WiFi First Phones Provide Lower Cost But Fewer Options


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cellphone-36480_960_720All our phone calls and text messages are delivered via antennas mounted on rooftops, poles and atop those tall metal things we call cell towers, right? Wrong.

At one time this was the case, but the evolving industry has given rise to alternative vehicles for wireless data, chief among them being WiFi. Typically, your cell phone will have a stronger WiFi signal than network signal, which has spawned service providers who deliver data differently than the traditional network carriers.

Internet companies Google and Bandwidth.com have begun to offer service plans featuring “WiFi first phones.” As the name suggests, these phones will automatically detect and rely upon nearby WiFi networks when the signal is stronger than carriers’ data networks.  

Google and Bandwidth lease space from carriers’ networks, which enables their customers’ phones to utilize data networks as well as WiFi networks.  When a WiFi signal is not available, or when the network signal is stronger than the WiFi signal, the phone will automatically switch over to the carrier’s network.  

Brian X. Chen, the lead consumer technology writer for the New York Times, recently tested and reviewed Project Fi, the WiFi first service Google offers, and Republic Wireless, the service offered by Bandwidth.  

“After testing Project Fi and Republic Wireless for a few weeks and comparing their performance with traditional carriers, I concluded that they are ideal for budget-conscious consumers who don’t need to have the latest and greatest devices,” Chen wrote in an article recently published in the New York Times.

The main advantage of the WiFi first phone, Chen noted, was price; Project Fi and Republic Wireless offer a monthly plan featuring unlimited minutes and messages and 1 gigabyte of cellular data for $25 and $30, respectively. By comparison, Verizon charges $50 for a similar plan, and AT&T charges $45 for a plan featuring just 300 megabytes of data.

The main drawback to the WiFi first plans is the limited choice of compatible devices its service providers currently offer. The iPhone, for example, is currently not offered by Google and Bandwidth, while the “big carriers tend to get the latest and coolest phones right when they are released,” Chen wrote.

Project Fi currently offers just two phone options—Huawei’s 5.7-inch Nexus 6P and LG’s 5.2-inch Nexus 5G—while Republic Wireless offers Samsung’s Galaxy, which Chen described as “the best Android devices on the market.”

While the WiFi first phone won’t replace traditional service providers anytime soon, for customers who want a cheaper plan and are not too persnickety about their phone’s tech features, Republic Wireless and Project Fi may serve as a viable alternative.

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