It may seem like we’ve come a long way since the days when the “Internet” was just a button on a flip phone that did absolutely nothing. But while Canadians have access to some of the fastest cellular data speeds in the world, they are still forced to ration their data like it’s a scarce resource about to run dry at any moment.
I used to cringe every time I saw my cell phone bill, knowing that I had overindulged in data the month before. Or I would struggle through the second half of the month with my data turned off, having blown through my allotted gigabytes streaming music or watching Snapchat videos.
I didn’t recognize the low-level stress I was feeling about my Internet usage until I switched to a U.S. carrier and started getting unlimited worldwide data.
My boyfriend who is a U.S. citizen and travels often for work discovered a T-Mobile plan with unlimited everything. In the biggest power move in the history of our relationship, he offered to add me as an extra line on his account.
Now we each pay $50 USD (roughly $66 Canadian dollars) per month for unlimited data, text and calls in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. We can also pay $25 USD ($33 CAD) for a travel pack that gives us the same benefits worldwide.
So how do you get this plan?
You need an unlocked phone, a valid piece of I.D. and a U.S.citizen who trusts you enough to add you to their plan since the money will come out of their account every month. Just tell them it’s like a citizenship marriage with much lower stakes.
I signed up for this plan about three weeks ago and I can say without exaggeration that I feel grateful every time I use my phone.
I’m a freelance journalist who will spend about a quarter of this year travelling for work. As someone who budgets as far into the future as possible, the fewer surprise fees I have in my life the better. But the real deal breaker was how prohibitively expensive it would be to use my Telus plan overseas for three months.
The Telus-Bell-Rogers monopoly
Telus plans start at $65 per month if you bring your own phone or $80 per month if you need a device. This gives you 1GB of data, 300 local minutes and unlimited nationwide calling. Using my cell phone in Europe for one month would be an extra $150. So I was looking at $230 per month to use a single gigabyte of data. That obviously wasn’t going to work.
The other two major companies weren’t much better. Rogers plans start at $80 per month for 1GB of data with unlimited nationwide calling and unlimited nationwide texting. If you want to travel for a month, you’re looking at an additional $50 per month in the U.S. and $100 internationally.
Bell plans start at $70 per month for 1GB of data and 300 local minutes and unlimited nationwide text. If you want to travel, it’s going to be an additional $100 per month in the U.S. and $200 per month in the rest of the world. After 20 days, your data allowance drops to 100MB per day unless you want to pay for more.
Gerry Wall, a telecommunications consultant with over two decades of experience in the industry, confirmed that $75 USD for worldwide unlimited everything is indeed a great deal. But he says not everyone needs to go south of the border to find a better deal because they don’t have the same “huge data needs.”
But Josh Tabish, campaigns director at OpenMedia, a Canadian advocacy organization, says “there’s no such thing as using too much data. And the fact that [cell phone companies] say things like that suggests that they are actively working to distort market demand rather than keep pace with demand.”
Instead of investing in infrastructure to meet consumer needs, Telus, Rogers and Bell are “putting arbitrary data caps on their plans that distort usage,” says Tabish. In other words, Canadians use the amount of data they can afford, not how much they need.
Canadian cell phone companies also want you to feel like data is scarce because they are vertically integrated companies, which means they have cable TV holdings and sell other products, such as residential Internet, says Tabish. The less Internet you can stream on your phone, the better.
Is there a fix to price-gouging?
The big question is whether the Canadian government can do anything to change this situation.
Under Stephen Harper’s government there was a big push to introduce a fourth mobile carrier into the Canadian market, but it failed, says Wall. It was way too expensive to build a network from scratch and compete against Telus, Rogers and Bell, he says.
But Tabish says the Canadian government could easily create more competition by forcing Rogers, Telus and Bell to let smaller companies use their networks.
Until that happens, I’m going to keep giving my hard-earned money to the cell phone company that gives me the cheapest rate and provides me with a plan that matches my totally reasonable data needs.
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