Canadians' thirst for wireless data is growing — and so is the cry for unlimited plans

Canada’s telecom market is booming thanks to our unquenchable thirst for wireless data. That leads some customers to question why major Canadian providers aren’t offering a range of cellular plans with unlimited data — like they do in the U.S.

Data used on smartphones is the 'the growth engine of the wireless space,' analyst says

Vian Esterhuizen from Calgary says it's time for Canadian cellphone providers to start offering unlimited wireless data plans. (Vian Esterhuizen )

Canadians don't talk as much as they used to on their mobile phones, but the country's telecom market is still booming thanks to an unquenchable thirst for wireless data.

That leads some customers to question why unlimited wireless data plans are almost non-existent in Canada. Meanwhile, every major U.S. carrier offers one.

"It can get kind of frustrating," says Vian Esterhuizen from Calgary about living with a data cap. "It's something that you have to be aware of and cautious of, and I don't think that's really the right approach."

The explosion of data-rich apps is one reason Canadians are burning up lots of data. (CBC)

According to an IDC Canada report, cellular customers spent $11.9 billion on wireless data in 2016, an increase of 10.7 per cent compared to the previous year.

The market research company predicts that wireless data spending will continue to climb: to $16.7 billion by 2021, a whopping 40 per cent increase from 2016.

"It's the growth engine of the wireless space," says IDC report co-author, Lawrence Surtees. "If they didn't have wireless data, and you just look at wireless voice, the wireless market would be in decline."

Don't call me

As wireless networks improved, Canadians started doing everything on their smartphones, from banking to watching Netflix, says Surtees.

"I don't need to have Netflix on my laptop or cable TV, I can do it on my smartphone."

The IDC analyst adds that there's also been an explosion of data-rich mobile apps — offering everything from weather updates to stock market trackers.

The changing ways people communicate is also driving up data use. Along with texting, mobile users are often turning to messaging features on social media.

"A lot of people I know, I've met them through social media, so I don't even have their phone number," says Esterhuizen. "We would just talk through Facebook or talk through Instagram."

The 29-year-old prefers communicating this way because it allows him to also share links and photos, and he finds it more convenient.

"There's just less of a barrier," he says. "If you're on social media or texting, you can be talking to 20 people if that's your thing."

Esterhuizen's provider — Freedom Mobile — slows down his data speed instead of cutting it off when he hits his 5 GB cap. But the professional photographer believes carriers need to offer truly unlimited plans to meet customer needs in our wireless world.

"It'd be nice to not have to worry about your data no matter where you are."

Could unlimited data lower prices?

According to a 2016 CRTC-commissioned report, Canadians pay some of the highest rates for wireless service compared to other G7 countries and Australia.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association says that Canadian telecoms offer a wide variety of competitively priced cellular plans and tools to manage their data.

It adds that customers are privy to some of the best wireless networks in the world.

Major U.S. provider, T-Mobile announced an unlimited data plan in August. (T-Mobile/YouTube)

But genuine unlimited wireless data plans are rare in Canada. None of Canada's big three carriers — Bell, Rogers and Telus — offer ones geared toward individual customers.

In March, Bell told CBC News that usage-based approach is needed to pay for the "tremendous costs" required to build high-speed broadband networks in Canada and manage the surge in mobile data use.

As for Rogers, "It just isn't feasible to offer unlimited plans," said spokesperson Andrew Garas in an email to CBC News. 

Telus pointed out that it offers plans with big data — 20 to 60 GB — but they are meant for multiple users and range from about $215 to $415 a month.

Meanwhile, all major U.S. cellular providers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile — now offer phone plans with unlimited data ranging from $50 to $90 US a month.

There are some caveats — for example, you might not get high-definition video streaming. Also, data speeds can slow down after burning through 22 to 28 GB — still, that's a lot of data.

Stiff competition among providers offering the deals appears to be helping drive down cellular plan prices in general in the U.S. — they dropped 12.9 per cent in April compared to the previous year.

Todd Bishop in Seattle says he's saving money by switching to an unlimited wireless data plan. (Todd Bishop)

U.S. cellphone customer Todd Bishop says by switching to T-Mobile's unlimited offering for himself and his wife, he's saving about $22 a month.

"It's a great deal," says Bishop, editor of Seattle-based tech news site, GeekWire. "It actually made more economic sense for me to switch to an unlimited plan."

Bishop believes the unlimited trend is here to stay.

"So much is happening on our phones, on our watches, on our tablets, that it seems like this is really the way of the future."

So what will it take for the unlimited data revolution to come to Canada? One of the major providers needs to make the first move, says IDC analyst, Surtees.

"If one person would to do it here, all the rest would have to follow suit."

He believes that day may come soon as wireless technology becomes even faster and more efficient. "That might incent them to go, "Yeah, let's go for the unlimited wireless data,'" says Surtees.

"The ball's in the carriers' court."


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: