Mobile monopoly is old news to Canadians

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      The past few weeks have seen a lot of speculation on which public or private entity would purchase the parent company of the Bell mobile-phone service. Even Telus was in the fray for a few days, staying in just long enough to further drive up the price of BCE's stock. That offer made some people nervous, since the combined firm (Belus, perhaps?) could hold the contracts of about two-thirds of Canadian cellphone users. I guess they worried that would create a monopoly situation.

      How ridiculous. Clearly those people aren't aware that such a monopoly already exists, or maybe the proper term is cartel (cartelephone?). Whichever way you describe it, there's no doubt in my mind that the current troika of companies long ago stopped competing with each other and settled into a comfortable and mutually profitable détente. That's why there haven't been any price wars or technical upgrades in years. Just advertising campaigns, mostly featuring animals. Well, there's also that favourite-five-friends concept, but that doesn't do much for business users–it's aimed at getting teens and families hooked.

      For comparison, just look at the service packages AT&T is offering in the States for the new iPhone (a good match with Canada because AT&T uses the near-obsolete EDGE wireless-networking system, which we are told is state-of-the-art). With all the anticipation surrounding the iPhone and its exclusive service through AT&T, the company could charge a hefty sum. Instead, US$60 a month gets you 450 minutes of talk time (plus 5,000 evening and weekend minutes), 200 text messages, and unlimited Internet, or you can pay US$80 and talk for 900 minutes (with unlimited evening and weekend minutes). And the contract has only a two-year term.

      Browsing over to BlackBerry and other PDA rates with Canadian providers, well, it's appalling. How does this sound? For $55 a month (plus other fees, of course), Telus gives you 250 minutes of talking during the daytime (with unlimited incoming calls, evenings, and weekends) and a whopping four megabytes of data transfer, with extra megs going for a princely $12 per. Bell offers the same data rates. Over at Rogers, owning a BlackBerry will cost you more–their $90 monthly package includes 350 minutes of talk (plus the unlimited evenings and weekends thing) and 25 megs of data, with extra megs a mere $7 apiece.

      Or let's look at my Fido bill. My two-year contract expires on August 11. Mind you, when I called the company to ask about upgrading to another phone, it turned out my contract had been changed–without my consent or any notification–so that the two years had mysteriously had another seven months added on. I'm proud to say I got that fixed without using any bad words, although it did take two phone calls and about 15 minutes to resolve.

      Anyway, with my PDA I pay $80 a month, which gives me 250 minutes of talking (plus unlimited incoming, evenings, and weekends). I do get unlimited Internet, but only at glacial, modemlike speeds–and they don't offer that deal anymore. Typically, my e-mail runs around 30 megabytes a month (with attachments deleted), but I'd probably use the Web-browsing service more if it didn't take so long to load each page. If I want to get a new smartphone, the only option is the mediocre Nokia E62. Once you select a voice plan, Internet costs range from $40 a month for seven megs (and $6 per additional) to $100 for a surprisingly respectable 200 megs ($5 per additional).

      It doesn't take a genius to realize that Canadians are being shafted. (CTV claims we pay the highest rates of any developed country.) Over in Europe, roaming charges are being cut by up to 70 percent. You may have seen a TV ad from a company in the States that lets you roll over unused minutes from month to month. And what are our providers doing? Mostly, they've been trying to block competing firms (domestic and international) from obtaining new cellular frequencies and opening up the marketplace to a bit of change. Quebecor is one of those firms, and it has an interesting collection of data posted on-line ( I suggest you don't access it from a smartphone, unless you're wealthy.

      My advice? Don't sign a long-term contract with the existing providers. I've got a pay-as-you-go phone that I intend to use very sparingly until there's a reasonable option in the marketplace. I'm willing to give up mobile Internet access for a few months. Plus, I've just learned of a very desirable new cellphone from Pirelli (yes, the tire folks). It's offered for $395 by People Line (, one of those VoIP companies that let you use the Internet to make calls for $9.95 a month. The DP–L10 is both a cellphone and a VoIP phone that uses wireless connectivity, so you can make free calls when you're in a Wi-Fi area, and reverts to high-priced cellular when you're not. True, it's not a smartphone, except in the sense that it's smart to save money, but it may be a good option while we wait for a little fairness to arrive.