TL;DR: Get Republic Wireless if you pay for your own cell phone bill directly as a consumer (vs. through a business); get it especially if you use your phone mostly for data and text. Otherwise…
If I were to create a list of the companies I hate most, it would be:
- Pretty much every mobile phone company that exists in America today.
As a personal finance hacker, I take a lot of pride in how my wife and I have been able to optimize the cost of most recurring goods and services that we enjoy each month. However, when it comes to our cell phone plan, I feel like we have been getting screwed over for years.
For the past three years, my wife and I paid Verizon $199.88 each month for a family plan that includes mostly unlimited everything (data, voice, text). Up until last year when we were running our own company, we expensed our phone bill through our business. What the hell, it was a tax deduction. But now that we are no longer running a business and are paying for our phone service as consumers, this fee feels out of control. I’m especially enraged whenever we travel abroad and see folks in other countries get unlimited, no-contract plans for like $25/month. Thanks a lot, Obamacare!
Enter Republic Wireless. This service appeared too good to be true. I heard about this mobile phone company through my two favorite financial bloggers, Mr. Money Mustache and jlcollinsnh. The plans were a fraction of the cost of what I could find on Verizon and similar carriers, and it felt like the company was genuinely trying to do right by its customers.
I’ve been field testing my Republic Wireless cell phone for two weeks now. The verdict: it’s okay, but not great. Full details below…
What is Republic Wireless?
It’s a mobile phone carrier startup incubated out of a company called Bandwidth.com. And their plans are pretty awesome (rates as of December 16, 2013):
- $5/month – unlimited Talk, Text, & Data over WiFi, but no cell coverage
- $10/month – unlimited Talk, Text & Data over WiFi, and unlimited Talk & Text via cell coverage
- $25/month – unlimited Talk, Text & Data over WiFi, and unlimited Talk, Text & Data via 3G cell coverage
- $40/month – unlimited Talk, Text & Data over WiFi, and unlimited Talk, Text, & Data via 4G cell coverage
Right now I am on the $40/month plan. These plans are cheap for two reasons:
First, you only can choose from one of two phones: the Motorola Defy XT (a piece of shit) or the Moto X (freaking awesome). Limiting the phones you can choose from was a smart move by Republic Wireless, allowing the company to focus on servicing fewer devices, which saves costs for their business.
Second, Republic Wireless leverages a technology they call Hybrid Calling. The bet they are making is that most mobile phone users are usually in places where their phones are connected to WiFi. When there is WiFi coverage, all calls, texts, and data run through WiFi, whereby the company incurs almost zero incremental cost on the user.
When you are not in WiFi range, then your phone automatically connects to the Sprint Network to handle your voice, texts, and data (data depends on the plan you buy). But if you use non-WiFi cell and data too much, Republic Wireless will start to lose money on you. Apparently people who abuse cell phone coverage too much can be kicked out as customers.
All Republic Wireless plans are pre-paid, month-to-month.
All great stuff on paper, but how did it work in the field? Definitely a mixed bag of goods and bads.
1. The Moto X phone rocks. Granted, this first bullet point isn’t so much about Republic Wireless, since several carriers support the Moto X. But this phone itself has been probably the best part of my entire switch over to Republic Wireless.
You can read why the Moto X is the best phone for Fall 2013 on Wirecutter, but I’ll at least mention that this phone impresses me by its:
- Speed of operating system (Android OS clean)
- Awesome camera
- Battery life.
The phone’s battery deserves a special mention. I can easily go a full day without a charge with heavy use, which is way better than my old and very crappy Galaxy Nexus phone, which only lasts 4 hours on a full charge now.
Republic Wireless does subsidize the cost of your new Moto X (and you must order with them, since you will need to have their proprietary software on your phone to use their service). I paid $335.90, including tax and shipping to California.
Don’t order Republic Wireless’ other phone option, the Motorola Defy XT. I’ve never touched or seen the phone before, but I can safely say that it is garbage.
2. Cheap pre-paid plans. In almost every nation on the planet with mobile phones today, pre-paid plans are the norm. None of this 2-year-contract-with-early-termination-fee bullshit that most carriers extort upon consumers in America.
Republic Wireless does a great job designing inexpensive plans that are simple to understand and to sign up for. The bill is really easy to read as well, breaking down all the fees in decent layman format.
You can change your plan up to two times for a given month, which is huge for me. My wife and I do a lot of international travel, so when we go on a big trip I will definitely move down to the $5/month WiFi-only plan to have access to the phone. At the $5/month plan, you will not see any international roaming charges or other extraneous charges when you use your Republic Wireless phone abroad.
3. Going from WiFi to cell coverage (and vice versa) is seamless. One of the things that worried me was the idea that I would start a call or GPS in my house; drive away and get out of range from my WiFi; then get dropped. I’ve field tested this use case a lot in the past two weeks and I’m relieved to report that going in and out of WiFi coverage is pretty chill.
When you buy a phone from Republic Wireless, the device comes with some persistent monitoring software. It’s the subtle green crescent icon at the top-left of the screen.
Opening this little green guy will let you know when you are in and out of WiFi range, and it’s designed to have you easily add new WiFi networks as they become available (like visiting your friend’s house and tapping into her network). The phone never forgets the new networks/passwords you enter, so you don’t have to manually add new WiFi zones each time.
The experience going in and out of WiFi range is pretty well executed here (but some caveats about this in a moment).
4. Taunting Verizon is fun. Yes, I am a grown man and I regard myself as relatively mature — but dammit, did it feel good to get in Verizon’s face about how much they suck. Here’s an amusing Twitter conversation where Mr. Money Mustache and I pwn Verizon.
If any readers here switch to Republic Wireless, or any other carrier — make sure you tell your old carrier about it on Twitter. Really, please do that. As consumers we need to send a message that we will not stand for the exorbitant fee standard that Verizon, AT&T, etc. are trying to push upon us.
Public shaming works, if it happen enough.
1. The 3G data plan is horrendous in the San Francisco Bay Area. The first plan I signed up for with Republic Wireless was the $25/month, WiFi + 3G plan. Holy smokes, it sucked!
WiFi worked fine, but once I left the house I couldn’t connect to 3G at all. Couldn’t make any calls, couldn’t text, couldn’t access data about 80% of the time I was out relying on 3G.
I nearly threw my phone in the trash, but fortunately I had the good sense to see what would happen if I upgraded to the 4G data plan. Since doing that, I’ve seen dramatic improvement to my services and everything is now tolerable.
To give Republic Wireless the benefit of the doubt, maybe the reason is that I just live in an area that has poor Sprint coverage for 3G data (Come on, really? It’s Silicon Valley!). So this plan may work better for you in your area.
2. No tethering. Makes sense as to why this isn’t offered, but it still bums me out. Republic Wireless is trying to encourage its users to use WiFi and not cell phone/data coverage. Thus it does not allow its users to tether their phones as mobile hotspots to connect your computers and tablets to the Internet.
This isn’t a deal breaker for me, but this might be a deal breaker if you are someone who is on the road a lot and needs to hook up your laptop to the Internet anytime, anywhere to conduct some business.
But if you are a regular consumer like me, this is tolerable.
3. Dead zones and dropped calls, WTF. I’ll hand it to Verizon — when I was on their service, I enjoyed near ubiquitous access to cell and data coverage. On Republic Wireless, I now have to face something I haven’t encountered in years: dead zones.
I’ve traveled up and down California (SF to LA and back) with my Moto X phone and I find that outside of WiFi range, my cell/data coverage briefly drops in and out all the time. Even testing within my house, with WiFi turned off, there are still some dead zones. This almost has been a deal breaker for me, but the monthly plan price I pay makes this problem barely tolerable.
I get dropped in about half of my phone calls, even when I’m on WiFi. Don’t know why this is happening, but it’s been consistently occurring over the last two weeks. This isn’t quite a deal breaker because almost all my calls are done through my computer via Google Voice anyway. I probably make one call every 2-3 days on the cell phone itself. The reality is that my phone is mainly a device to surf the internet and text, followed by making phone calls. Thus, dropped calls haven’t bothered me too much for my kind of usage.
4. Customer service has been disappointing (warning: about to rant). I’ve heard a lot of great things about Republic Wireless’ customer service, but my experience has been lukewarm. My main complaint: they don’t consistently answer e-mails.
This happened to me twice. The first time, I tried to convince Republic Wireless’ PR team to send me a free phone to review. After all, I am a D-list tech celebrity (maybe that’s too generous) and I figure they would love to have someone like me reviewing their service. So I jumped on Twitter; asked whether I could review their service; their social media team sent me the PR team’s e-mail; I sent an e-mail to them; and…crickets.
Yes, I know that I come off as really whiney here. Boo-hoo, a company wouldn’t give me something for free, right? But as a business they should have at least had the courtesy to brush me off with an e-mail response. Here, I’ve drafted an e-mail template that the Republic Wireless team can use for future freeloaders like me:
Dear [INSERT NAME],
Thank you for your interest, but at this time our team won’t be able to provide you a test phone for your review. We still hope that you check out our service and let us know whether you like it!
Go F yourself. Sincerely,
So okay, this was a bit of an odd request to begin with and I kind of understand the cold shoulder.
But my next customer service e-mail thread was super annoying. I attempted to buy another phone for my wife (hey, giving you more money!), but the transaction appeared to fail. No e-mail notification or anything from Republic Wireless, I actually had to call my credit card company to discover this.
I e-mailed Republic Wireless and asked them what happened, and they said I needed to re-run the purchase:
When I asked to confirm whether there was a risk I would be charged twice, this time they did respond. But it took 6 days to hear back from them.
Come on dudes! I’m trying to give you my money, make me feel assured that I will be safe in transacting with you. There should have been prompt follow up on this issue. Republic Wireless dropped the ball again.
None of this is deal-breaker stuff, but just a little obnoxious.
Summary: who is this phone good for?
Here is the ideal profile of someone who should be using Republic Wireless:
- A consumer who has to pay for her own cell phone plan and is not covered/subsidized by her company.
- Primarily uses a phone for data and texting, and not making calls frequently.
- Is often within WiFi range.
Otherwise, you may be a bad fit if you are someone who has to do the following:
- Travels a lot and needs to tether to the Internet.
- Talks on a mobile phone a lot (vs. primarily texting, using data).
- Already has a company paying for your cell phone (why bother switching?).
As for me, I’ve decided to stick with Republic Wireless. It was a closer call to stay with them than I would have hoped, but this is a new company and I think they can earn back my trust as they learn more from customers in the future.
If you decide to try Republic Wireless, it would be awesome if you could sign up through this link. It gives me a $20 credit and gives you a $20 one-time credit for Republic Wireless’ service, for any plan you choose.
Happy to continue the discussion via comments below.