Ina Fried

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Republic Wireless Explains its Intriguing — Yet Controversial — Hybrid Calling Plans

One of the more unusual ideas in wireless phones hit the market this week.

An unheard of division of a little-known company is offering a $19-per-month plan that claims to deliver unlimited calling, texting and Web. Of course, there is a catch.

Republic Wireless isn’t looking to deliver pure cellular service. Instead, the company wants to deliver most of its service over Wi-Fi, using cellular more as a backup for when Wi-Fi isn’t available. Customers who buy in can stick with the company for the long term, while those who gobble up too much cellular data or wireless minutes will be asked to find another carrier.

“The fact is most of us are around Wi-Fi most of the time,” Republic Wireless general manager Brian Dally said in an interview. And while there is software out there today that allows people to shift their calling and texting away from the traditional cellular network, such services often require users to juggle multiple apps and phone numbers. Plus, they still have to pay at least a basic cellular voice bill along with a data plan.

Republic has changed that by building Wi-Fi calling and texting directly into its devices. When possible, calls are routed over Wi-Fi. The company is starting out with a single model, an LG Optimus that will sell for $199, including the first month of service.

Users are expected to take advantage of Wi-Fi whenever they can, but whenever they aren’t in range the phone has unlimited use of Sprint’s 3G cellular network.

“We call it hybrid calling,” Dally said.

David Morken, the CEO of Republic parent company, acknowledges the company is taking a risk. Morken thinks he can make a go of this business, but agrees it is hard to know how customers will use the service.

“There is a certain degree of uncertainty and unknown and we are relatively comfortable with that,” Morken said. “There’s no question this is uncharted territory.”

Not everyone likes the idea, or how it is being pitched.

“Am I the only one who finds Republic Wireless’s ‘unlimited’ $19 wireless claim to be ludicrous and patronizing,” Technologizer editor Harry McCracken wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night. “They’re treating me like a patsy even before they have my money. Sorry, no sale.”

It is certainly true that Republic is stretching the term unlimited, though they are hardly the first to do so (I’m looking at you, T-Mobile).

And the $19 price they are touting is lower than even the skimpiest of traditional cellular plans for voice, let alone voice and data.

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