Photo by Denmar from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Canadian telcos are masters at exploiting customer tolerance limits—when you need a mobile device and are locked into a contract with few alternative options, you’re pretty much forced to accept the beatdown levied by one of the three majors. And the carriers benefit greatly by confusing customers, whether it be via despicable “system access fees” or by giving meaningless, unhelpful names to monthly rate plans, like “Fab Five” and “Über” (Bell), “Mega Value” and “Right Fit” (Rogers), and “My Faves” and “Talk To Me” (Telus). Wireless carriers profit from you not reading the fine print, and they disguise borderline criminal marketing tactics in flowerly technobabble so that your near-Luddite Aunt Cicely is more willing to bend over and take it. In fact, Bell Wireless even has the brass cojones to claim that the “higher the [system access] fee, the greater the opportunity to invest in network quality to enhance your experience.”
With the announcement this week by Rogers of an unlimited data plan for mobile devices, consumers saw it as a step in the right direction toward reducing historically exorbitant data rates. The rate reduction across all three carriers within the last year is likely a direct response to the demand for Apple’s data-hungry iPhone, which has been immensely successful in the United States and U.K. The Rogers announcement was seen by many as a signal that the iPhone’s arrival in Canada is imminent, but what appears to be a good deal on the surface comes with some serious caveats, and for the Evil Red Empire, it’s business as usual.
Under the new unlimited data plan from Rogers, customers get 2,500 sent text messages and 1,000 sent picture/video messages. Now, one might notice that text and image messages are data, so texting should also be unlimited, but customers are already used to paying for messaging, which actually transmits significantly less data than, say, a regular phone call. Voice mail, call display, and name display are also included, which is nice, though these are things that already exist on your signal, but are normally blocked unless you pay extra to unlock them under other rate plans. Again, skeezy, but we’re used to it.
Where customers need to pay attention is with what Rogers calls “unlimited on-device mobile browsing.” Customers will assume this to mean “unlimited browsing,” but it’s a trap. Here is how Rogers explains it:
This plan includes unlimited on-device mobile browsing only. Plan is available on select phones only (PDAs such as Blackberry or Windows Mobile devices, PC cards and non-Rogers certified devices are not eligible). Data usage incurred on ineligible devices, incurred while tethering (using device as wireless modem for laptop) or incurred using non-Rogers (3rd party) applications downloaded to your device will be subject to pay-per-use charges of 5 cents/KB.”
Here’s what that means: if you have an unlocked phone that was not purchased directly through Rogers; if you use your mobile as a modem for your laptop; if you use a third-party app like Google Maps; if you swap your SIM card into another GSM phone, you get the unconscionable 5¢/KB rate. In other words, Rogers will penalize you for using the internet in a way they don’t approve of (read: anything off their internal partner network) despite the transmitted data being identical on either an unlocked iPhone or a BlackBerry.
Did you notice something else? Popular PDAs that Rogers sells, like the BlackBerry and the Palm Treo, aren’t covered under the new unlimited data plan! Therefore, all the phones Rogers sells still have the old data rates, with the exception of the four Rogers Vision handsets (none of which are smartphones), themselves bundled with a contract consisting of a $6 “service fee,” a $5 “mobile download charge,” and a $9 “transport fee.” Oh, and that’s with a 36-month contract. If you’ve sprung for the Unlimited Music Plan and bought (er, rented) music over your handset, the tracks can’t be burned to a CD, and they’ll disappear if you cancel the subscription. You’ll access your data the way Rogers wants, thankyouverymuch.
Rogers already has a twisted idea of what constitutes reasonable internet use. Under their BlackBerry plans, they claim that 1.5 MB of data is “enough for tons of picture uploads,” and they ridiculously average web pages at a 4 KB maximum. That would be equivalent to a web page without any images, and consisting of less than 4,000 characters of text. Rogers justifies that measurement by only classifying those sites as ad hoc pages “optimized for mobile viewing.” Under the unlimited data plan, consumers can only visit Rogers-approved sites, like Lavalife Mobile, Yahoo! Search, and Canada.com, lest they encounter the good ol’ 5¢/KB rate again. So, you can search for something on Google, but just don’t visit the link once you find it.
The iPhone should be a unique challenge in Canada because it kills the cash cow. In the United States and U.K., the iPhone uses the carriers’ slow EDGE network for full internet access (Rogers employs both EDGE and the newer, faster HSDPA system). The iPhone is also Wi-Fi-capable, allowing users to bypass EDGE and jump onto a hotspot or a home or office wireless router—exactly what Rogers doesn’t want you to do. 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. Until then, customers need to remember that a company calling something “unlimited” doesn’t actually make it so.