network when Wi-Fi isn't available, you need to make sure you live in an area with Sprint coverage. You will be able to access Wi-Fi when it's available, but if you don't have decent Sprint coverage for those times when Wi-Fi is not available, your phone won't work when you're not in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

There are several other low-cost prepaid services available. Most of them cost about $50 per month for unlimited data, voice, and text messaging. This is considerably more than Republic's service, but it's still way less than what you'd pay for a post-paid smartphone service from one of the major carriers. Republic is the only one that I am aware of that is using Wi-Fi to help offset the cost of the service.

Most of these other services use other carriers' cellular networks. For instance, Walmart's Straight Talk service uses AT&T and Verizon Wireless service. Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile, each owned by Sprint, use Sprint's network.

There are also some services that have come up with unique ways to market and offset the cost of their service. For example, Solavei Wireless, which uses T-Mobile's network to deliver its service, actually pays subscribers for signing up friends and family to the Solavei service. This means that if you are willing to do some marketing for Solavei, you could earn money that would lower the cost of your monthly service.

I think that anyone looking to save some money on their wireless bill should look at any of these services. But make sure you do your homework before you buy a new phone and sign up for one of these plans. This includes knowing the underlying network that the service provider uses and checking out the coverage to ensure it works where you live and work. Also, read the fine print on any service claiming to offer unlimited data. Often unlimited data is capped at a certain level. And lastly be aware that going with a low-cost provider may also mean that you forgo customer service. In Republic's case, customer service is virtually non-existent. Instead, customers use online forums made up of avid customers to help troubleshoot problems.

The bottom line is that if you're looking for a really cheap service and you are willing to accept the limitations and potential issues that come along with such a service, then go for it. You'll be saving yourself a lot of money. But just remember that you get what you pay for.

Good luck.

Tough smartphone

Dear Maggie,
I have had some very bad luck when it comes to smartphones. I've cracked screens and I've even dropped one of my smartphones into a swimming pool. I know I should take better care of my devices, but honestly what I'd really like is a device that I don't have to worry about damaging. I have 4-year-old twin boys now, who always want to play with my smartphone, and I'm scared to death it's going to end up in the toilet or I'll have another cracked screen. Do you know of any really rugged smartphones on the market?

Ms. Klutz

Dear Ms. Klutz
It sounds like you have had a tough time with smartphones. Luckily for you, I have some good news for you. I just had a briefing the other day with Kyocera, which has just introduced a new ruggedized smartphone called the Torque.

Kyocera Torque Kyocera

This Google Android smartphone is built to Military Standard 810G (MilSec). This means this phone can withstand dust, shock, vibration, solar radiation, humidity, blowing rain, low pressure, salt fog (which apparently is something you should be concerned about if you work on oceangoing ships), and extreme temperatures. It also means that the device can be fully immersed in water up to one meter deep for 30 minutes. In other words, this phone should be able to handle anything your 4-year-old twins want to do to it.

Traditionally, super rugged phones, such as the Torque, were only available for enterprise customers. This meant construction workers or others working in harsh conditions. Most of the phones offered with the level of indestructibility you are asking for were only basic feature phones. But the Torque is a full smartphone. It runs Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich and will be on the path for JellyBean in the future.

Sprint will be offering this device for $99 after a $50 mail-in rebate starting March 8.

But before you get too excited, I want you to understand that even though this phone meets all your "rugged" requirements, it's not as sexy as a high-end smartphone like the iPhone 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S3. From the 5-megapixel camera to the 1.2GHz dual-core processor to the 4GB of on device storage, this device doesn't match those high-end phones in terms of cutting edge specifications.

And it's bulky weighing in at 5.54 ounces. That said, the size and bulk of the phone are likely similar to an iPhone or Galaxy S device wrapped in a protective case offering only some of the rugged protection you get from the Torque.

At $99 it's a good deal for a smartphone. And because it's already "rugged," you won't need to spend any additional money on a case. So if full protection is what you're looking for, this could be the device for you.

Kyocera and Sprint reps who met with CNET this week said that this was the first "rugged" phone designed for the consumer market. Hopefully, enough people like you will show interest in its tough design and maybe we'll see a higher end smartphone introduced with similar tough features.

I hope this 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.