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    Canadian mobile data costs limit usefulness of new services

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver July 10-16, 2007; issue 924

    High Tech Office column

    While the U.S. media were going ga-ga in the weeks leading up to Apple’s iPhone release, I was evaluating an iPhone competitor, RIM’s Blackberry Curve with many of the same features Apple promises. I decided to figure out what it might cost me to use one.

    The Blackberry’s best feature is the always accessible e-mail. That requires a data plan from your mobile provider. Rogers (currently the only Canadian provider of the Curve) offers various plans: users can get a low-end data plan for $15 per month offering 1.5 megabytes of data. At the other end of the scale, $100 per month promises 200 megabytes of data each.

    But what does a megabyte of data represent?

    Each photo taken with the Curve’s built-in camera weighs in at about half a megabyte. E-mail just three of those photos and you’ve hit the monthly limit of the lowest-end data service. Rogers will happily sell you more bandwidth. Again, the rates vary from plan to plan and range from $21 per additional megabyte to $5 for each added megabyte. All these charges are on top of voice charges.

    Meanwhile in the U.S., Apple announced pricing for the iPhone with AT&T’s wireless network: US$60 a month includes 450 minutes of talk time and unlimited web browsing. Does any wireless provider in Canada provide “unlimited” web access, at any price?

    Prior to its purchase by Rogers, Fido offered unlimited Internet access of its HipTop smartphone. No more.

    (Nevertheless, an iPhone isn’t cheap. Unofficial estimates point out that costs start at US$500 to US$600 for the iPhone and continue with a US$36 activation fee and then monthly charges ranging from US$60 to US$220, for a two-year total ranging from about US$1,975 to US$5,915. But at least there are no extra charges for web access.)

    In April, technology consultant Thomas Purves published a graph online comparing the best monthly cost of transferring 500 megabytes of data using service providers in various countries. There was a huge variation. At the low end was US$41 using Vodafone’s service in New Zealand. T-mobile (US$58) and Sprint (US$69) were near the low end for their U.S. services, followed by a service in Rwanda (US$74).

    At the other end were Canada’s various mobile providers ranging from Telus’ $375 to Bell’s $850 to $1,600 with Rogers or Fido. The international providers listed have relatively low rates because, unlike the Canadian providers, they offer either unlimited data transfer or a relatively high monthly limit to subscribers.

    Purves notes that 500 megabytes of data represents about 100 active online minutes at the maximum download speeds of 700 kb/second advertised by Canadian providers.

    Bell and Telus are offering subscribers reasonably quick EVDO (EVolution Data Optimized) access – at least in metropolitan areas. Purves notes that Bell offers this high-speed service as part of several plans. At the top end, there’s “Ultimate” access: $100 a month gets 250 megabytes of data, with additional data available at $3 per megabyte. At EVDO’s advertised speed, it would take 48 minutes to use that 250 megabytes. After that, additional data-rich access such as downloading large files or watching streaming video would cost you $15 per minute.

    (That’s the best rate. If you’ve signed up for a “Light” plan, you would be billed over $29,000 per hour to watch that video clip … streaming data constantly over the whole month on that plan would theoretically result in a $2.75 million phone bill.)

    Canada’s mobile providers are promising users they can surf the web, watch video online and more. Given the high data access rates, it might be a while before many of us can afford to use mobile services for much besides voice. •

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan