Republic introduces screenless device to combat 'digital distraction' among kids

The Relay is targeted at parents concerned about their kids’ screen time. (Republic Wireless)

Republic Wireless is targeting parents of young, would-be mobile phone users with an upcoming screenless, voice-driven gadget designed to eliminate—or at least minimize—what the company calls “digital distraction.”

The MVNO this morning unveiled Relay, which enables parents to communicate with their kids and track their whereabouts. The device, which is designed primarily for voice navigation rather than touch, will come to market early next year with a price tag of two for $149 or three for $199—a single relay will set users back $99—and service will cost $7 a month.

Like a smartphone, the Relay will support both LTE and Wi-Fi, but it won’t have a screen or phone number. Instead, parents can use an Android or iOS app to talk to their kids, and Relay users can communicate directly with each other.

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Parents can also locate the devices via GPS, and Google Assistant and a streaming-music app will be preloaded. The Relay can be controlled by a single button but is designed to be navigated by voice, similar to a smart speaker such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home.

“We talk about it as a nationwide, screenless walkie-talkie device made for parents and kids to keep connected,” said Jon Schniepp, Republic’s senior vice president of product management. “We think it’s a great way to keep people connected and give them products that kind of fit more into their life and not dominate it.”

One of the first MVNOs in the U.S. market to focus on Wi-Fi calling, Republic launched with Sprint six years ago and last year added an unnamed nationwide GSM service provider "with the fastest nationwide 4G LTE network." The unnamed carrier partner is likely T-Mobile, which would enable Republic to sell its services into the rural and suburban markets into which T-Mobile is expanding.

Republic Wireless last December received a $30 million cash infusion from its parent company Bandwidth as it spun off into a standalone organization. Republic had been a division of Bandwidth, a Cary, North Carolina-based VoIP and broadband service provider.

While the MVNO market in the United States is notoriously brutal, Republic has claimed to generate $100 million in annual revenue and said it has reached profitability. The company positions itself as an alternative for users who don’t want to pay the price of unlimited data plans. Plans start at $15 a month for unlimited talk, text and Wi-Fi data, and top out at $90 a month for an additional 10 GB of cellular data.

Republic also announced Anywhere HQ this morning, which it described as "a smart, high-definition speaker phone" based on its platform that enables users to text and call from iOS, Android, Mac and Windows PC applications. The speaker is designed to be a fully functioning phone, supporting 911 calls, and when removed from its dock can be used as a standalone, private phone.

Anywhere HQ will be developed in the company’s Labs program next month, and the company has yet to announce pricing or availability.