Wireless wars mean deals for customers

With a number of new providers up and running in several major cities, Canadians are now in an unusual position when it comes to their cellphone bills: the driver's seat.

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With the announcement by Mobilicity that it is up and running, and Public Mobile's launch at the end of May, the wireless wars are officially on.

The pair join Wind Mobile, which opened its doors in December, as a trio of new companies to emerge from the 2008 auction of public airwaves that was designed to inject competition into the moribund Canadian wireless sector. The three carriers will have even more company in a few months when Quebec's Vidéotron begins selling phones in its home province, followed by cable company Shaw next year.

If existing subscribers haven't gone shopping for a better deal with a new or existing provider, now is the time to do it. Competition is getting fierce and prices have already begun to head south. Providers — new and existing ones — are more willing than ever to offer deals to attract new customers, and to keep the ones they have happy.

It's an unusual position for the Canadian wireless customer to be in — that of the driver's seat.

Over the past few months every major existing provider has sacked its hated system access fee, which generally ranged between $7 and $8 a month, with only Rogers still charging a regulatory recovery fee of $2.46 to $3.46. Free evenings and weekends have now become standard offerings and data prices have begun to creep downward.

The new carriers are introducing free features such as unlimited calling, long distance, caller ID and voice mail, and they're also axing activation fees and offering phones without contracts.

This is good news for consumers as network technology is beginning to converge, so handsets on one provider are increasingly compatible with others. A Mobilicity phone, for example, will generally work on Wind, as will a Bell handset on Telus's network (the phones, however, often still need to be unlocked, which generally incurs an extra fee either from the provider or a third-party electronics shop).

Existing carriers, however, still have major advantages over the newcomers. They generally have a wealth of phones to choose from versus a handful with new entrants, and customers can be reasonably sure their calls won't get dropped as the established networks are sound and battle tested.

The shopping comparison graphic above has been compiled from information on each of the carriers' websites and, in cases where data was unclear or missing, by speaking with representatives at the respective companies' stores. It is not meant to be comprehensive, as there are literally thousands of products and plans, but rather to provide a snapshot of each company's offerings. Each main network owner and their main subsidiary brand has been included.

With competition increasing, the prices and offers are more than likely to become out of date quickly. Carriers — especially established ones — are also often willing to offer unofficial discounts and credits if asked, so deals are quite fluid, even for subscribers on contracts.

All of the competition is likely to boost interest in wireless in Canada, which ranks last in the developed world in terms of how many people use mobile phones. High prices and poor service have caused productivity and innovation to lag peer nations, a fact that spurred the federal government to action in late 2007.

Despite being fought tooth and nail by existing carriers Bell, Rogers and Telus, the government reserved a portion of airwaves in the 2008 auction for new companies. The auction raised $4.2 billion for the government and netted new players such as Wind, Mobilicity, Public Mobile and Vidéotron.

Most industry analysts don't expect all of the new carriers to survive in the long run, but in the meantime consumers can reap the benefits of increased competition.