By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 6:45 pm
A stealthy startup named Republic Wireless has launched, based on a concept that’s enough to grab anyone’s attention, at least momentarily: unlimited voice, data, and texting for $19 a month. The company says it’s going to make that possible by routing as much stuff as possible over Wi-Fi networks, and utilizing Sprint’s cellular network where necessary.
There are several catches. For one thing, Republic will only support one phone at first: LG’s Android-based Optimus, running Republic’s custom software. (The first-month fee of $199 gets you the Optimus.) For another, the service won’t offer international calling for now. Republic cheerfully concedes these points.
But there’s another gotcha which the company’s site tapdances around: It claims it’s offering unlimited service, but also says that it’s possible to use the service in a manner that isn’t “reasonable” and which violates a “fair use threshold.”
In one place on its site, Republic seems to say that the $19 gets you unlimited everything over both Wi-Fi and Sprint:
Do I need to buy minutes from Sprint or anyone else?
No. We’re the first-ever wireless provider to bundle Wi-Fi calling with access to cellular whenever you need it. Your republic wireless membership includes unlimited calling, texting and data over Wi-Fi and Sprint’s cellular network.
But then it introduces the concept of a Cellular Usage Index that it expects you to monitor:
The best way to know how you’re doing is by checking out your Cellular Usage Index (CUI). If it’s too high, we’ll let you know and give you tips to bring it down. You have plenty of time. But meanwhile, you still pay a flat fee of $19/month no matter what.
Everyone’s entitled to a bad day, week or month. Kicking the cell habit, however, isn’t for everyone. Membership here is a privilege. So, over time, if you don’t bring your CUI back into a reasonable range, we’ll help you find a more suitable, traditional cellular carrier.
Okay, so if I use too much Sprint, Republic may apparently ask me to leave. But the company apparently isn’t ready to define what “too much” is:
How much cellular usage is too much?
It depends. Even assuming 0% wifi usage, for example, you could consume 550 minutes, send 150 texts, and download 300 megabytes of data without crossing the community’s fair use threshold. Everyone’s usage patterns will be different, but we’re confident you’ll be amazed at how little cellular you actually use when you have a phone that makes it easy to leverage the power of your Wi-Fi networks.
All right, now I understand. We may not know what “too much” is, but we do know that there is such a thing as using excessive Sprint cellular. Right?
So this isn’t really an unlimited plan?
It is in fact an unlimited plan. We’ll never charge you overages, limit your download speeds, or restrict you to calling circles. Hybrid Calling makes it easy to stay within the community’s fair use guidelines.
It’s unlimited. Except if you exceed the limits. And yet Republic says that it doesn’t cap your service:
What am I buying?
Freedom from calling plans, overages, caps, tiers and termination fees. Members of the republic wireless community get an Android-powered smartphone and unlimited use of it for calls, texts and data. Your phone comes with built-in Hybrid Calling technology that leverages the Web whenever Wi-Fi is available, and uses cellular as a fallback when needed.
Republic Wireless, your service sounds interesting. It could be a good fit for plenty of people. But why introduce yourself to the world by playing word games that might leave prospective customers skeptical about the whole idea? You can claim to offer unlimited service. Or you can place limits on some types of usage and fire members who exceed them. But you can’t do both. Or at least you shouldn’t.
Just what is so disagreeable about being up-front and telling us that you offer unlimited voice, data, and texting over Wi-Fi and supplementary, limited service over cellular? Why not tell us what you offer rather than repeatedly claiming to deliver something which you clearly don’t intend to provide?