Saving Costs: Mobile Carriers

Smartphones. Ten years ago only geeks with a lot of money and business professionals owned them. Today, pretty much everyone has a smartphone. Hell, you pretty much need one.

No longer are we chained to our desks in order to stay connected. We don’t even have to lug around a laptop, no matter how svelte it may be. We can now stay connected via the little supercomputers in our pockets.

Now, some people have iPhones. Some people have Andriod based phones. Some people have Windows Phones and there are still more than a few Blackberry’s out there. A few people spend their time vehemently arguing which one is better and making fun of/putting down people who disagree. This post isn’t about what phone people prefer. You go and get what phone you want. This post is about something we all agree on:

The mobile carriers you have to sign up and deal with for two plus years, and how they nickel and dime you into spending piles of cash.

Mobile carriers, much like ISP’s and TV providers are near universally hated. You rarely hear someone say “I LOVE my mobile carrier!” the same way they’d say “I LOVE my smartphone!” In fact, we all agree that all carriers suck in some way shape or form. And we agree that they’re all expensive.

I started giving my mobile provider the side eye once I realized that my monthly bill had climbed to over $100. Granted my employer allows me to expense some of the monthly bill, but for what I was getting I thought there may be some better deals out there.

Here is the funny thing: my charges went up after I had called the carrier to get my phone unlocked. They offered me an extra gig of data for “around the same price I’m paying now”. They would also offer a Spotify Premium account and a decent roaming package (the reason I was unlocking in the first place: Ms. Tucker and I were travelling a couple of weeks later). So I got my phone unlocked and said sure, why not? Give me the extra gig! After all, it was around the same price.

Turned out that “around the same price” was a few dollars more and didn’t include the iPhone package my old plan had (visual voicemail etc) so that cost another five bucks to get turned on. Needless to say I felt a little bit burned.

That being said, the timing could not have been more perfect. My contract was a couple months away from ending.

And I had an unlocked phone.

The Power!

Decisions, Decisions

I started shopping around. Let me tell you it isn’t easy. Especially in Canada. Up here we have two major media players, Rogers and Bell (both of which do TV, Interent, landlines, and mobile), and one moderately major player, Telus (mobile only and some internet – Telus, though, is the biggest mobile carrier on its own). There is also Shaw, which is West Coast, and Videotron, which is Quebec only, but the majority of us deal with either Telus, Rogers, or Bell. Whether we know it or not.

There are also smaller players but, surprise surprise, all are owned by the three biggies. For example:

Telus owns Koodoo and Public Mobile. Rogers owns Fido and Chatr. Bell owns Virgin and MTS Mobility. You can see the full, gory list here. So no matter who you decide to go to, it all trickles up to the big guys in some way, shape, or form.

My plan was with Fido (Rogers) and here is what I had: 3GB data, Unlimited Canada Wide Calling, Unlimited Worldwide Text, Picture and Vieo Messages from Canada to US and International numbers, , iPhone Value Pack (visual voicemail, some kind of “premium calling rate”, some 2500 call forward minutes and something called “WhoCalled” which is a text message sent to you if you don’t pick up the call; you know, just in case you don’t want to check the list or recent calls). Oh, and I got a free Spotify Premium account; I think it was for a year? I can’t remember.

Total bill after tax: $108.00.

Looking at that entire list of features I decided that most of what they tack on as a bullet point is included no matter who your provider is. Things like call display, call waiting, and basic voicemail are pretty much the norm these days. Other items such as conference calling and forwarding I’ve never used so if I don’t have it, I don’t care.

As far as Data goes, 3GB is nice, but I used to get by with 2GB and checking my usage I was normally hovering around 2GB and a couple of months I went up to 2.4-2.5GB because I was being lazy with wireless hotspots.

I use the phone for work, so unlimited calling minutes is a definite bonus. US minutes would be a good add-on as well as I call a lot of US numbers.

  • Data: 2GB (3 if deal is good)
  • Unlimited text
  • Unlimited Canada-wide calling
  • Some kind of deal on US numbers

Naturally, when shopping the for a new plan the first thing to do is check with the big providers as they seem to offer the widest range of plans and see what a comparable plan would cost without purchasing a new phone.

Those In Power

Rogers

I started here because Rogers owns Fido, the carrier I was using at the time. Rogers offers the above at 2GB, without a US number deal, for $90.00. I don’t know how much extra a US number plan would have been; you have to call. So my guess it I’d be playing the same for this package as I was with Fido and would have a gig less of data. Also, no word on if it’s month by month or contract which means most likely contract.

Bell

Bell has been a thorn in my side since I can remember. I don’t like their offerings and I don’t like their service. All of the times I’ve had to deal with Bell in the past have been horrible experiences. Truth be told they were not even on my radar for a cell phone plan but I checked them out anyway.

Bell offered pretty much the same deal as Rogers: Unlimited nationwide calling, 2GB data, unlimited texting: $90.00 and no word on if it’s month by month or contract which means most likely contract

Telus

Unlimited nationwide calling, 2.5GB data (seems arbitrary considering no one else deals in halves). $85. No mention of texting/SMS. And saving up to 95% on long distance is another $2 a month… (Small print: pay $2 a month and calls to the US are $0.10 a minute). Or pay $15 a month of US calling. I’m guessing that it’s unlimited? Also, checking more small print, certain area codes in the US are not included in the $15/month add-on and are billed at the normal rate of $0.50 a minute.

So, 2.5GB of data, unlimited Canada calling, somewhat, maybe, kinda, sorta, unlimited US calling and maybe text? $100.00. No word on if it’s month by month or contract.

The Subsidiaries

I thought the big guys would act like the big guys, and they didn’t disappoint. So moved on to the next group: The Subsidiaries.

Wind

Wind had some good deals on their website, so I went into their store and stood around being ignored for over thirty minutes before walking out. After looking into them more, I hear that their coverage sucks mostly because they built their own network – laudable considering the competition is, essentially, an oligarchy. But the coverage is like, the city. If you leave the city and hit up a suburb, you’re now roaming on a partner network and get charged a roaming fee. Go a little farther and you’re on an “away” network and get charged as so.

Wind is also a throttler; they offer “unlimited” data but you pay for, say, 3GB and once you hit that, they throttle your conneciton to nearly unusable speeds. In Winds case, they offer 4G HSPA data and then cut you down to 256 kilobits per second download and 128 kilobits per second upload. I’m not completely down on this idea, even though it seems a little whacky.

So sucky service, sucky coverage… who cares about the plans. I honestly didn’t even give them a second thought after I walked out of the store.

Vigin

I like Virgin Airlines, they’re awesome from top to bottom. I wished they still served Canada. So Virgin Mobile must be awesome too. Subsidiary of Bell. Unlimited minutes, unlimited worldwide texting, and 2GB of data for $65 a month.

Oh, Not bad, not bad at all. Let’s check the small print: Ohhhhhh…. unlimited weekends and evenings (5pm -7am). With more stuff to read about calling within Canada that doesn’t really explain anything. Also, $0.50 a minute to the US.

Koodo

They seemed to have some good deals. Koodoo does the throttling thing. They call it “Shock-Free Data”. 1+1GB (sooooo, that’s 2GB, right?) data at normal speeds (can’t find how sloe the “Shocked” data would be), unlimited Canada wide calling, 1000 international long distance minutes (that strangely does not cover the US, and there is no mention anywhere I can find about US calling) and MMS for $55. Ok, let’s click on that and see what I can add on and if there is any more small print… oh. I can’t do anything on the Koodoo website unless I’m a customer. I’m being told I have to go into a store.

Next.

Mobilicity

Merging into chatr so….

chatr

chatr is a throttler. The offer “Unlimited” data with throttling after you run through your paid data cap. They throttle the speeds from 3 Mbps to 64 kilobits per second. In other words, pretty much unusable no matter where you are in the month.

chatr also proudly advertises “No credit checks, no term contracts”.  Good.

Looking into the details they keep mentioning something called “in-zone” which is a “chatr unlimited data zone”. After some digging it works kind of the way Wind does. You go outside of this “zone” you’ll get charged extra depending on your plan.

chatr has a $45 plan that’s 2GB un-throttled data, “unlimited” talk and text but it’s in-zone only so … you know what? I don’t want to spend my time worrying if I’m burning through talk minutes or getting dinged for data just because I crossed the street. Also 3G in 2016? Should be a fallback when LTE is being wonky, not the primary speed. If that makes me sound like a privileged whiner, so be it.

All of this brought me to

Public Mobile

I tripped across Public Mobile simply because I looked up the aforementioned List of Canadian mobile phone companies. So I checked out their Wiki writeup, liked what I saw, and headed to their website.

Public Mobile is set up as budget brand under Telus. They’re entirely self service. There are no stores. There are no phone numbers to call. They have a website, a customer self service portal, and a community forum. They use the Telus LTE network which has excellent coverage (and you don’t have to worry about roaming in your own city).

There are no contracts. There are no weird fees and the small print isn’t very small. Again, the only caveat is that PM is self serve.  Here’s how they work:

  • You order a SIM card. Cost is $11.30 for shipping
  • Once you get your SIM card, you activate it and choose a plan.
    • You can port over your existing number if you still have one, or choose a new one if you don’t.
  • Pop in the SIM … if you had your number ported, you’ll get a text asking you to reboot your phone.
  • If you want, once your SIM is activated, you can get the $11.30 shipping charge refunded.
  • And… well, that’s it.

You access the self service portal to add money to your account, or set it up to auto pay depending on the schedule you chose (every 30 days? Every three months?). Have an issue? Head to the community forum and ask. The Public Mobile reps on the forum are great and help people fairly quickly.

Costs? Here is what I put together:

90 day Plan Length, Unlimited Canada and US calling, Unlimited text/MMS, 6GB data (over the 90 days, essentially 2GB every 30 days): $150.00. Or $50 a month.

What about roaming? The big guys now offer roaming where if you go into the US, you pay $5.00 a day and just use your regular data ($10.00/day overseas) and the little guys normally have some sort of roaming fee. Public Mobile offers NO roaming outside of Canada at all. Nadda. Zero. Zilch.

No problem with an unlocked phone. After some research, I found Roam Mobility. You buy a SIM for about $10.00. Activate it. Before you head to the US, purchase a plan (for example, 5 days – unlimited calling, unlimited texting, 2.5GB data: $24.75 plus tax) and go. The only caveat is that your number won’t work. You have another number. Big deal. A lot of people on the PM forums love this service.

Needless to say, I decided to give Public Mobile a try. I ordered a SIM, activated it and… ran into a glitch. Went to the community forum, sent a private message to one of the reps and they had me up and running within 30 minutes; including porting my number over from Fido. I chose the plan mentioned above and so far so good. I’m going to keep an eye on my usage over the next few months and make adjustments to my plan if need be.

The interesting thing to me is that Public Mobile is so inexpensive simply because they don’t have what people think of as “real support”. PM is entirely web based. I get it, sometimes you need to talk to a person. Honestly though, the amount of times I had to call Fido was minimal and it was never for an issue with the service. It was only account related questions. And the reason I called them was due to the fact that Fido’s web experience leaves a lot to be desired (and the help pages always points you to a phone number anyway). I like using websites for info and service. So Public Mobile is right up my alley. I get that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I’ve found over time that if you want to shave dollars off of services, you have to sacrifice something.

For me, Public Mobile was exactly the right choice. I’t will be interesting to try out Roam Mobility the next time I’m in the US. I’ll update here once I’ve had a chance to try it.

Conclusion

Dealing with services of any kind is always a drag. Especially when you’re looking to save money. Cell phone plans, ISP’s, Phone companies, as soon as you mention you want to cancel or move to a cheaper tier, they go into retention mode and start offering deals in order to get your money. This move to another mobile carrier was pretty easy this time around because I chose the carrier that doesn’t do the nickel and diming thing. All of the other providers would have been pushing me to add this and that and the other and I probably would have ended up paying the same or more than I was when I was with Fido.

Sure, wading through the websites of every single mobile carrier was tedious but it was worth it in the end. I found a great service for a great price and I’m no longer locked down in my choices.

Here are some tips for anyone who is nearing the end of a contract or looking to find ways to cut back on how much they are paying:

  • Buy an unlocked phone. You don’t want to be stuck in a contract where part of your monthly fee is paying for a phone you can only use on a single carrier. If you’re really serious about saving some money on your smartphone plan, save the cash and buy yourself an unlocked phone. With it you have the power to shop around and get a decent plan. As well, the resale value of an unlocked phone is greater than one that is locked in.
  • Try really hard to avoid contracts. This goes hand and hand with the first point. If you have an unlocked phone, you do not have to succumb to the almightily contract where you are locked in with a carrier for at least two years. You could end up paying for the phone, the calls, the texts, the data, and the overages… And then they want you upgrade at the end of that and keep you on the hamster wheel.
  • Combining 1 and 2, you’re going to need to get a new phone at some point. Don’t give into the offers of upgrading via a carrier, you’ll get sucked into a contract. Rather than going with a carrier “deal”, simply save for a new phone. The average upgrade time is two years. You can probably stretch this out to three or four if you take care of your device (or if you’re lucky).  Over this time, put away a few bucks a month and you’ll have enough for a new phone when your current one finally gives up the ghost. And don’t forget, you can sell your old phone for a good price because it’s unlocked.
  • Read the small print. I can’t stress this enough. Look beyond the prices and click on the little “i” or “?” icons. Find out how many minutes you actually get; does “unlimited” mean all day? Or does it mean between 6pm and 5am? What are the data overage costs? Is the small monthly charge only for new accounts, and will go up after three months? What is the coverage really like?
  • Figure out what you need before you start shopping. Look at your current usage. How many calls do you make? Do you really need unlimited minutes? Or do you only call a few people here and there? Do you really need 3GB of data a month? Or can you cut that back to, say, 1GB and make liberal use of Wi-Fi hotspots? Once you have an idea how of how much you realistically use, go forth and find a plan that fits.
  • Stick to your guns. If you have to talk to someone on the phone or go into a store to get a plan, never, ever let them talk you into something you don’t want. Stick to the list you put together based on your realistic usage and don’t let someone manning a Kisok tell you that you need more. Sure, more always sounds better, but it also costs more for something you won’t use. If they start getting pushy, walk out, or hang up.

If you have some patience and a want to save some money, then do your math, do your research, and go for it. You won’t regret it.