If you're anything like me, you probably die a little inside every time you open your cellphone bill -- especially if you're a smartphone owner.
The costly data plan, the voice minutes plan required (even if you rarely use the phone as a phone) and let's not forget everyone's favorite: the extra money you have to shell out for the text message plan. That one is particularly galling since it costs the carrier next to nothing to send and receive a 140 byte file.
For example, as of now the least amount of money you can pay per month for the privilege of using an iPhone is $55 on AT&T (which gets you 450 minutes, 200 megabytes data, $0.20 per text message). Verizon runs you $65 (450 minutes, 300 MB data, 250 text messages) and Sprint is even more at $80 a month (450 minutes, unlimited data and texts). Pricing for Android phones is similar.
Naturally, taxes and various other fees raise the price per month even further. Oh yes, there's that pesky two-year contract required as well. Of course, the carriers charge these prices because consumers have shown they will pay the money to get this technology in their hands.
However, most people would jump at the chance to get away from these carriers and their out-of-control smartphone pricing. What has been missing is a viable alternative -- until now.
Enter a company called Republic Wireless (a division of Bandwidth.com; www.republicwireless.com). For a mere $19 a month, Republic Wireless will give you unlimited minutes, data and text messages along with no contract, no early termination fees and no overage charges.
How can they do this, you ask? By using what they call "Hybrid Calling" -- using Wi-Fi for voice and data. As they say, "Anything a cell network can do, the Internet can do better and cheaper." So when you're on a Wi-Fi network, you can use the phone for as long as you want and do whatever you want online. Now for the kicker: When you're not around a Wi-Fi network, the phone automatically switches itself over to cellular (using Sprint's network).
Of course you knew there was a catch coming, and here it is: When on the cell network, you are not only limited in how much voice and data you can use, but if you exceed what Republic Wireless calls your Cellular Usage Index, it will ask you to stop and kick you off the service if you don't!
As for what constitutes its fair use threshold, an example it gives on its website is assuming 0 percent Wi-Fi usage, you could consume 550 minutes, send 150 texts, and download 300 MB of data before it will get mad at you. However, it indicates that the more data you use on Wi-Fi, the more leeway you'll have with it on your cellular network consumption.
A few other tidbits: As of now, the service only works with one phone, the LG Optimus running Android 2.3. The phone costs $199 and Republic Wireless says it will be adding additional phones in the future. While that's not my first choice for an Android device, it's still a solid phone for the price. If you have an older broadband service like DSL at home, know that you will need at least 80 kbps both ways to hold a call. Also, using Wi-Fi for calling means it's affected by your other usage, i.e., you probably don't want to be streaming Netflix while on the phone with Mom.
I signed up immediately as this will work perfectly for my wife who uses most of her cell minutes at home (and, oh by the way, will reduce her cell phone bill by $60 a month), but my advice is to let us geeks put the service through its paces before joining. Republic Wireless very clearly states that the service is in Beta, and there are still several unknowns about the service -- call quality, number porting, etc. But if you're around Wi-Fi networks a lot during your day, do keep an eye on what's going on with Republic Wireless.
Morgan Bonner is Pre-Press Manager and a systems administrator for the Packet and Gazette