As much as I like to bitch and moan about the CRTC they’ve managed to do one good thing for Canadian mobile users. As of this past March they’ve made Wireless Number Portability (WNP) mandatory in our Great White North.
What WNP means is that you’re able to switch your wireless carrier while keeping your current mobile phone number — the idea (I hope) being that the carriers will become more competitive with each other by offering lower rates and better handsets so that their customers don’t jump ship.
It’s great news for customers, but where it all goes to hell is with multi-year contracts.
Wireless providers are notorious for dangling carrots like zero-dollar handsets or 3 months of free service in exchange for a two (now often three!) year commitment to their service. What they don’t tell you up-front is how much it costs to get out of that commitment.
Permit me to be the bearer of bad news…
I took a stroll through the Toronto Eaton Centre this past week and put some tough questions to each of our country’s four major wireless carriers. Here’s what I found out…
Okay, so I didn’t actually go into the local Fido Store but as a loyal customer of theirs I previously (and foolishly) signed up for a three-year contract with them in order to keep my City Fido unlimited local calling plan and hiptop unlimited data service at current rates.
Now, with the hiptop platform abandoned by their parent company Rogers and that possibly must-have iPhone on the horizon I’m realizing the error of my ways.
Lucky for me Fido currently caps the penalty for breaking a contract at $200, which is actually pretty generous; an average $50/month plan on a three-year contract would otherwise cost you $1,750 to get out of with 35 months remaining on it.
Rogers Wireless has recently upped their contract-breaking cap to $400, still pretty reasonable when compared to almost two thousand bucks. But because they now own Fido (and thus have a monopoly on GSM service in Canada — thanks, CRTC!) I expect that the Fido penalty will be upped to match it sometime soon, if it hasn’t already done so.
[Note: the following info from Bell and Telus has been updated. The original information was given to me face to face by in-store reps; it was later revealed that this information was incorrect. Thanks to the commenters for the heads-up -- this new information is based on recorded phone calls to the two companies.]
Like Rogers, Bell has a $400 cap on the penalty to break your contract with them. But if your penalty falls short of this limit you should know that you’ll be paying the full monthly charge for your calling plan, plus system access fees, taxes and any other extras you’ve added to your service.
Telus Mobility will only charge you twenty bucks a month for the remainder of your contract with them, but the cap on their penalty is a whopping $700! This amount is higher than the no-contract price of the most expensive handset in their current lineup, making the subsidized price of Telus hardware not such a good deal after all…
It should be pretty obvious at this point that a cellular contract from any Canadian carrier is not at all the value it appears to be. If you’re on Fido or Rogers you can easily beat the scam of paying full price for one of their locked-down mobiles by going online or to your local Chinatown and picking up an unlocked (or SIM-free) unit. You can read more on the importance of SIM-free handsets in this excellent All About Symbian editorial. Fido and Rogers customers have it a bit easier in that their GSM network is pretty much the world standard in wireless communications. Because of this there is a wider selection of handsets to choose from, and in my opinion they tend to be better looking; this is thanks to GSM’s European heritage, where fashion-conscious users tend to pooh-pooh ungainly design elements like external antennas.
Both Bell and Telus, on the other hand, use the CDMA standard — ubiquitous in North America but requiring that the user call up their carrier and register a new phone’s ESN (electronic serial number) before it can be used on the network. This makes buying an unlocked handset difficult to impossible, but you can always buy used or pay the full retail price, knowing that you save in the long run by not being locked into a contract.
Either way it’s time for Canadians to step up and let our carriers know that we’re the ones running the show. If we can steer clear of the siren song of carrier contracts I predict that within a few years we’ll all be on the sunny shores of better, cheaper service!