Republic Wireless Service and LG Optimus Review
When I first heard of Republic Wireless a few weeks ago I just could not resist ordering a phone and service to try out. I have long felt that the phone industry (both wired and wireless) has been devoid of innovation and ready for disruption. At $99 for the phone and $19 a month for unlimited service (with no contract), it was worth it to me just as a technology experiment.
On their launch day the site was a bit busy and not able to place orders for some time, however, they handled it with well thought out error messages. I eventually got though and placed an order. They were very upfront about the fact that it may take some time to deliver the product (which was no problem for me). One slightly annoying thing was that they did charge me for the product well before shipping it.
Once they did ship it they sent a note with tracking information which was great. It arrived today in good order.
It came in a small box inside a padded FexEx mailer which was just perfect, nothing more needed. It is clear though that they are still quite a young company from the first appearances. The card telling me my phone number was hand-written. ;-) The phone and the box it came in is 100% Sprint branded, except for a sticker with the Republic logo on the box. They clearly have not had enough time to get a hardware manufacturer to spin them devices with 100% Republic branding.
Never having seen an LG Optimus before I was very happy with what I got for $99. Build quality seems excellent. I like the case coating, the buttons, and just the general form factor. It even has a camera hard button which I miss greatly on my Droid Bionic! It does seem tiny though compared to the Bionic. The down sides are that the screen is not huge (which makes typing noticeably more difficult), it does not have a blinking light to tell you when a message is waiting (I am constantly checking for that light on my Droid), and it does not have a camera flash.
For a $99 phone, the screen is excellent, and the processor seems fast enough. I was very happy to see that they appear to be using the stock Android UI. My first Android was the Droid V1 (which was pretty stock), and now I have the Droid Bionic with MotoBlur (which I am starting to hate). Republic Wireless even seems to have avoided installing any kind of crapware on the phone whatsoever! (ironically they do have a “Dev Tools” app installed which I am wondering if it is a mistake as it does not seem like something intended for your average end user) They don’t even have any icons setup on your home screen by default (which is a bit weird, yet somehow a bit cool. It is a clean slate to work with.
For what it is worth, the camera quality seems pretty good from the two pictures I have taken so far.
The phone came pre-activated and ready to rock (if I remember correctly, the battery was even in it already). The only thing it wanted was for me to attach it to a WiFi network first thing.
Alright, so now for the real test- Can this thing make phone calls on WiFi? I fire up a call to my employers auto-attendant and sure enough, it works! Some quick tests later and I have a few initial thoughts. The voice quality via WiFi is a bit quiet and tinny compared to calls placed on the Sprint network. This is a bit disappointing as I have a Cisco enterprise wireless access point within 10 feet of where I was testing, and a hugely overbuilt Vyatta box as my gateway, on a 35/35 Frontier FiOS connection. They need to take the opportunity to leverage some of the major benefits of *not* being on a cellular network (namely the fact that potentially much more bandwidth is available). Perhaps some of this perceived quality issue is just because the codec is “different” from what I am normally used to (not necessarily worse) and maybe they can make it better by turning up the default volume or with modifying equalization settings.
So next up was a test of the two extra buttons that show up on the call screen during a WiFi call. One of them places the call on hold. This is novel for a cell phone, and it is an exciting indicator of features to come in the future. When you don’t have to play in the world with the limits imposed by the cell base station manufacturers you can actually implement compelling features! The caller I tried this with did tell me the hold music was very feint. Perhaps customizable music could be a future feature. ;-)
The other button was to transfer the call to the Cell network (presumably to easily work around the WiFi connection flaking out). This is a great feature, but its implementation was the first indication that things are not yet as well integrated as I would like. Pressing the button hangs up the call, and places a new call to the same person over the Sprint network. I would have thought the smart solution here would have been either for the phone to dial out to the Republic Wireless servers via Sprint, and then have them cross connect the existing call to that phone over Sprint instead of via WiFi (i.e. this would avoid having the called party have to answer another call), or to have the Republic Wireless servers call the phone on it’s Sprint number and reconnect the in-progress call. I am hoping they can make this more seamless in the future.
Now for the real test- What happens when I start a call on WiFi and then walk out of range of the access point? Well, the answer is that as you might expect, the phone call does drop out for a bit, though after a few seconds, the phone automatically placed a new call outbound over Sprint to the party I had been speaking with. I should note that anecdotally, I made it quite a ways from the house before it dropped out (I only tested one call).
The technical stuff
So being a network geek, I needed to know what this thing was going out and connecting to on the Internet. I had noticed on calls that the latency was not that great. I could tell that conversations were not as real time as I have come to expect on normal wireless calls. So I tracked down the phone’s IP in the DHCP leases table, and fired up tcpdump on my Vyatta box. It very quickly became apparent where Republic Wireless is hosted. My phone is connecting to nodes in the AWS US-East compute zone.
Running the Republic Wireless control software in the “Cloud” makes sense for a company that is expecting potentially massive growth, however, I was shocked to discover that not just control connections were going through Amazon’s cloud. They apparently are also running the VoIP calls through there as well. This immediately raised eyebrows with me as I don’t feel that the Amazon the shared infrastructure environment is appropriate yet for VoIP traffic. Perhaps I am wrong, or they have a deal with Amazon that puts them on dedicated network infrastructure, but the thing with VoIP is that it is massively sensitive to packet loss, latency, and jitter. These things are hard enough to get right when you have dedicated hardware that is not shared.
The Amazon cloud node my phone was communicating with tonight was 85ms away (round trip) from my home (here in Oregon), under good network conditions. This probably explains a portion of the large delay period that calls on WiFi were experiencing for me. I think the VoIP encoding they are using is introducing more delay than I would like to see in order to reduce call dropouts due to flaky network connections.
Being a network architect, I think they need to have the phones connecting back to edge devices that are deployed on dedicated hardware in major peering cities in order to reduce latency as much as possible. This product will live or die based on the audio quality and the seamlessness of the solution. They should have nodes in Seattle and also in California to cover the West Coast.
One other thing that I should note is that I don’t think SMS messages are going over WiFi yet. I suspect they are going out the normal Sprint radio as I don’t clearly see packets on the network associated with when I am sending text messages (though I may be wrong about this – I have not yet done a full protocol decode). Perhaps that will be a future blog post.
All in all, I love what these guys are doing. I am a cheerleader. I think they are going about it the right way, but the product is still very very young… Could I use this as my full time phone? Probably not, as I require rock-solid communication at all times for my job. Would I buy this for my kids? Absolutely!
Am I seriously considering getting this for my parents that don’t currently have data phones? Yes indeed!
I am looking forward to seeing how this works out… $19 a month is almost too good to be true. I wonder how long it is before these guys get bought out by one of the big boys wanting the technology (or to kill them off)?
P.S. If anyone from Republic reads this, feel free to reach out. I am always willing to provide constructive feedback!