Cellphone bill too high? Maybe you just have to suck it up

Canadian policy-makers have been promising that better cellular deals are just around the corner. But there's no sign of them yet and no sign of a strategy that would bring us stable and substantive competition.

If policy-makers aren't creating competition, they should quit pretending good deals are near

Seta Elbekian of Toronto is not happy that she will soon lose her low-price $29 monthly phone plan with Mobilicity. Rogers is moving all Mobilicity customers to its brand, Chatr. (Seta Elbekian)

When Louisa McCormack signed up recently for what looked like an amazing cellphone deal, she worried it was too good to be true.

"It wasn't until I got my first bill that I was reassured, wow, this really is true," she says.
Louisa McCormack scored such a cheap cellphone deal in Paris, she thought it was too good to be true. (Louisa McCormack)

The writer from Toronto pays just $29 a month for unlimited calling across North America. She also has a data plan and gets 35 days a year of free roaming across North America as well as most of Europe.

"It was just kind of hard to believe," she admits.

That's because McCormack is used to more pricey plans in Canada. She found this deal — in Paris.

Almost a year ago, she moved to Paris for work. And, yes, she also gets unlimited calling across France.

"You just don't realize how bad Canada has it until you move abroad," says McCormack.

Canadians paying top dollar

Canadians still pay some of the highest cellular service prices in the industrialized world, according to the 2015 CRTC-commissioned Wall Report.

The report also shows that an unlimited talk-and-text cellphone plan with two gigabytes of data costs on average $48.24 per month in France compared to $83.08 in Canada — a difference of almost $35.

Canada's previous Conservative government pledged to foster more competition to help drive down prices. Its Liberal successor has said the same.

Yet, according to the Wall Report, Canadian cellular service generally got more expensive last year. Meanwhile, smaller providers that often offer cheaper deals are disappearing.

Canadian policy-makers have been promising that better cellular deals are just around the corner. But there's no sign of them yet and no sign of a strategy that would bring us stable and substantive competition.

"These guys basically have a licence for price gouging at this point," says Open Media telecom critic Josh Tabish, referring to Rogers, Telus and Bell Canada.

The three telecoms controlled 89 per cent of the wireless telecom market in Canada in 2014, according to the Wall Report.

Broken promises

Back in late 2013, the Conservative government blew through $9 million of taxpayers' money on cellphone service ads. The campaign spread the message that Ottawa was on a mission to bring consumers more competition and lower prices.
A scene from a 2013 Canadian government TV ad showing a frustrated cellphone customer. The campaign sent the message Ottawa was on a mission to bring consumers more competition and lower prices (Government of Canada)

Now the Liberal government has declared it will save the day. "The government is working to support competition, choice and availability of services," the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development told CBC News in an email.

And yet, Canadians saw their cellphone bills increase last year and could this year as well; the big telecoms all announced price hikes for 2016.

Meanwhile, smaller providers get gobbled up.

In 2013, Telus bought Public Mobile. Last year, western-based telecom, Shaw bought Wind Mobile and Rogers took over Mobilicity.

Mobilicity's 'great news!'

Rogers recently announced that all Mobilicity customers will soon be moved to Rogers' low-cost subsidiary, Chatr Mobile.

Mobilicity customer Seta Elbekian got the notification last week in a text message.

"We've got great news!" stated the text from soon to be abandoned Mobilicity. "We are excited to let you know that we will be joining Chatr Mobile."

But Elbekian, who lives in Toronto, is not excited. She pays just $29 a month for unlimited talk and texting plus data — a deal she scored in 2012.

"I am worried," she says about the move to Chatr.  "I am sure I will have to pay more or have less for the price I am paying."

"It will never be as good," she concludes.

Bell poised to buy MTS

There's also another threat to competition on the horizon. Pending government approval, Bell Canada will buy regional cellular provider Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) for close to $4 billion.

Manitobans pay some of the cheapest rates for wireless services in Canada. The low prices have been attributed to more competition, buoyed by that strong regional player, MTS.

The Consumers' Association of Canada predicts Bell's acquisition will lead to higher prices in the province.

"That is an absolutely disgusting move. It limits competition," says president Bruce Cran. His association made a submission this week to Canada's Competition Bureau, opposing the sale.

"Manitobans are very nervous," he says. "It doesn't make any sense at all from a consumer point of view."

What are we to do?

The Conservatives and now the Liberals have pledged to make additional wireless spectrum available so upstart competitors can expand their networks.

But that solution has so far largely failed Canadians.

"The lesson we've learned from the wireless markets is that if you force competitors to come in and build their own networks, like Public Mobile, Mobilicity, like Wind, they fail," says Tabish, Open Media's campaigns director.
Josh Tabish is campaigns director with Vancouver-based consumer advocacy group Open Media. (CBC)

There is another solution: creating an environment where more mobile virtual network operators can get a foothold the market. But that's not happening.

MVNOs are wireless providers that don't own their own cellphone network. So they lease access from the big telecoms at wholesale rates.

"MVNOs are our best hope," argues Tabish.

Many MVNOs operating in Canada, like Koodo and Fido, are owned by the big telecoms. Independents often offer niche services such as prepaid plans.

MVNOs say they're pushed out of Canada

Canadian MVNOs like Ting and TextNow offer low-priced, monthly cellphone service in the U.S. where they piggyback on Sprint's wireless network.

But both claim they can't convince a telecom to grant them network access in Canada.

"We would love any crack that would allow us to enter this market," says Ting's CEO, Elliot Noss.

Low-cost MVNO Sugar Mobile does offer a low-cost $19-a-month cellular plan in Canada. But it got its network access in a roundabout way and, due to a dispute with Rogers, may wind up losing it.

Plus, earlier this year, the federal telecom regulator, the CRTC, rejected a plea by MVNOs to force the big telecoms to share their cellular networks.

We have good service

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association points out that Canadians have access to quality cellphone service. Canada offers some of the fastest wireless speeds in the world, says Marc Choma, with the industry assocation.

He also says that telecoms have invested billions of dollars in related infrastructure.

But what about Canadians searching for a low-budget alternative? Those options keep disappearing.

With no clear-cut solutions on the cellular horizon, it appears that Canadians may just have to suck it up — put up with our high cellphone bills or do like McCormack and move to Paris.

"Every time I get homesick I remember I can't afford a Canadian cellphone [plan]," says McCormack. By the way, she called CBC News from Paris on her mobile phone because there was no added charge.


  • A previous version of this story said the Conservative government blew $9 million of taxpayer money on cellphone service ads. We have changed it to read that the government blew through $9 million to better reflect the intention of the author.
    May 20, 2016 5:17 PM ET


  • An earlier version of this story misidentified the company bought by Telus in 2013 as Mobile Nation. The company's name was Public Mobile.
    May 19, 2016 8:43 AM ET


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact:


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