I’ve already covered my efforts to cut the cord for internet (Cutting the cord – Part 1 – Internet), TV, and home phone. Next on the list is cellular service. As with the first internet one, this isn’t about eliminating cell service completely, it’s about reviewing your packages and finding ways to get more service for the same price or, more often than not, the same service for less money.
In the cell market in Canada, you have the two biggies — Rogers and Bell. They fight it out, they gouge everyone, the CRTC slaps them, they reset, they duke it out some more. Generally speaking, our cell costs are much higher than anywhere else in the world. According to an OECD report based on comparable 2013 data across 34 countries, we’re the most expensive for data only plans and top ten for data and phone. Not surprisingly, that puts us dead last for number of wireless subscriptions per capita. Is it all infrastructure costs that are driving the difference? Nope — it’s profit margins –> Canadian carriers are third on the list of “revenue per user” in the G8 and fourth across all the countries. We get gouged, no question about it. The CRTC knows this, and has put the screws to the telecom companies on things like extortionary three-year cell packages and transparency in price-gouging, but not much to reduce overall costs.
Cost differentials are left to the secondary tier of cellular companies to drive down costs through competition — Telus, Wind, Koodo, Virgin, Fido, a bunch of others. You might think that was a decent range of competitors. But the branding hides some basic facts.
- Rogers and Fido are basically the same company, just different branding;
- Telus and Koodo? The same;
- Bell and Virgin? The same;
Wind is one of the few that is separate and not simply affiliated with a regional carrier (like SaskTel in Saskatchewan). Which means Fido, Koodo and Virgin are just special plans of the other three big ones (often discount plans for narrow markets). They often too have much more limited variety in packages, phones, data plan options. In the end, you’re often left with a choice of Rogers, Bell or Telus. Back in 2013, Telus and Bell had just under 30% of the cell market each, with Rogers just above 20, and the rest divvying up the remaining 20%. I don’t have the recent data, but I think the other 20% has shrunk to about 15% and the big three have gobbled up some more.
Does it matter which of the three or four you choose? Well, that depends on what you’re doing and where. If you are in a big urban centre, coverage is pretty much the same for all of them. The larger the urban centre, the increased likelihood of small gaps in the city, particularly if you want LTE service on your latest-and-greatest smartphone. If you are doing a lot of data usage (i.e. smartphone internet use), those dead zones could kill you if you’re with the wrong carrier. Most of the dead zones are starting to disappear as networks expand their LTE coverage more uniformly, but could be an issue. Some people also note that it depends on how much you use your phone at home without wifi vs. working in an office building made of signal-blocking concrete, as some carriers work better indoors more based on the distance to the local cell tower than the technology. The technology probably won’t affect you much though for most urban centres.
If you are in a rural area, there can be a huge difference in service. I have a Rogers cellphone, and I get lousy reception in some parts of central Ontario (north of cottage country, like Algonquin Park, Bancroft, even along Highway 7). Out by Luskville in Quebec? Nada. A friend has a Telus SIM card for when he’s roaming in Quebec (including around Luskville) and it works like a charm. Fortunately there are coverage maps that you can search that show which service is best for what area (like a rural community, cottage area, etc.).
Devices? The big three all support the big smartphones like iPhones, some will have slightly different deals for cost over the long-term, etc., but not significant enough to warrant a change against the other factors.
For me, I was with Rogers partly because I offset at one point with my wife’s phone (back when we were dating). She had a Bell phone, so I went Rogers to extend our coverage map (one or the other would work). Eventually, we switched most things to Rogers, she got a smartphone (iPhone 4) and it was just easier to just put her on my account with the new phone. We’ve upgraded a couple of times between us, and my contract was set to expire December 31st of this year. I bought my phone on a 2 year contract, her latest one (in August), we bought straight outright. So after December? No more commitment, just month to month.
Most big networks will let you switch your phones for an unlock fee and SIM-card switch. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes they give you a big hassle. But since the big three often only offer you much in the way of deals for completely new activations (often limiting you even on transfers), the savings can be more theoretical than real.
I have unlimited text and talk in Canada. I don’t use it, I don’t need it outside Ottawa, really. Except when we travel to Peterborough, mainly so I don’t get hit with a roaming fee. Way under what they offer me for a basic package. Which is why they can offer such a large basic package — many people don’t use it, so it doesn’t cost them that much. Standard voicemail, basic caller ID (numbers, not names), 911 access, blah blah blah. Unlimited video texting too. You pay for international roaming, international calls, and if you exceed your data plan.
I used to have a sweet 6GB data plan. I thought it was awesome. You know how much I actually used? Less than 1 GB per month. I thought my regular usage would climb, but most of the time I’m doing surfing and data munching, I’m on wifi somewhere, not wireless. My wife had a separate 500MB plan on hers. Eventually, we merged them, but my plan was a special offering, so with the merger, I had to give up 6GB and settle for 2. With me less than 1 GB, and her less than 1 GB, seemed like a no brainer. Once in awhile we go over it, often when our phone settings aren’t taking advantage of wifi hotspots enough. But each time I go over, I get a $15 overcharge (used to be $25).
I wanted another GB of data, but wasn’t really looking to go with Bell or Telus right now. We love our current phones, no setup issues, everything works, just not enough data. So, partly inspired by the whole blog writing thing, and the other cutting the cord attempts, I did a minimally invasive tweak to my current package.
I was paying $80 a month for my phone package with 2GB data. My wife was added to my plan and her package was $35. Everything shared. Since my contract was coming to a close, I could pay off the remaining balance ($35 — which was cute since I had a $40 credit sitting on the account after a full credit for this months’ charges anyway), and modify the plan to a simple “Share Everything” month-to-month plan. My plan? Dropped $5. Her plan? Upped $5. Even Steven. Why would I bother? Because they gave me 5GB of shared data. We can go crazy, no more worries about reaching our limit. If we do, our phones REALLY have the wrong settings. Unless I start streaming a lot of music or videos that I’m not doing now, I suppose. I do have a bunch of course videos I want to watch, but most of those will be through wifi, not wireless. Nice to have the option though. Heck, I may even let my son stream a video on Kodi if we’re stuck in a waiting line somewhere. 5GB is more than double what we have now, and we barely exceed 2 now. For the same cost, no commitment, and no overage charges of $15. Oh, and just for fun, they throw in free Shomi, Spotify or NextIssue. I might give Spotify a try.
If I was still bundled with Rogers for everything else, they’d knock 10-15% off that bill. I’m not getting anything “special” with that deal, it’s a good package and a regular price. Still way above what I would pay in Japan or Europe, and marginally above the U.S.
Can you get better deals? Sure.
Telus has a deal for bring-your-own-device, $60 per month, 4GB of data. If you want to add another user, you basically pay for their voice plan. Probably about $100 in total when finished. Or about $20 cheaper than what I’m paying. Bell would likely charge me $90 for the first plan plus thirty for the second, giving me the same price as Rogers i.e. $120. Wind, by contrast, with their smaller market options, different configs and access to the other networks, would be about $40-$45 per phone setup, or about $80-$90 in total. Save about $30-40 for less reliable network. One that has been rumoured to go bankrupt regularly since it started.
So I’m paying a bit more for the Rogers network, partly as it has slightly different coverage than Telus or Bell or Wind, and it costs me a little more. But not as much as yesterday where I would regularly blow my data limit. Instead, same cost, more service. When I need to upgrade my phone or my wife’s phone or maybe add one for my son, I’ll see what deals are available then. For now, I can live with my (newly-tweaked) package.