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Republic Wireless Hardware Channels ‘Stranger Things’

If you've watched Stranger Things, you might wonder if the walkie-talkie and home phone are coming back. Republic Wireless is making it so with devices that aren't just retro novelties.

Republic is best known as a widely liked virtual network operator, which uses the Sprint and T-Mobile physical networks; it did cheap Wi-Fi calling before most other people did. Now it's branching out into hardware with the handsome Republic Anywhere HQ and Republic Relay devices. Republic's CEO, Chris Chuang, gave us some hands-on time with non-functioning prototypes before the launch.

"We think the smartphone is now dominating your life and your attention too much," said Chuang. "We're looking at the return of voice, and the emergence of voice-first devices."

Walking and Talking

Chuang wants us to think of the Republic Relay as the new walkie-talkie, but it's much more diverse than that. The Relay is a soft-touch square—about the size of a coaster—that works as a walkie-talkie, GPS tracker, Google Assistant device, and music player. It has one big button in the middle, a headphone jack, and no screen.

You set it up in an associated smartphone app to connect on "channels" with specific other Relay devices or phones running the app. There's no phone book, just a set of channels for different contact groups. It'll come in two-packs for $149 or three-packs for $199.

"You'd initially have a handful of channels: a family channel, a kids/friends channel, configured by the app," Chuang said. You can also "bump" devices together to add them to a channel.

The idea is that you send it off with your kid, and if you need to reach her, you buzz her through the app; if she wants to talk back, she presses the button. There's no public-facing phone number, and it can only "call" other Relay devices or apps you've set up, so it's relatively secure. Adults can use it as a GPS-enabled runner's MP3 player, as it stores 10 hours of music loaded via USB. Both kids and adults can get questions answered through Google Assistant, although parents can turn that feature off.

For fun kids' features, Chuang also threw out some ideas like a voice-changer and a fart-noise maker, which we've seen before on devices like Verizon's GizmoGadget. To prevent the little squares from getting lost, they'll have lanyard, belt, and arm clips available

Carriers have sold kids' safety phones for years now, but the category never quite takes off. I suspect that's because of a combination of service prices and awkward ergonomics. Republic is betting that low service prices—$6.99 for unlimited use—and a fun, single-duplex, push-to-talk walkie-talkie-like calling method are the way to go. The two advantages are connected; as the Relay is pushing small voice-over-IP packets rather than full-scale calls, the networks see it as a data-only device and probably charge Republic less.

I mentioned it to my 11-year-old daughter, and she surprised me with her Stranger Things-fueled enthusiasm about walkie-talking with her friends—even though she has her own phone. Since the Relay works over Wi-Fi or LTE (it'll borrow a Wi-Fi authentication list from a parent's phone), it has a lot more range than those old-school walkie talkies. But then again, all her friends would need to own Relays, too. Obviously, that's what Chuang is hoping for.

Your Home Phone Is a Speaker Now

The Anywhere HQ, meanwhile, initially looks like a handsome, gray Google Assistant speaker on a solid base. It is; that's true. Pick it up off its base, though, and it's a hefty home-phone-like handset with a textured fabric color and a traditional 9-pad. So it's a smart speaker and a quasi-home phone; it's also a cell phone, of course, able to make calls over LTE and Wi-Fi.

The idea here is a home phone for homes that have stopped their copper phone-line service, but who want a "voice focused" device. Republic is adding its own voice assistant to handle calling tasks that Google Assistant currently can't do: saying "hey Republic" will let you make calls with the phone as a speakerphone, and the phone will receive calls on its assigned number. Or, you can just pick it up off the dock and dial a number.

Republic is still working on the feature set here. For instance, it can't handle multiple Google accounts yet, for assistant tasks and phone books, but that's "on the roadmap," and Republic is "in talks with music providers" beyond what Google Assistant offers, Chuang said. The company is also working on multi-room audio and the ability to hand off calls between Anywhere HQ and your smartphone.

Why "anywhere?" A home phone is a state of mind; since this is actually a cell/Wi-Fi phone, you can plant it anywhere you go. That said, this isn't a traditional land line, so it won't work with faxes or home security systems. You'd use it more like a VoIP system, like Ooma or MagicJack. But you'd also use it more often, because you'd also be using it as a speaker.

Related

The unit Republic showed me didn't work, but I got an idea of the design. It's solid and handsome-looking, big enough to supply some, if not a lot of bass. Held in the hand as a home phone, the fabric cover is textured and cozy, and the handset has some nice heft to it.

Republic says it will be beta-testing the Anywhere HQ through the first quarter of next year and "it will, in Republic style, not be expensive." We'll do both previews and reviews of both devices when they become available.

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