Republic Wireless drew lots of attention last year when it announced an unlimited data and calling plan for $19 a month, with no contract. How’s that possible in a world where $80 bills are the norm and unlimited data plans are disappearing?
The answer, Republic hopes, is Wi-Fi. By keeping people connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot whenever possible, the startup incurs no cellular bandwidth charges.
So far, so good, said Brian Dally, general manager of Republic, which is a subsidiary of Internet phone service provider Bandwidth.com. When it announced a limited launch of the service, the company sold out of its 500 LG Optimus Android smartphones in 90 minutes. The company quickly expanded the service to a few thousand subscribers.
Its Wi-Fi approach will be tested again within the next few weeks when it opens up its “beta” service to tens of thousands more.
“We have a few hundred thousand people waiting to get in,” he said.
One catch with the service now is that the phone doesn’t automatically sniff out the nearest hotspot. You have to go into settings and start tapping, and guess at which of the various networks that show up is going to actually work.
Tomorrow, it will announce a deal with software maker Devicescape it hopes will end that hassle. Devicescape has collected information on more than eight million unsecured hotspots — at pizza joints, train stations, libraries, etc. Once Republic adds Devicescape software to its phones, the devices will be able to scan for hotspots and connect to the one with the fastest, most reliable signal.
“They just make it easier to find the good public hotspots,” said Dally. While the existing service will already reconnect you to networks you’ve used before — like the one in your house or office — “this will help us expand beyond that.”
Some questions remain about the feasibility of what to some extent seems to be freeloading on hotspots owned by other people. There might be legal questions, and there’s definitely branding ones: How would someone paying that $80 a month feel, knowing their wireless carrier was actually making use of equipment purchased by the local coffee shop?
Devicescape Chief Executive Officer David Fraser said it will gladly remove any hotspot from its database if asked, though he added that most businesses that don’t bother to set a password are in fact hoping to attract would-be customers who appreciate the connection.