When you walk into the Republic Wireless pop-up shop in downtown Raleigh, feel free to sink into the sofa or pour a cup of coffee and test its cellular service. Maybe buy a Samsung or Motorola phone or check out the calendar of upcoming community events.
The low-cost mobile phone company, which is based on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, has turned the shop at 17 E. Martin St. – its first storefront – into a home away from home, with a living room, kitchen and backyard to illustrate to potential customers how its wireless service connects to everyday life.
“It’s not your typical wireless store,” co-founder and CEO Chris Chuang said in an interview there Wednesday. “We very intentionally designed it to look and feel like a home, albeit a small one. This is intended to be very warm and welcoming, inviting conversations rather than a sales pitch, if you will.”
Republic Wireless launched six years ago as a division of Bandwidth, a local company that provides telecom services to thousands of small businesses across the country and provides network services for other telecom providers.
The carrier quickly garnered attention and subscribers for its monthly low costs – a tenth of the price of competitors – and innovative pricing plan.
It was the first wireless carrier to offer customers a monthly refund for cellular data that they paid for but didn’t use, and it was the first to switch users between free Wi-Fi networks and cell phone networks for constant backup coverage. Google’s Project Fi now also offers both of those services.
The company received widespread accolades and top rankings by Consumer Reports and Money Magazine. It is credited with lowering industry prices as the big competitors scrambled to react.
Last year, Republic Wireless spun off from Bandwidth, which chipped in $30 million to help the company get started.
Chuang says Republic, which has about 200 employees, has hundreds of thousands subscribers, and contracts with Sprint and one of the other big carriers (which Chuang says he can’t disclose) to provide cell service. Currently, the service is only available on Android phones, but Chuang said it hopes to eventually break into iPhones. One roadblock to that is Republic has about 50 patents, and some of its components would have to be integrated with Apple’s.
“The problem is only 1 percent of the country has heard of it,” Chuang said of Republic, which is one reason the company is experimenting with pop-up stores. The shop in Raleigh is supposed to be open at least through the end of the year, and more stores could pop up here or in other states.
The company recently came out with new software that rescues users when they’re caught without a charger for their smartphone or if the device breaks. It allows calls and texts to connect with tablets, laptops or other phones from Republic through the cloud.
Life outside phones
The company is wrapping up a product aimed at helping parents stay in touch with their children without giving youngsters access to the internet but allowing them to have fun with the new devices.
“We’re not for everyone, so we don’t have these giant unlimited plans,” Chaung said. “Big companies are saying more data, more Netflix, watch ‘Game of Thrones’ when you’re in a cab. That’s the experience that they’re trying to sell you. We have a contrarian point of view, for right or wrong. We believe in more of a phone-life balance. We’re for people who care more about life outside of their phone.”
Chuang says the challenge is to convince people that Republic has not only a cheaper product and new technology, but cares about its individual customers and even takes a moral stance. Chuang said consumer surveys consistently rank the wireless industry low in trust because of gimmicks and hidden pricing.
“We hated that aspect of the industry and wanted to be a different kind of carrier,” he said. “I think that’s been part of the draw for customers over time. We are fair, honest, and that may sound obvious in business, but it’s not that easy to find in the industry.”