Big telco's lower-cost, wireless data-only plans are 'embarrassing,' critics say

Critics say proposed lower-cost, data-only wireless deals from Bell, Rogers and Telus are no deal at all. The offerings include half a gigabyte of data for $30 a month.

Proposed offerings from Bell, Rogers and Telus include half a gigabyte of data for $30 a month

Telecom critic Ben Klass says the lower-cost plans proposed by the big telcos are low-balling it. (submitted by Ben Klass)

Bell, Rogers and Telus' proposed lower-cost, data-only wireless deals are no deal at all, say critics. The offerings include half a gigabyte (GB) of data for $30 a month.

"It's embarrassing and quite frankly it's rude to think that these are functional plans," said Laura Tribe, executive director of Open Media, a consumer watchdog group.

In March, the CRTC announced that it would ensure Canadians have access to cheaper, data-only wireless deals. The plans are meant to fill a void while the telecom regulator reviews a recent decision that effectively hinders smaller, WiFi-based, national discount wireless carriers from operating in Canada.

Discount carrier Sugar Mobile used to offer cellphone plans for as low as $19 a month. But the CRTC ruled last March that its business model broke the rules. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

The CRTC asked the big three telcos — Bell, Rogers and Telus — to submit proposals for lower-cost, data-only deals on high speed 4G networks.

Both Bell and Telus have pitched a monthly plan offering .5 GB (500 megabytes) of data for $30. Telus also proposed a prepaid plan offering 600 megabytes (MB) for $30 a month. 

Rogers has pitched 400 MB for $25 a month. 

After posting the proposals online, the CRTC has received more than 230 comments from Canadians. CBC News read many of them and couldn't find one that supported the plans. 

"They're basically not being fair for what they're providing," said Martin Sandbach of Corunna, Ont., who made a submission and spoke with CBC News.

"It's a joke," said Jiashu Xiong of Burnaby, B.C., who also submitted a comment. "Offering such a low number for such a high price is not going to benefit anyone," he said in an interview. "I would have data overages all the time." 

What about 10 GB for $60?

According to a recent CRTC report, in 2016, Canadians used an average of 1.2 GB of mobile data every month — at least double what the telcos are offering in their lower-cost plans. The report also found that revenues from wireless data grew to $11 billion in 2016, an increase of 9.4 per cent from 2015.

Meanwhile, according to a 2017 price-comparison report commissioned by the federal government, Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for cellular plans with data.

Tribe from Open Media says that, in their current proposals, the big three telcos fail to fulfil the CRTC's mandate to offer affordable deals to Canadians struggling with data costs.

She believes Bell, Rogers and Telus should model their lower-cost, data-only plans on the deals they offered in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. in December: $60 a month for unlimited calling and 10 GB.

"Instead we're seeing $30 a month for 500 megabytes being pitched," Tribe said. "It's outrageous." 

Laura Tribe, Open Media's executive director, says the telcos should base their lower-cost data-only deals on the $60, 10-GB plans they offered in December. (CBC )

"They're really low balling it," said Ben Klass, a telecom researcher and PhD candidate at Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication.

He says that Rogers is actually offering a much more generous data-only deal through its discount brand, Fido: three GB for $15 a month for tablet users. However, this plan is only available as a top-up offer for people already subscribing to a monthly cell phone plan, as indicated on Fido's website. 

"These companies have never been interested in serving people who just want the bare-access minimum," said Klass.

Telcos say Canadians already have choice

Rogers, Bell and Telus all said in their CRTC submissions that Canada's wireless market already offers a variety of low-cost mobile plans, and that their latest proposals will provide consumers with even more options.

"We are proposing data-only plans at an economical price so our customers can stay connected," said a Rogers spokesperson in an emailed statement. 

Telus told CBC News it's already offering inexpensive data-only plans through its discount brand, Public Mobile. 

Spokesperon Richard Gilhooley said in an email that the wireless market in Canada is "robust" and that it offers "a wide variety of flexibility and choice for Canadians."

Bell, Rogers and Telus all argue in their submissions that there's no need for the CRTC to regulate the lower-cost data-only plans, because competitive forces will keep prices in check.

Both Tribe and Klass disagree. They say the only way Canadians will get fair data-only deals is for the CRTC to mandate what the plans offer and the price, just as it did for basic $25 TV packages.

"Without public oversight, of course the companies are going to charge as much as they can," said Klass.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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