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With plans starting at $5, Republic Wireless looks more 'un-carrier' than T-Mobile

With plans starting at $5, Republic Wireless looks more 'un-carrier' than T-Mobile

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Republic Wireless — a unique service that operates off of Sprint's network but saves money by offloading calls and texts to Wi-Fi whenever possible — has launched the Moto X today for $299 off-contract. It's a great price (Sprint sells its Moto X outright for $549.99), and it marks the first time a well-reviewed, reasonably high-end phone has been offered by the company. Republic's also debuting a new set of plans alongside the Moto X that start at $5 for unlimited Wi-Fi calling and texting without any cell service, all the way up to $40 for full-fledged unlimited LTE.

Odds are good you haven't heard of Republic Wireless; its phones aren't sold in any brick-and-mortar stores, and it only started offering service (initially as a beta with a wait list) a couple of years ago. When Paul Miller tested it in early 2012, it wasn't very good — calls had a tendency to drop out, and perhaps more importantly, your only option for a phone was a lowly LG Optimus. With the Moto X, Republic goes a long way toward solving the hardware issue: the X may be the best, most well-rounded Android phone available today, and $299 off-contract is a remarkable price for it (granted, it's locked to Republic's service). Motorola's bespoke Moto Maker service isn't available, unfortunately; you'll need to choose between black and white.

It works by trying to take as much traffic off cellular as possible

On the service side, I chatted with Republic CEO David Morken last week, who assured me that they've improved service leaps and bounds in the time since last year's rocky launch. By all appearances, he's right: Wi-Fi calls are seamless, and they actually seem to connect after dialing significantly faster than a typical phone connected to a cell network. Republic recently started supporting Wi-Fi-to-cell handoff, and it worked perfectly for me — I could tell calls had handed over because the sound quality and equalization had changed, but they never dropped. Morken also says the phones are tuned to fall back to cellular the moment Wi-Fi service starts to degrade, so a marginal signal theoretically shouldn't be a problem.

It's not for everyone, but perfect for some

Republic definitely isn't for everyone: tethering isn't supported, and there are no international roaming packages. The $5-per-month plan isn't practical as a cellular replacement simply because there aren't enough Wi-Fi hotspots in the world to use your mobile phone as, well, a mobile phone, but it could serve as a landline replacement or, as Morken noted to me, a Wi-Fi-only phone to take on international trips where cellular roaming rates can be a killer. At the high end, Republic's $40 LTE plan is no more affordable than its competitors', but it also offers a $25-per-month compromise that'll give you unlimited 3G access on the road. If Sprint's somewhat glacial EV-DO is all you need — the occasional email or Facebook visit — it's a stellar, if not downright unbeatable deal.

Morken argues that many smartphone users spend the majority of their time connecting at home and at work, places where Wi-Fi is usually available. He's probably right — and if you can live with the compromises on cell coverage and hardware selection, it's definitely worth a look.