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    Trying to beat the high cost of mobile Internet access

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business in Vancouver

    High Tech Office

    One of this column’s biggest complaints is the high cost of mobile data service in Canada. Canadian cellphone users pay more than their counterparts in other countries to get access to e-mail, websites, etc. Mobile users with plans paid for by their employers make use of data services; those of us who pay our own way use mobile data services rarely or not at all.

    Late in December, the news media told the tale of Piotr Staniaszek, a 22-year-old Albertan with a two-month bill of nearly $84,000 for data access on his Bell Mobility account. Apparently he didn’t realize that connecting his laptop to his cellphone wasn’t covered by his unlimited web browser plan. Ironically, that story broke on the same day I saw a full-page ad from Bell touting an offer of unlimited Internet access for $7 a month.

    This pricing plan accompanied Bell’s debut of the HTC Touch smartphone. The $7 rate is available to Bell customers with standard cellphones or the Touch, but not to Bell customers with Blackberries or other smart phones.

    Inevitably, the HTC Touch (pricing ranges from $99 with a three-year contract to $399 with no contract) begs for comparison with Apple’s iPhone. The Touch looks a lot like an iPhone: a large, touch-sensitive screen with no physical keypad and just a single button on the bottom.

    The iPhone, still not officially available in Canada, is more expensive: US$399 with a two-year AT&T contract. It runs on AT&T’s Edge network (offered locally by Rogers and Fido), which is slower than Bell’s HSDPA/EV-DO. However, the iPhone also offers standard WiFi, which is not available on the Touch, allowing for free (and fast) Internet access any place that has a WiFi signal. Both phones promise multimedia features: built in cameras, photo display, music and video playing. The iPhone includes eight gigabytes of built-in storage, while the Touch uses a hard-to-access removable Micro-SD memory card (a 512 MB card is included; higher capacity cards are available at extra cost).

    Unlike the iPhone, the Touch’s software is built on top of Windows Mobile 6. This is a mixed blessing. There is a lot of add-on software for Windows Mobile, and it can connect to business friendly Windows Exchange servers. But the Touch’s touch screen interface too often feels like it was awkwardly layered atop Windows Mobile. Text input is especially frustrating. In fact, HTC includes a miniature stylus for use when fingertips aren’t accurate enough.

    Web browsing on the Touch, like on most cellphones, can be awkward. Most web pages are displayed a column at a time, making it hard to see what’s being displayed and slow to get to the parts you want. Alternatively, as with most phones online, users can opt to be spoon-fed a modest selection of websites, preformatted to fit a mobile screen. In contrast, the iPhone (and its sibling, Apple’s iPod Touch) offer much more full-featured web browsing, with easy zooming in on the parts you want.

    None of this should imply that I don’t like the HTC Touch. It’s a decent enough smartphone that is widely available and supported in Canada. (It’s also sold by Telus and Rogers.) The $7/month data plan Bell introduced with it is much more newsworthy.

    But when I went to Bell’s website and walked through the steps of selecting an HTC Touch and trying to select the features of a mobile plan, it was barely mentioned. When I looked closely, there it was – an option under additional “fun zone” features – unlimited mobile browser: $7/month.

    I’d like to see Bell shouting about this offering and extending it to its other smartphone models. That might put some real pressure on their competitors to match (or beat) it. •

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