Republic Wireless kicks off beta of $19 monthly wireless service

First month's service is $199, includes an LG Optimus smartphone

Republic Wireless on Tuesday launched a limited beta program of its $19-a-month hybrid wireless service using, to start, the LG Optimus smartphone running Android 2.3.

The Optimus, initially released a year ago on Android 2.2, will work with a single number for wireless voice, data and text, said Brian Dally, general manager of Republic Wireless, in an interview.

The phone will operate in hybrid fashion with voice over IP in Wi-Fi, when available, and 3G cellular as backup. Sprint will be Republic's first cellular partner.

The cost of the phone and the first month of service will be $199, with unlimited voice, data and texting costing $19 a month thereafter, Dally said. Other phone models will be announced later, Dally said.

Users must pair the Optimus with their Wi-Fi zones at work or home initially. When Wi-Fi is unavailable or when users are traveling, connections will fail over to the cellular network, Dally said. International calling is not supported initially.

Calling the service "the world's first $19 a month hybrid calling plan," Dally said the price could drop below $19 a month depending on how much customers rely on Wi-Fi. "We might be able to charge even less than $19, if people use Wi-Fi a lot," Dally said. "$19 is expensive."

The service will launch in a limited beta to monitor performance of the network, which is operated by Bandwidth.com with its network called Inetwork. Republic is a division of Bandwidth.com, which operates other VoIP services in the U.S., including Phonebooth for business customers, as well as Google Voice and Skype.

There will be no contracts, just the initial $199 for the first month and the phone, with $19 a month, plus taxes and fees, thereafter, he said. "There will be no overages, and you'll have service as long as you wish to continue," Dally said.

Republic is well aware of widespread wireless customer frustration with phone contracts, limits placed on data plans and overage charges, Dally said. Most wireless service plans in the U.S. for smartphones cost more than $70 a month with mandated additional fees on data usage. They also require two-year contract with the wireless carrier.

Low-cost VoIP calling is already widely available through downloadable smartphone apps, but Dally said many require users to set up a second phone number for voice calls in addition to an existing cellular plan that is charged separately.

But Republic won't require customers to buy minutes separately from Sprint or future carrier partners, Dally said. "It all will just work, with no apps to open on the phone or a separate dialer," he said. "Nobody else offers that."

Dally wouldn't say how many customers will be allowed into the limited beta, noting that "service won't be perfect out of the gate ... We'll find places where it doesn't work and we'll fix them."

In recent years, VoIP calling came under criticism for having a tinny sound or delays or echoes, but Dally said those days have passed. "We think the quality is great and in many situations is better than a cellular call," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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