Republic Wireless has launched a limited beta program of its $19-a-month hybrid wireless service using, to start, the LG Optimus smartphone running Android 2.3.

Aside from the low price, Republic Wireless is going to test consumer demand for a “Wi-Fi-first” mobile service that defaults to any available Wi-Fi network first, then switches to the mobile network only when that is not possible.

“Republic is a Wi-Fi network,” the company says. “Anything cellular can do, Wi-Fi can do better (and for less).” Wi-Fi better?

The immediate logical question is the degree of traction Republic Wireless can get in the wireless market. But perhaps a more-important question is whether Republic Wireless will affect the thinking of fixed-network VoIP providers.

There is, to be sure, a market for fixed-line VoIP services. But it is hard to ignore the broader shift to use of wireless devices as the “default” mode for consumers globally. To be sure, wireless service providers someday will embrace mobile VoIP in a more-active way. In the meantime, there remains a market opportunity for providers who can enable a shift “now.”

In this case, given the limitation of service to domestic calling, Republic Wireless won’t be a competitive substitute for Vonage, for example, as used by people who mostly need to call internationally. But lots of people do not need to make many international calls, and might now evaluate Republic Wireless as a substitute for a fixed voice line.

And that makes the competition as much fixed voice line service as much as “mobile service.”

Sprint will be Republic’s first cellular partner, but other partners might be added as well.

The cost of the phone and the first month of service will be $199, with unlimited voice, data and texting costing $19 a month thereafter. Other phone models will be announced later, the company says. No contracts are required.

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