Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Cellular Telephone Plans Compared

When I purchased my very first cellular telephone, I found myself among a select club of early adopters who were regarded by those not so equipped as necessarily well to do – most probably enjoying some fabulous lifestyle which involved jetting around the globe, brokering deals with oil barons and the like. While status was not the reason behind my technology acquisition (I just love cool gadgets) it became readily apparent that people viewed me differently when I toted my new toy around. The fact that in the early 90's I was modestly employed and living beyond my means would probably not have occurred to them.  

I took my phone everywhere; being universally accessible was in fact a point of pride for me. I left it on 24 hours a day, closed business deals while in my kayak and even answered it if I was in the shower. The problem was that if people knew you would answer, they would call; regardless of whether it was 3am and they happened to be intoxicated or not.

14 years and 6 handsets later, after finally becoming frustrated with the expense and seemingly everyone on the planet having access to my cell number  (including a battalion of telephone solicitors), I decided to cancel my service. I figured if it was that important to get ‘hold of me, they'd just leave a message.

For a while it was bliss... no more anxiety over battery life and coverage areas, no more rude awakenings,  no more replacing ‘defective' handsets that had in actuality met with kayak related aquatic misadventure. The world was my oyster.

In the interim however, the communications landscape had changed without me having been aware of the shift. Now when people asked you for your contact details they automatically assumed your mobile number would be included. When you informed them of the fact that you didn't have a cell phone, they would look at you as though you had two heads. It had become tantamount to saying "Terribly sorry, I seem to have left my pants at home".

This was, though somewhat irritating, ultimately ok with me; that is, until my car broke down on the freeway, in a traffic jam, a heat wave and, as good fortune would have it, the fast lane. Suddenly my CAA card didn't seem particularly valuable, save as a fan. Waving it about on the side of the road however would have certainly elicited some attention – though most probably not of the variety I was at the moment interested in.

So, after a year of being phoneless, my resolve had finally broken and I determined to acquire a new mobile handset. My criteria was as follows:

  1. The plan had to be inexpensive;
  2. The coverage must be excellent;
  3. The phone had to be cool.

As this is the ‘Back to School' issue, I polled some students to discover what was important to them in a cell phone only to find it interesting that the above (though with less emphasis on number 2) meshed exactly with their requirements.

In my research I discovered that unfortunately there are such a dizzying array of rate plans available, they defy adequate comparison – which I believe is done by design. Eventually however, I did come to understand that to reduce my monthly charges to a minimum, the best deals were to be had in the ‘Pay as You Go' plans now offered by every service provider. I decided to use the one measure they all had in common to gain perspective upon which to base my decision: the flat rate ‘anytime' per minute charge. My findings were as follows:

Cellular Provider

Pay as You Go Anytime Per Minute  Rate

Days Before Expiry

Minimum Purchase for this Plan

Bell Mobility

 $0.35

60 Days

 $25.00

Rogers Wireless

 $0.33

30 Days

 $10.00

Telus

 $0.33

60 Days

 $25.00

Fido

 $0.15

60 Days

 $30.00

Virgin Mobile

 $0.20

120 Days

 $25.00

Given my coverage requirement and the fact that Virgin Mobile is only available in select cities, my choice from a pricing perspective became obvious. It worked out that with Fido,  instead of paying an average minimum monthly charge of around $30.00 when all is said and done on a contract plan, I could stretch that exact sum over two months – doubling my value for money.  Sure, I wouldn't get as many monthly minutes – but who needs to take on average more than 6 one minute cell calls every single day? Not me. Even if I were to burn through 200 minutes in a month, that would still leave me at the same pricing threshold as the contract plans, and I could top my account up with minutes any time over the ‘net.  I also wasn't about to be fooled by ‘cheap' phones included in monthly plans as my first year savings in aggregate would more than pay the full cost of the handset – everything else was gravy.

Next on my list was coverage. Rogers Wireless has the largest integrated voice and data network in Canada with Bell running a close second. Telus on the other hand has fairly impressive coverage too, but depends on analogue service for a substantial portion of it. Fido, having just announced an arrangement which allows their customers to access the Rogers cellular network, and the fact that their GSM service is available in over 165 countries is now also among the largest. With this fact, when combined with the pricing structure above, the nod again went to Fido.

Finally, I wanted something that was cool – a phone with at a minimum a camera, Bluetooth (so that it could interact with my Palm PDA and support wireless headsets), colour screen, Internet access, text messaging and infra red (to connect to my notebook)... and I didn't want to pay more than around $300.00. While each cellular provider indeed has devices that meet these requirements,  none save Rogers and Fido were also able to meet my pricing criteria. The top contenders were the Nokia 6620 available from Rogers at $304.00 with no monthly plan and the Sony Ericsson T610 from Fido for $300.00. Both of these phones had everything I wanted, yet the Nokia had a better screen resolution (176x208 vs.128x160), the ability to play MP3s and higher camera resolution as well (640x480 vs. 288x352) The T610 is on the other hand a little smaller.

As my PDA already allows me to play MP3s and I have a Nikon D50 digital camera should I wish to take a decent photo, these differences when added to the plus column for Rogers did not tip the scales in their favour when contrasted with Fido's stronger pricing scheme. In the end I went with Fido and the T610.

Final impressions? Alas, as always, the devil is in the details. I am not often foiled by fine print, but in this case, it seems I was. Fido's much vaunted expanded network and per second billing are only available to those on a monthly contract – and the former at a premium of $5.00 per month. Still, I am happy with my acquisition and it's very cool to be able to surf the ‘net on my PDA or transfer photos wirelessly from my phone via Bluetooth.

Fido does make it quite painless to transfer over to a contract (what a surprise) and their terms are among the most reasonable in the business. Resistance, it seems, may be indeed futile – but I haven't given up yet!

Article originally published in HUB magazine Connected column, August, 2005, by columnist Ray Richards.

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