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Truly unlimited mobile for $19: How can it be true?

Crafty, seamless WiFi auto-logon - that's how

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Next year Americans will be able to get unlimited mobile calling, and data, for $19 a month with Republic Wireless, in a deal which is nearly, but not quite, perfect.

Republic Wireless achieves its remarkable pricing by offloading as much traffic as possible, voice and data, onto wi-fi networks. But not its own wi-fi networks - any wireless internet connection it can latch into for free will do, but thanks to some fancy software running on the special handset the users should remain blissfully unaware of their free loading.

We don't know exactly what software Republic Wireless is pre-installing on its variant LG Olympus (the only supported handset), but it will be something similar to that provided by Devicescape which uses coded DNS calls to interrogate local wi-fi hotspots and establish how to jump the welcome/logon screen and get down to connecting to the internet for free.

Devicescape won't say if Republic is a customer, declining to given any indication ahead of Republic shipping handsets (which should happen early next year), but given the similarity of application it's worth examining what Devicescape does as an indication of how Republic's network will operate.

When a data connection is required the Devicescape software casts around for a wi-fi connection to attach to, once it finds one it fires off a specially-formatted DNS request. Domain Name Service (DNS) lookups will get routed onto the internet without the user being authenticated, and in this case the DNS request, which ends up back at the Devicescape servers, contains details about the discovered hotspot.

Should the hotspot be, for example, a free wi-fi offered by a popular chain of coffee shops then the server will respond with instructions on how the client can fill out the registration form, which the user will never see. If the wi-fi point is a commercial (paid for) hotspot then the client is told to look elsewhere, while if the site isn't know then some standard techniques are used to see if free wi-fi can be obtained.

The point is that all this happens without the user ever being aware of it, the handset jumps from free wi-fi to free wi-fi point, in an almost-cellular fashion only without the promise of contiguous connectivity.

Republic Wireless uses that data connectivity for VoIP, but also has an MVNO agreement with Sprint for when there's no wi-fi available. Users are allowed to spend up to 550 minutes talking, send (or receive) 150 text messages and download 300MB of data on that cellular connection. There's an home-screen indication to show when those clocks are running.

Devicescape reckons average consumption by its existing customers is around 400MB/month, but that it can offload 60 per cent of that so most users should fall well below Republic's caps.

The Republic Wireless model wouldn't work in Europe of course, the requirement to pay a termination fee on every call makes unlimited bundles hard to balance. European bundles only include outgoing calls and texts, incoming communication is always unlimited as the calling party has to pay, but for data it makes sense for the network operators to off-load as much traffic as they can.

Most European, and American, operators are doing that today by building their own wi-fi networks, or signing deals with entities who've already built them, but Republic is offering an alternative approach which means taking advantage of what is, in much of the world, a freely given resource. One might argue that such a resource will be less-willingly given once everyone is using it, and skipping the requisite logon/advertising page, but it should be good while it lasts. ®

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