Canada’s new low-cost cell phone plans? ‘A joke,’ expert says

WATCH ABOVE: Global News called Canada's three biggest carriers and five discount carriers to see which offered the best and cheapest plan.

In March of last year, Canada’s telecoms regulator issued a decision that held a tantalizing promise for Canadians: The prospect of affordable cell phone plans.

There was a “gap” in the market for lower-cost data-only plans, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) concluded. Its solution? Ask the big three — Bell Mobility, Rogers and Telus — to come up with their proposals for lower-cost options.

The plans, expected to become widely available by April 2019, offer between 250 MB and 1 GB of data per month for rates between $15 and $30.

Independent experts are underwhelmed.

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The new offerings are “pretty much a joke,” said Marie Aspiazu, digital rights campaigner at OpenMedia. The average Canadian consumes 2 GB of data a month, which is already very low compared to usage in other countries, Aspiazu said.

In Finland, for example, the average mobile customers uses over 14 GB of data per month, according to a recent report by Tefficient, a  Swedish consultancy. In Taiwan, monthly data consumption is around 13 GB per month. Americans use almost 4 GB per month.

READ MORE: The best, cheapest cell phone plans in Canada

And even Australians, who, like Canadians, live in a big and sparsely populated country, are using more and paying less — as little as $30 for 5 GB of data, according to a 2018 review by the Canadian government.

Not only that, but the new affordable plans aren’t as good as some of the deals already available on the market, said Benjamin Klass, a researcher at Carleton University’s Canadian Media Concentration Research Project.

In December 2017, for example, Bell, Rogers and TELUS released a promotional plan offering a whopping 10 GB of data for only $60 per month. The deal was so popular some prospective customers had to wait up to a week before being able to connect to a customer agent and sign up. (All three carriers have reportedly announced plans to raise the cost of those plans by between $5 and $10 a month this year.)

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READ MORE: Mysterious missed calls on cellphone part of worldwide scam

And some of the new low-cost data plans appear less generous than what telecom giants are offering through their data plans for tablets, Klass noted. The plans allow users to operate the devices using data instead of WiFi through a SIM card that often works on phones, too.

With Bell’s tablet plan, for example, users can get up to 2 GB a month for $30 and up to 5 GB a month for $45. Rogers customers can get up to 2 GB a month for $30 and up to 4 GB a month for $50. And Telus also offers $35 for up to 2 GB a month, as well as up to 4 GB for $45.

Bell said its tablet data plans are available to both existing and new customers, with users charged at the end of the billing cycle.

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“Our upcoming smartphone data-only plans will be available for either prepaid or postpaid service with Virgin Mobile and prepaid with Lucky Mobile. Data isn’t shareable with these plans and customers will need to bring their own device,” spokesperson Nathan Gibson told Global News via email.

The company did not directly address a question about why it isn’t matching its tablet plans pricing in its new lower-cost data-only plans.

READ MORE: Cheaper cellphone data deals may stick around in Canada, experts say

Rogers’ tabletplans are meant to be add-on products for existing customers, which have different administrative costs than stand-alone products like its smartphone lines, the company told Global News via email, adding that its proposed low-cost data plans for smartphones “will provide customers with great value.”

A spokesperson for Telus said its tablet plans are also only available as add-ons for customers who already have a wireless plan. The new lower-cost data-only plans will work on any mobile device and be available to anyone.

“TELUS, Koodo and Public Mobile provide customers with a range of plan options to best suit their budget and lifestyle, providing strong value and choice on Canada’s largest and fastest mobile network,” the spokesperson for the company said via email.

For its part, the CRTC told Global News that “on a monthly basis plans in the 250 MB to 1 GB range should be enough to view several thousand emails, visit several hundred websites, send thousands of text messages [on data-supported platforms], or perform several hundred minutes of voice calling.”
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A spokesperson for the regulator also noted that Canadians rely on WiFi for up to 75 per cent of data consumption on mobile devices.

“The main purpose of a lower-cost data-only plan is to provide cellular connectivity when a customer is away from a WiFi connection,” it added.

But OpenMedia’s Aspiazu said 1 GB isn’t enough for low-income households who often rely on mobile data because they don’t have an Internet connection at home.

In general, the new plans do little to address the long-standing issues that beset the Canadian telecoms market, said Michael Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.

“The market remains woefully uncompetitive and pricey compared to other countries,” he said.

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