TextNow taps VoIP for $19 monthly smartphone plans

TextNow is the latest company to jump into the fray of low-cost wireless service, offering smartphone plans as low as $19 per month.

But instead of providing traditional voice calls and text messages, TextNow is entirely data-based, using VoIP for calls and a regular 3G data connection for SMS through its existing mobile apps. Like many other mobile virtual network operators, TextNow relies on Sprint’s 3G and 4G WiMax networks for data.

Plans start at $19 per month for 500MB of data, 750 outbound minutes, and unlimited text messages. A $27-per-month plan gets you 1GB of data and 1250 minutes, while a $40-per-month plan offers 2GB and 2000 minutes. For all three plans, you get unlimited inbound calls, and unused minutes roll over to the next month.

As for phones, TextNow sells a Nexus S for $90 and a Samsung Galaxy S II for $120, both off-contract. The former launched in late 2010, and the latter hit U.S. carriers in the fall of 2011.

In some ways, TextNow’s plan is similar to that of Republic Wireless, which also charges $19 per month and uses Sprint’s network. But Republic only uses VoIP for calls when you’re connected to Wi-Fi; otherwise, it switches to Sprint for voice calling. Also, Republic’s plans have no limits on voice calls or data consumption.

The main advantage of TextNow over Republic Wireless is its selection of phones. Both the Nexus S and the Galaxy S II are superior to Republic’s Motorola Defy XT, and they’re a lot cheaper as well. For the Defy XT, Republic charges $199 up front, or $79 plus an extra $10 per month.

Given that both services will appeal largely to basic users who don’t need a high-end phone or lots of data, TextNow seems like the better deal, at least on paper. But Republic will make more sense for users who need lots of voice minutes. Either way, it’s good to see more inexpensive—and creative—alternatives to the pricey plans offered by major wireless carriers.

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