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Unlimited, Meaning The Opposite Of Unlimited

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.

rogers2_8Feb08.jpgUnder 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.
rogers3_8Feb08.jpgDid 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, 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.


  • leftist

    Actually, SMS messages are carried in the same data stream as the frequent pings that are exchanged between phones and nearby towers as long as the phone is powered up.
    SMS therefore incurs exactly zero additional network usage, and the cell providers had to spend exactly nothing to improve their network to support the feature.
    Charging for text messaging is as ridiculous as selling people water. WAIT A MINU–

  • rek

    I hate Rogers as much as anyone, but my veins have never popped out like that guy’s while dealing with them…
    Virgin Mobile’s airtime cards expire after a certain number of days. What’s with that? If gift cards are no longer allowed to expire, why should prepaid phone access? It’s not like they have to keep a connection open or anything like that. I think I’m going to write my MPP about this.

  • Adam McDowell

    You always get the feeling your cell phone provider is screwing you; it’s liberating to know exactly how they’re doing it.
    It’s been so long since I’ve read anything resembling journalism when it comes to communications companies (wonder why) that I’d almost forgotten what it looks like. Thank you, Marc.

  • canuck086

    Great article. I am looking forward to purchasing the iphone in the summer but plan on using Skype and WiFi as much as possible tomake sure as little money as possible is given to these theiving corporations with some of the most BS fees in any industry.

  • Marc Lostracco

    Unless they bundle the data plan with the iPhone, you could get a regular Rogers plan and turn off EDGE on the iPhone, allowing it to connect only via hotspots.
    I just can’t stand how they deliberately mislead and confuse customers in order to rake in money from mistakes, ignorance, or emergencies. And then to force a 36-month contract on anyone buying an “unlimited” data plan that only works on a tiny handful of approved sites within the Rogers network? It’s sinister. What happened to actually keeping customers by providing a good service or product rather than forcing them to stay with you by inconveniencing them into grudging submission?
    By the way, canceling that plan early has a steep penalty—up to $400.
    Also, I recently switched from Fido to Rogers because after the companies merged, I would get voicemail days later, the signal drastically deteriorated, and sometimes the phone wouldn’t even ring when I got a call. Luckily, I wasn’t locked into a Fido contract, because I would have had to pay a penalty to cancel. Paying Rogers (which owns Fido) to change from one of their companies to the other because the service was poor! And I still had to pay the $35 setup fee to switch.

  • oshawapilot

    I was going to point out the fallacy that SMS is data, but I see someone else has already done that.
    As well, it should be noted that comparing 1 kilobyte on the Blackberry to 1 kilobyte on a “regular” PDA like the iPhone or Treo (Etc) isn’t a fair comparison since the Blackberry backend does a great deal of compression – you can surf many websites for the equivalent amount of actual data that an iPhone would use in one single page.
    That said, as an iPhone user myself (on Fido) and no stranger to ranting about the cost of mobile data myself (check my blog) I will also say that this “use our device or get left out of the party” scheme that Rogers is taking is absolutely ridiculous.
    The sooner that Rogers simply gives up, joins the rest of the world in offering affordable mobile data on whatever damn device the customer wants to use, not only their (often crippled) handsets with tiny screens, the better.
    Unfortunately, never one to leave the consumer with a penny in their pocket that they can’t somehow manage to grab, I think that it’ll take some time (or, preferably, a competitive new GSM provider in Canada) to break the Rogers stranglehold, and continued gouging of Canadian consumers.

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    1) I’ve finally decided I’m going to go with President’s Choice Telecom and avoid ever having to deal with Rogers, Telus, Fido, Bell, and Virgin. I figure if PC’s phone service is as no-bullshit as their banking, then I’ll be getting a good deal with which I can be genuinely satisfied.
    2) Fuck Rogers. Thanks to Marc’s articles — and the countless horror stories I hear — I make a point of discouraging people from giving them business.
    3) What is with that stock photo of the three young people? I’ve also seen it used in Pizza Pizza ads and by U of T’s Student Services in their various promotional materials.

  • antiboy

    I agree with post 3, I love these articles. Keep it up, Marc!
    I’m with Telus using a HTC Touch smartphone and they strongarmed me into buying an unlimited data plan, which actually is quite nice. I can surf, email, and IM as much as I want as long as I don’t actually download data (which, I think is set at an exorbitant price – much more than 5c). So I would have to pay $5.00 for Google Maps, I think.
    But it’s ridiculous, the standard plan is 8mb a month for browsing and emailing. I used triple that in a week since lots of websites I go to actually run me about 1mb a visit. Thank God I’m not with Rogers.

  • oshawapilot

    If you want some perspective, on average I use 300 to 400 megs on my iPhone per month. I’ve used upwards of 750 in one month when I first got it.
    When Fido considers 12 megs to be “plenty”, you get an idea at how out of touch Rogers/Fido really is.
    Thankfully for the time being I’ve got the luxury of an unlimited data package, but that’s coming to an end, and then I’ll either need to pay through the nose for the 1 gig data plan ($65/Month by itself) or simply give up data completely – the only smaller plans that are actually reasonably affordable include such foolishly low amounts of data allotment that it’s totally pointless.

  • Doggiez

    I like your new headshot — it makes me think of what Jaymz Bee would look like reincarnated as a poochie :) How do you change your photo?

  • David Topping

    If you’re logged in, go here.

  • andrewpmk

    Blame the CRTC for not allowing foreign competition in the country (their usual protectionism). If they allowed it, Rogers, Bell and Telus would be gobbled up in an instant by foreign competitors.
    Also, blame the government for not banning hidden fees, phone locking, 3-year contracts and other predatory practices.

  • jpjd

    Fantastic article Marc. Thanks for explaining! ;) I hate how the telecommunication companies are run here. I wish there was more competition!

  • alexdg
    if you want data in canada, roaming with AT&T is actually cheaper than any canadian provider:
    $110/m gets you 100mb + $5/mb after that on any device. This pays for itself after 2mb with Bell/Rogers at $50/mb their current rates.
    The really crazy part is that when you data roam with AT&T you are using Rogers network.
    That’s what you get in a 3-way stalemate government sponsored monopoly.
    I own 2 original City Fido contracts which I’ve extended 3 times already. My wife uses about 2500 minutes every month.
    With internet access being a tiny exception, canada is the worst industrialized country in the world to live in as a gadget geek. I moved from Russia 10 years ago and it really saddens me that the country where average salary of $200/m get the best GSM phones in the world.
    And here we have Rogers introducing “new” models which I’ve purchased 2 years earlier from Russia.
    For people who are holding their breath for canadian iphone – don’t. If there were any descision makers at Rogers with any kind of mental agility, we wouldn’t be the mobile asshole of the planet.

  • alexdg

    Verizon has Canadian roaming at $2/mb and $60/m, but no included bandiwdth on their PC plan.

  • Miles Storey

    Coming from Europe, where 3G contracts were practically being given away (and still no one wanted them), I have to say I find the phone system here archaic, especially the pricing. When I tell people back home that on some plans it costs you (cents or minutes) to receive calls/texts they laugh.
    Competition definitely seems to be the key here, you guys are over a barrel.

  • windsorsean

    I definitely do things the “wrong way” according to Rogers. I just got one of those new 3G phones (the LG Shine) but when it comes to data I use all non-Rogers apps AND I use bluetooth to go online with me PDA (oh the horror!).
    Luckily for me (I think) I got on before the so-called “unlimited” plan was introduced, so I get 20MB of any type of data each month (which is still pathetically little). If I had to pay $0.05 for every kb it would kill me.
    I don’t think Rogers can just go and change my existing plan on me but you never know.
    I am praying for better competition!

  • rek

    I don’t agree that the CRTC is to blame for this. Sure they’ve fucked us over when it comes to print/television/ISP ownership concentration, but having your nation’s telecom industry dominated by two or three locally owned corporations doesn’t have to be bad.
    I spent last summer in Korea, where the telecom industry, like most industries in Korea, is dominated by Korean companies. Your mobile choices there are SK Telecom (50% of the market), LG Telecom, and KTF. Unlike Canada though, you don’t pay or lose time when receiving calls or texts. In fact you can have a phone with no outgoing access but still receive calls and texts — for free.
    My second or third week in Seoul I bought a second-hand phone for about $50, and put $30-worth of airtime on it. Even with moderate daily use, and an insane amount of texting, I didn’t have to add more time until nearly 4 months later.
    So what’s the real reason behind Bell’s and Rogers’ ridiculously high and nonsensical fees?

  • Miles Storey

    “In fact you can have a phone with no outgoing access but still receive calls and texts — for free.”
    That’s how it is in a lot of countries, I use a pay-as-you-go phone in England and even after nine months away the phone is still active and able to receive calls. I had a similar phone here, was away for four months and not only was the phone completely dead but my number wasn’t even able to be reactivated.

  • alexdg

    The Canadian telco motto is to put up the highest price market will bear and forget about everything else.
    I’ve been in IT for the last 10 years and have worked on a number of Bell projects. The kind of shit their management thinks is “hot” is simply mind numbing. They keep switching execs every year or so thinking something will change. In reality they exchange one guy who has no idea how to use internet beyond checking email for another.
    They aren’t interested in pushing market forward, they aren’t interested in discovering new ways for revenue. All they care about is protecting their current stream. The only provider which was thinking somehow differently got bought out and ravaged by Rogers into irrelavance.
    Media doesn’t cover this, most people think of this as norm and have no idea what the rest of the world is like. Those who know, don’t even go to Rogers and ask how much is data access. Those who don’t, ask and think “it’s not there yet” and just don’t bother.

  • lborsato

    And don’t forget the Rogers Sony Ericsson 8GB phone that holds 10,000 songs.

  • Marc Lostracco

    Ars Technica also has an article today on the so-called “unliimited” plan.

  • Marc Lostracco

    And now the CBC has chimed in, with a quote from a Rogers rep who dismisses the criticism and vaguely says that their plans “fit the uses the customers were asking for.” There’s a parody of the CBC article too.

  • malocite

    I used to sell Rogers Phones for a major Canadian retailer and I was very specific in the language I used when doing so, but I made sure MY customers knew what they were getting in to. I was probably not well liked by my rogers rep… I told my customers the truth. When they asked me why their bills were so high, I was blunt. Because they can be. We pay more in this country for cell service than most other countries in the WORLD.
    I’ve actually just finished a blog entry on a similar topic of internet services. Specifically the crappy caps the companies are putting on after giving you these ultra fast pipes. “Here, have a super fast internet connection… but don’t use it” Check it out here.

  • jesseps

    I can not wait for the CRTC to auction of parts of the spectrums to other companies. I would love for American or European companies, and rape and pillage Rogers / Bell / Telus.
    Honestly even the HSDPA plans are crap 1 GB a month for $65 or something. You can surf the net $2/day at 34 MB only. That is Rogers HSDPA plan. If we had WiMax in our phones we could use the unplugged plan.

  • torontothegreat

    as good as their ‘super fast ultimate speedy internet’. Till they cap your bandwidth for downloading.
    I hope rogers gets what’s coming to them. I mean we’re talking about a company that was built on being so far in debt that their investors wouldn’t let them go bankrupt
    yup, great decision makers in that company :P

  • Marc Lostracco

    Rogers is merely a service provider, but it has increasingly tried to position itself as a gatekeeper, and that is a model that can’t be tolerated by consumers much longer. The problem for them (and the other telcos) is that they need to maintain these ridiculously lucrative revenue streams somehow lest they piss off shareholders, and if those streams disappear, they have to make it up somewhere else. Lock up your first-borns, people!
    The IMEI-tracking of Rogers-branded phones really pisses me off—you’re already paying a monthly rate for access to a phone number (fine), but you have to pay more if the phone you choose to use—which makes no difference to the network—is one not sold by them?! That’s like Ford buying up a bunch of gas stations and charging more to non-Ford drivers for buying the exact same gas.

  • Marc Lostracco

    Richard Akerman has another great explanation of how this all works, including how the unlimited plan for Vision phones only applies in metropolitan coverage areas that are HSDPA compatible.

  • rakerman

    Not only not unlimited, but the more I look at it, the more it looks worse than the old $10/10MB plan. They don’t seem to have any concept of the amount of data people need to push around. 1MB is a single complex phone app. 1.5MB is a single full-sized photo.
    I wrote some more about this in my Tech Reviews blog, but I see Marc has already beaten me to linking to it! Man, this Internet thing is fast.
    It’s more speculation than explanation, though, since I can’t get a clear answer from Rogers email support.

  • Marc Lostracco

    Telus was planning to buy Microcell (Fido) before Rogers swooped in with a higher bid at the last moment. The CBC has a good analysis on what might have happened if Telus bought Fido, therefore denying Rogers the GSM monopoly.

  • Gramage

    Yeah, it’s absurd here. I went to Japan for two months, and when I came back, Telus had charged me my full bill (49/mo), plus interest, despite having placed my phone on “vacation suspension” or whatever they call it. It turns out that this makes no difference, because you also have to change your rate plan to the vacation rate, which is STILL $11/month. For a de-activated phone. The customer service rep was nice enough to do me the “favour” of waiving the $30 reconnection fee, when I had finally gotten tired of having no phone and arguing my bill. It was de-activated for money I shouldn’t have been owing in the first place. Absurd. We should organize a mass telco protest. Forget the scientologists, Rogers/Bell/Telus/etc are worse.

  • Marc Lostracco

    Gramage: The National Union of Public and General Employees (representing 340,000 workers) is protesting internet interference by Bell and Rogers with a letter to the CRTC, so let’s hope other powerful groups also chime-in. If you’re gonna cap bandwidth, fine, but all data should be considered equal or else you run into problems with a company determining what’s a priority—which could lead to degrading your access to elements they don’t like or which compete with their services, like a competitor’s VoIP traffic, free Skype or video chat, or a Toronto blog critical of their skeezy business practises.
    This is particularly important with the continual growth of high-bandwidth services, like iTunes movie rentals (not available yet in Canada). It’s not like Bell and Rogers haven’t been aware for years that this was coming—they have more than enough bandwidth/infrastructure now anyway, but if you’re a company and the demand for your product outstrips your supply, you make more of the product or you stop accepting customers so you can provide for the ones you have.
    And that also goes for the fake-ass System Access Fee for mobile and VoIP phones, and stuff like hidden hotel fees. For example, I bought a room for someone this weekend at the Park Hyatt, and there’s a $10 mandatory “Front Desk Fee” above what the room was quoted for (the hotel industry made $1.6 billion on hidden fees in 2006, and the domestic mobile industry makes about $800 million annually on System Access Fees). That kind of stuff is evil and should be illegal. It should be listed price + tax = what you pay.

  • Marc Lostracco

    CBC’s Spark (which is great) just did an episode on the term “unlimited,” traffic shaping, and why the ISPs are doing it. You can listen to it on their site or via podcast subscription.
    Also, Mark of Information Echo has a great rant again on Rogers’ fake-ass “unlimited” plan.