Why is my cellphone bill so expensive?

The next time you get your cell phone bill, remember that Canada is known for having some of the most expensive cell phone plans in the world. Innovation, Science and Technology Canada is a government body that has been tracking cell phone services for years. The good news is that some rates are coming down, thanks to smaller carriers like Koodo and Freedom Mobile. The bad news is that we still sit at the bottom of the list in terms of affordability. 

A simple talk and text plan in Canada averaged out to $39.43 in 2018, while in Italy it is only $11.86. Comparisons to other countries are often challenged by the Bell, Rogers and Telus’s of the world, their reason being that Canada is bigger geographically with more people concentrated in major cities, while Italy is smaller and densely populated throughout. The issue is, if geography and population impacted cellular costs, places like Australia, which has about the same population density as Canada, would have similar cellular costs. The reality is that Australia has cheaper cell phone packages overall, which means that the size of the country and the population density alone do not explain Canada’s high service rates.

In truth, there are a handful of companies that control 90 per cent of the telecommunications business in Canada. Rogers, Bell and Telus have no incentives to provide better services or lower their prices. These companies have cornered the industry and continue to convince our federal government to protect them from foreign competition. In Saskatchewan there is SaskTel, a government-owned regional cellular provider that delivers significantly lower rates. Shaw owns Freedom Mobile’s services and there are a few other companies that offer budget plans, but there is little else on the market that serves as an independent, cost-effective service provider.

It used to be more common to have government-run telephone companies, and these companies regulated prices to protect consumers. Since the 1990’s there have been many mergers and privatizations that led to government-owned cellular companies being absorbed by the three larger private conglomerates. Telus was made from a merger of BCTel, the main phone provider in British Columbia, and AGT, the government-owned phone provider that was based out of Alberta.

What would help consumers would be bare bone services with price caps, to make access to basic cellular plans more affordable for everyone, with other plans available for those who want and can afford upgrades. There is little benefit to the average person to hand over the monopoly to private phone companies when these outfits do not acknowledge their obligation to provide basic services for the majority of Canadians. It might be time to think of the internet and cellular services in the same way that we look at water and electric services. National service structures ensure that basic needs are met and that the prices can be regulated better. Many countries have national carriers that are owned or operated through their governments, maybe it’s time that we rethink private ownership when cellular plans are a service that most of us need.

Source: https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/693.nsf/eng/00169.html#a06 

Tokens are being phased out by the TTC

After multiple false attempts due to public concerns, the TTC retired tokens from general circulation on November 30th. TTC booths no longer sell tokens. Instead the TTC is encouraging the public to “move to a PRESTO card now to avoid potential line ups”. The move was delayed several times due to a myriad of problems with PRESTO. The TTC itself is going after Metrolinx for costs related to PRESTO’s for millions and the troubled pay system has created problems for customers from day one. 

Tokens were simple and their functionality is still years away from being replaced by PRESTO. This affects all transit users, but more so those that face barriers to get around. The design of the PRESTO system was never user friendly, from its retrofit of stations that reduced payment points for the sake of efficiency, to cards that take 24 hours to charge online, to the lack of payment points outside of subway stations. 

The public paid hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a system where it is harder to find a place that can charge your card. Whereas before, you could go into a number of small stores that sold tokens and tickets, now only Shoppers Drug Mart carries them and they are not everywhere. In buses and streetcars, every single user of the PRESTO card has run into broken equipment. The problem in development may be the lack of foresight into how people use transit and what their needs are. 

Case in point are the criticisms of the change from social and community workers and schools. There were people out there that needed free tokens to bridge gaps that allowed them to go to a job interview, attend school or receive health care services. For someone out of a job, going to 5 interviews with the price of tickets for adults being what it is, can add up quickly and prevent them from trying. Some students sometimes skip school because they cannot afford a bus ticket every day and this can lead to lower grades. Schools know this and always have bus tokens on hand. The new PRESTO system does not allow for an easy exchange of a single trip fare. 

This again is a design problem that other transit systems have already figured out. Since we are behind here in Toronto, an exception is being made for some of the social agencies and school boards. They will continue to have access to tokens until the system is more functional. The TTC thinks it has lost $3.4 million in fares due to the pay system. The app itself is still being upgraded and several years into it, there are many functionalities that are still a work in progress.

Needless to say that the consensus is that this was not an improvement, as much as moving towards a regional payment system was necessary. Tokens will be missed. 

Reflections on the federal election: Next time, let’s choose something other than the blue and red team

On October 21,  Canada and Downsview voted for a new Federal Government. After a very messy election, the result was a Liberal Minority government and the Conservatives as the official opposition, with the NDP and Bloc Québécois  holding the balance of power.

Every time there is an election in Canada, Ontario voters seem to be given two picks. With one exception 30 years ago, since Confederation in 1867 voters have only made one of two choices at the ballot box in Ontario: red or blue. We vote Liberal when we cannot stomach the cuts that the blue team is promising to carry out. We vote Conservative when we cannot stomach the corruption and waste of the red team. In this riding we lean red federally for decades. 

Here is a list of what bouncing between the blue team and the red team have gotten us: 

  • Housing that is unaffordable in the GTA because the government stopped building cooperative housing and affordable rentals in the 1990s. 
  • Nearly 30 years of unfulfilled promises for a Universal Childcare Strategy.
  • Rising medication costs, because pharmacare is not a priority for the two main parties. 
  • The most expensive phone bills in North America, and bad internet coverage.
  • The most expensive monthly metropass in North America, and bad bus service. 

These issues affect all of us day in and day out. Whether we are stuck in traffic because public transit is not an efficient way to get around, or we are jammed in a hospital where there are not enough nurses to treat us when we need help the most. Many people have to choose between buying their prescriptions and paying their rent on time, even if they work more than 40 hours per week.

These are all things that governments in other places have tackled and worked on. Collectively, people in Ontario seemed to feel that we avoided the cutting of programs from another Conservative government. But same as the blue team – the priority of the red team on the first day after the election were tax cuts for the rich and to build a pipeline for Alberta. 

There is very little difference between the priorities of the blue and the red teams. This is why when we vote for the same people, we get the same results.

All of Toronto’s representation is from the red team. It is as if we threw a red carpet over all of the GTA to cover up all that is wrong from the last decision we took in Ontario – hoping it would make up for it.

The good news is that minority governments tend not to last the full term, so there might be an opportunity to demand more and to demand differently sooner rather than later. The same old decision to go back and forth between red and blue is not moving us forward as a society.