Rogers 'unlimited' cellphone plans draw fire

Rogers Communications Inc. has rolled out "unlimited" data services for cellphones, but critics of the company are saying the plans are anything but.

Rogers Communications Inc. has rolled out "unlimited" data services for cellphones, but critics are saying the company's plans are anything but.

Ted Rogers, shown in 2006, CEO of Rogers Communications, which faces mounting criticism over mobile data rates. ((Nathan Denette/ Canadian Press))

Toronto-based Rogers, Canada's largest cellphone provider, quietly announced a plan last week that would allow "unlimited" internet browsing on certain cellphones for $7 a month. The company also introduced a "Communicate Value" pack for $20 that bundles the browsing with text messaging, voice mail and call display features.

Rogers spokeswoman Elizabeth Hamilton said the prices reflect the changing state of the cellphone marketplace.

"We're in the business of offering high-value services to customers. As subscribers grow, as applications change and are adopted over time, pricing can change," she said. "New plans come into play all the time."

Both plans allow customers to browse whatever websites they want on their mobile phones, but prohibit them from using certain applications — such as Google Maps or Skype — that are not approved by Rogers. The plans also do not apply to PDAs or smartphones such as BlackBerry devices and do not cover e-mail, which incurs extra charges. Customers with either of the plans also cannot connect their cellphone to a computer and use it as a modem.

Critics said the plans were Rogers' latest attempt to confuse customers, this time by misrepresenting the word "unlimited."

"What appears to be a good deal on the surface comes with some serious caveats," wrote Marc Lostracco, assistant editor of the Torontoist website. "Customers need to remember that a company calling something 'unlimited' doesn't actually make it so."

Hamilton disputed the criticism and said the plans fit the uses that customers were asking for.

"It's actually quite good value," she said.

The new pricing comes at a time when Canadian cellphone carriers, particularly Rogers, are facing increasing criticism for their high data rates. A recent study by telecommunications consultancy The SeaBoard Group found rates in Canada were significantly higher than in most other developed countries.

In November, Industry Minister Jim Prentice also pointed to high data rates as one of the reasons for creating incentives for new cellphone carriers to start up in an auction of wireless airwaves to be held in May.

Rogers' rates have specifically been singled out as the reason the company is not yet offering Apple Inc.'s popular iPhone, which features internet browsing as one its main selling points. In the United States, AT&T Inc. offers a monthly plan for $60 US a month that features unlimited data usage on the iPhone. Prior to Rogers' new plans, estimates had pegged a similar deal in Canada would cost nearly $300 a month.

Thousands of Canadians have bought iPhones in the United States and unlocked them so that they work on the Rogers network. The new data plans, however, add a further limitation in that they are not applicable for unlocked devices not sold by Rogers, including the iPhone.

Internet chat rooms have been agog over the past week with speculation that the new, lower rates are paving the way for the launch of the iPhone by Rogers.

The company has in the past declined to comment on when or if it would offer the iPhone. Hamilton reiterated there was nothing new to say about the iPhone.

Critics said the new rates are still a long way from those being offered by iPhone carriers elsewhere.

"For the company to offer a plan that is palatable to iPhone users — and, by proxy, all customers who use internet-capable devices — they will have to offer true unlimited data access," Lostracco said.