The inventor of the telephone—Alexander Graham Bell—spent a great part of his adult life in Canada before moving on to the US (Ross, 2001). These years eventually resulted in the phones some of us remember as being attached to the wall with a curly cord. If you were lucky, that cord was long enough for you to sit down and chat also. Once Bell managed to patent the phone and show the Queen how it’s done, he started putzing around with wireless technology. Yes, it all started in Canada! Yet Canadians have been paying some of the highest wireless rates in the world since the invention of the cell phone. According the 2020 Edition of Price Comparisons of Wireline, Wireless and Internet Services in Canada and with Foreign Jurisdictions, which analyzes telecommunications pricing in Canada each year, Canada has the second highest mobile costs in the world—second only to Japan—while the EU and Australia are the cheapest. It’s a well-known secret among Canucks that it’s cheaper to own a carrier pigeon in our country than it is to pay for monthly cell phone and internet plans.
Arun et al. explain how the original mobile phones were called “car phones” and created so people could talk while they drive (2019). These phones were bulky—similar to a foot-long sub from Subway. If my memory serves me correctly, these car phones were attached into leather briefcases because their operating system and battery were too large to fit into the phone itself. When going on a road trip you would take your briefcase with you, as you would your luggage and purse. These car phones were also extremely expensive. Only those working in the C suite could justify the cost—the silver-haired CEO types we see in Hollywood productions, cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in a company-provided Ford Thunderbird.
Cell phones as we know them today, no briefcase attached, made their debut in Canada in 1985. Victor Surerus was the first cellphone customer in Canada at that time; open-handed Victor paid about $10,000 a year for his cell phone contract with Bell. We most certainly cannot label Victor as a spend-thrift. While there are now approximately 61 phone carriers in Canada, Chodorowicz, and Sciadas explain how the main players have always been Rogers Wireless, Bell Mobility, and Telus (1998), the three of whom have been going at it like hyenas fighting over a lone zebra carcass. These “hyenas” had costs to bear, however; it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. Canada is a vast country, spanning from one ocean to another. The cost of building out the infrastructure for wireless communications was not cheap and these cell phone giants were not building towers and diggings for lines out of the goodness of their hearts. They were—and are— in the business to make a buck. As a result, when asked to justify their pricing strategy, the few cell phone carriers in our country have blamed the sparsely populated layout of our land. However, one would think that 30 years later these networks have matured and more than recouped their costs. It’s also a bit of a head-scratcher how other countries and continents, such as Australia for example, have larger geographical challenges than Canada but manage to offer faster network connection speeds and much cheaper to boot!
Another absurdity that makes you stop to think are two-way charges, also known as the ‘receiving party pays’ plan structure. The total cost of a call or text message is split into two, between the caller and the recipient of the call. This means that, while in the US and Canada you typically have to pay to both send text messages and make phone calls, as well as receive them. This is, indeed, labelled “absurd” for those in other countries and a practice generally unheard of. Imagine my surprise when returning to Canada ten years ago and I found out that if I have a flat tire in the middle of a prairie highway, not only can I not phone someone for help without being charged, but they also can’t phone me without charging me a pretty penny for being out of the city perimeter. Better to wait for the coyotes I suppose and call 911 free of charge. This is attributed to the fact that the numbering system in North America is geographical—like landlines. You are charged based on your physical location at the time of the call. In other countries however, there are designated ‘area codes’ for cell phone numbers versus land line numbers. This practice has seemed to disappear in recent years; I’m not certain if our sympathetic carriers finally decided to listen to the public outcry.
Many argue that Canada’s telecommunications industry needs to be regulated, while others argue that it’s the competition—or lack thereof— that is the true culprit. There is simply not enough competition in Canada to force these three to lower their prices. According to a report by the Canadian Radio, Television, and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the three firms together control some 90.7 per cent of Canada’s wireless market. Three decades after their initial takeover, the hyenas have learnt to get along better; at least, in the public eye. Yet, they continue to hoard the fly-infested carcasses and guard the water hole so no one else can get near without paying the price. This is why I say it’s now time to let the lions through for some healthy competition.