Dish acquisition of Republic paves way for Relay, a new sort of Nextel

Relay device
Construction was a big market for Nextel, and now Relay is prepared to step into fill that niche.

Something that was designed as a screen-free communications device for kids and families is turning into a bit of a sensation among some frontline workers.

Dish Network announced on Monday that it’s buying Republic Wireless, an MVNO that uses T-Mobile’s network, for an undisclosed price. That's one part of the Republic business; another part, which is all about replacing the walkie-talkie, will live on, in the form of Relay Inc., with headquarters remaining in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Relay started building its LTE/Wi-Fi version of a walkie-talkie as a kid-centric device. It has no screen, so parents don’t need to worry about kids seeing the wrong kind of content. It serves as a quick, one-button means of communications. 

RELATED: Republic touts $100M in annual revenues as it expands into kid-friendly services

The company plans to continue offering that device, but over the past 12 to 18 months, it’s shifted its focus to the enterprise. That’s where active frontline workers, sometimes called deskless workers because they’re on the move, are knocking on Relay’s doors.

Most amusement parks, hotels and stadiums haven’t seen much traffic over the past year. But within the hospitality industry, for example, housekeepers, security guards and janitors are still working, and they need to communicate beyond the limited scope of traditional walkie-talkies, perhaps more so now.

The walkie-talkie allows for person-to-person communications, but they’re not connected to the internet and generally lack range in coverage. What the engineers in the Relay division of Republic did was build a smart, cellular walkie-talkie that’s going up against bigger competitors, including Zebra and Motorola Solutions.

Nextel had a popular nationwide cellular version of the walkie-talkie and that was used among construction and other crews, but that business went away after what historically ranks as one of the worst wireless mergers of all time, with Sprint in 2005.  

Whopping 1,600% growth

Republic Wireless is privately owned and doesn’t share revenue numbers, but during the pandemic, its revenue for Relay Pro – the enterprise-focused version of the device – has increased 1,600%, according to Chris Chuang, co-founder and CEO of Republic Wireless.

He told Fierce that the company will continue to produce the Relay device to serve families and kids, but they see an even bigger need for the Relay Pro solution among enterprises.

As hotels had to reduce staff, they might have one manager overseeing two local hotels rather than one. With Relay, they can instantly communicate across properties, keeping housekeepers and security guards safe. The newer version also comes with a panic button and indoor location tracking. 

“We’ve been seeing Relay become very popular for people who are in need of these worker safety solutions,” he said.

Nextel was super popular and served a big need, but when it went away, nothing really filled the gap, he said. People thought smartphones would be the solution, but hotels discovered that they would rather have their staff focus on the guests rather than staring at smartphone screen. Walkie-talkies are limited in range, but with cellular, Relay can provide that instant communication. The company has MVNO deals with multiple wireless carriers in the U.S.

RELATED: Dish to acquire MVNO Republic Wireless

On the Republic side of the house, Chuang and his colleagues worked on perfecting the Wi-Fi calling experience for consumers and its technology served well there. “We’ve learned a lot about voice and making voice communications work across different kinds of networks,” he said. All of that learning has been useful for Relay, a voice-first kind of communication.

As Dish continues to build up its retail presence in wireless, it will be acquiring about 200,000 customer relationships through the Republic Wireless transaction. Chuang said he’s excited for Relay because it means it can focus its investments and energy in serving the active frontline workforce, an area that hasn’t’ seen innovation like this since Nextel.

“It’s not always a win-win, but in this case, I think it’s absolutely a true win-win. I think Dish has a very similar mission and mindset to Republic,” which considered itself as a disrupter in the Wi-Fi calling space years ago.

Dish is now a disruptor with its greenfield 5G network build. “We think the business is in great hands,” he said.  “We’re super excited to see Republic thrive in the Dish context and we see them investing more into it than we can as a little company.”