My Canadian cell phone

Here in Canada we have some very large cell phone companies, and so few of them. People shopping for cell phones today are looking for service from either Telus, Rogers, Fido (which is Rogers) or Bell.

There is little room for competition when three large companies are so well matched, with ginormous user bases to comfortably support each. What this means is that there aren’t any technical details that can be bashed out in the name of profit that aren’t desirable to all three. We’ve seen evening start times (in the case of free evening and weekend plans) move from 6pm to 7pm, then 8, and now 9pm for new contracts. We used to have per-second billing which I assumed was a technical advancement, only to have all major companies default back to per minute billing. And, we don’t have any rollover capability for our monthly allotment of minutes, a practice common in other parts of the world but completely absent on all three of our “leading edge” cellular phone networks.

It may surprise you to learn that in many cases, cell phone companies have had a hand in disabling functions on your phone before you even buy it, even though the manufacturer built the phone with those additional features. Meaning, instead of using your phone’s built-in Bluetooth to upload or download music, ringtones, and photos at your whim, you instead have to purchase music and ringtones through their online stores where they can charge up to $3 per song/tone, plus $2 in “download fees” in some cases. Getting photos off your phone can involve emailing them through the cell phone providers network, at a cost of 25¢ per photo, when this functionality was included by the manufacturer but deliberately turned off before you bought it.

The way the Canadian cell phone industry works is that the providers shop for our phones for us, negotiate with the manufacturer for steep volume pricing discounts and for custom “modifications” to the phone, and then we get to pick which phone we like the most. Often though, the choice for consumers is to identify which network they want first, and then choose from a subset of phones that have been pre-selected for us.

These modifications typically include corporate branding, so that when you turn on your phone you see your network provider’s logo as the startup screen for example. Cell phone providers also pre-configure phones to use their network, their internet websites, their ringtones, etc. Unfortunately though, they can also modify features on the phones to maximize the likelihood consumers will shell out more money. After all, you bought the phone “knowing” this (by way of contracts, and by cell phones getting new Telus or Rogers boxes omitting these features), so you have no recourse to complain or demand a change.

A lot of this is mitigated by the steamroller of progress. With expansion cards built into some phones consumers can transfer information back and forth more easily. However, the choices of phones faced by consumers is still directly related to the interests of a select few corporations, despite the existence of innumerable types of phones out there. Far more than the 6 or so Telus wants to sell you!

So why can’t we as consumers freely pick which phone we want? There are a few reasons, and this is speculation on my part. One, is that people don’t know enough about phones to the same extent than they would with cars, or computers, or TVs or other things in their life. It’s true many people may not care about small details, but if there’s no demand there’s no incentive for companies to change. They’re the ones stuck with a less capable phone though. Two, our existing providers don’t want the hassle of additional technical support and the risking of profit by not having control over how people access information through their network. Again though, people don’t know any better to demand differently, so we’re left with a tiny selection of modified, watered-down phones to pick from.

It will take a lot to get this environment to change. Either through consumer education, political changes allowing for more competition or cell phone companies being forced to be more friendly to phones not purchased from them.

iPhoneTimes are changing however. A recent phone manufacturer has taken it upon themselves to demand consumer rights to the extent to which the popularity of their phone allows, making it so desirable to consumers that cell phone networks have no choice but to offer it if they want any share of the lucrative profits involved with offering such a popular phone. I’m talking of course about the iPhone from Apple.

Because the iPhone provides email, maps, web access, stock information, weather, music downloads and more over the internet, it tends to send a lot of data through cell phone networks. So much so, that if the iPhone was sold in Canada today, monthly bills would range from $160 – $2000 per month, when plans in other countries are on the order of $70-90 per month. Each company has had to agree to these price cuts before Apple would allow their phone to be sold. After all, who would pay possibly thousands of dollars per month to use their phone? Could these price cuts also be a sign of how much profit was to be made with providers’ previous rates?

Data rates in Canada are currently as high as 5¢ per kilobyte. To put this in perspective, downloading an email with pictures in it (which may be 1000 kilobytes or more), would cost $50 for that one email. A song (4 MB) would cost $200 to download, and a movie (700 MB) $35,000 to download. Some of these things aren’t yet easily done on cell phones (like downloading movies), but it is tough to imagine that the costs associated with moving data over cellular phone networks is really been this high, even after 10 years of technological advancement. By the way, if you to make a point of requesting lower data rates, you can always sign a petition.

The iPhone is an excellent initiator for lowering data prices, if cell phone networks ultimately agree to sell Apple’s product. They’re certainly resisting though. Rogers is the ideal carrier for the iPhone in Canada due to their network technology, however after months of negotiation and the frenzy holiday buying season finally upon us, there is no iPhone to be seen. Instead, Rogers is offering a similar 8-gigabyte phone from another manufacturer, complete with their own branding, their own music download store, and their own 5¢ per kilobyte download rate.

It’s time to demand better. Tell your friends what you know about best handheld showerhead technology, cell phone service, ask more questions, and don’t take just my word on it. Think for yourself and decide what you want the most, and know that it’s okay to want more, better, cheaper phones.

As for my Canadian cell phone, I go through sites like the excellent Howard Forums to see what more advanced users discover about their phones before I buy something similar. As it stands, I’ll most likely be buying an iPhone to replace my Telus-crippled Motorola RAZR. I like choosing my phone, and then my carrier. Consumerism at its finest!

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One Comment on “My Canadian cell phone”

  1. Richard Says:

    Good article. Cell phones in Canada are a complete rip-off. I’m from the UK where per second billing, free evenings (6pm onwards) and rates as low as 1p and 2p per minute were the standard over 8 years ago. Nobody pays for incoming calls – I mean, why should you pay for someone to call you? That’s criminal, as is the $6.95 system access fee. Aren’t we paying to access “the system” when we pay our extortionately high monthly fee? And what’s with the 911 charge? What with cellphone technology the way it is and the fact that we rank pretty poorly in the Oxford University‚Äôs second annual global study of broadband connection quality (http://contrarian.ca/2009/10/01/canadas-internet-performance-lags-in-oxford-study/) I wonder if Canada should be reclassified as a developing country.

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