Walt Mossberg

Smartphone With Wi-Fi Smarts

What if you could get a top-tier, current-model smartphone with all the bells and whistles, and pay between $5 and $40 a month for unlimited voice, text and data? And there’s no contract required.

Well, you can if you sign up with an innovative carrier called Republic Wireless. Republic’s secret is it modifies brand-name phones so they place voice calls and send texts over Wi-Fi instead of more expensive cellular networks. That lets the company charge less per month and forgo contracts. And now it offers a top-tier phone, the Moto X from Motorola.

When Wi-Fi is absent or too weak, Republic’s phones switch to Sprint’s cellular network for calling and texting. Cellular calls and texts don’t cost extra. If you start a call via Wi-Fi and keep talking as you leave Wi-Fi range, the call switches over to cellular.

Most other smartphones can make Wi-Fi calls, but these typically require an app. Republic modifies the phone’s main dialer and texting functions to work over Wi-Fi whenever possible. You don’t have to do anything special to initiate a Wi-Fi call or text.

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Republic lets users change plans right on the phone twice a month.

Republic has been in business about a year, but its first offering had several drawbacks. First, it worked only with a clunky, limited phone, the Motorola Defy XT, which had skimpy memory, a small, low-res screen, and only the older 3G cellular data network. Second, call quality over Wi-Fi was iffy, with audible echoes and some clipped words. Third, the handover between Wi-Fi and cellular was clumsy. The phone had to hang up the Wi-Fi call and redial over cellular.

Now, all that has changed. I’ve been testing Republic’s latest, improved service on the Moto X, and it has solved all three problems. There are still a couple of drawbacks, but I can recommend it as an option for people who want to save on monthly bills and don’t mind being limited to a choice of a single modern Android phone.

The first improvement is the Moto X, which came out in August. The Google-owned handset maker’s premier model has a vivid, 4.7-inch screen, fast 4G LTE data capability, and 16 gigabytes of memory.

Second, I found call quality over Wi-Fi to be very good. I heard no echoes or clipped words, and everyone with whom I tested it said the Wi-Fi and cellular calls were indistinguishable.

Third, handing off calls between Wi-Fi and cellular networks is now truly seamless. Neither I nor the people with whom I was speaking could detect the millisecond pause when I left Wi-Fi range and the calls switched to Sprint.

I used Republic’s modified Moto X in my home, in several Starbucks shops, and in a few other public Wi-Fi locations. All of the calls worked fine, as did the handover as I kept talking while walking out of Wi-Fi range. My only glitch came at one of the Starbucks, where the phone had trouble with the Wi-Fi and it took several tries to connect.

Battery life was decent: The phone lasted a full day on a single charge.

Republic charges $299 for this Wi-Fi-centric Moto X. That’s much more than what traditional carriers charge with a contract. AT&T sells the same phone for $50 with a two-year contract.

But Republic’s price is considerably less than the no-contract price carriers offer. Without a contract commitment, Sprint charges $550 for the Moto X.

If you’re willing to pay more upfront, your monthly fees are much lower with Republic. The upstart carrier offers four service plans for the Moto X. The first is just $5 a month for unlimited calls, text and data over Wi-Fi only. Under this plan, the phone can’t be used out of Wi-Fi coverage. The next plan, for $10 a month, gives you unlimited talk and text on both Wi-Fi and Sprint cellular, but only data on Wi-Fi, not cellular.

The third, and most popular, plan, costs $25 a month for unlimited talk, text, and data on both Wi-Fi and 3G cellular. Finally, for $40 a month, you get unlimited talk, text, and data on both Wi-Fi and 4G LTE cellular.

Over time, these lower monthly fees can more than offset the higher cost of the phone. Sprint says unlimited talk, text and data on its network is at least $80 a month for the unsubsidized Moto X.

And Republic offers another cool feature: Twice a month, you can change plans right on the phone, and the new fees will be pro-rated for the remaining days in the month. So if you opted for the $5 Wi-Fi-only plan, but you now need cellular coverage, you could switch on the fly to a cellular plan.

Republic is also planning to offer a feature that lets you change your phone number via its app on the phone.

For the increasing number of people who are in Wi-Fi coverage most of the day, Republic Wireless might well make sense.

Republic says it errs on the side of caution when placing calls. It will use cellular, which costs it more, if it judges the available Wi-Fi to be too unreliable for a good call. And it doesn’t try to switch you back to Wi-Fi if you start a call on cellular.

So what are the drawbacks? For one thing, you can’t order the Moto X in colors, as you can with other carriers. And the Republic’s Moto X can’t be switched to other carriers, even Sprint, because it has been modified.

Also, Republic has very limited customer service and relies mainly on its users to help other customers through online forums.

Overall, however, Republic is offering a clever, modern service on a good smartphone, and is showing that Wi-Fi calls can be as good as cellular ones.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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