BEHIND THE TIMES: WE’RE STUCK IN CELL PHONE HISTORY

In Business & Technology /

By Shirley Liu

The cell phone may have been invented 60 years ago by our closest neighbours, but those friendly ties haven’t helped us keep with the times.

While other countries have begun to use their cells as a tool to pay bills, a credit card and a means to surf the web, Canadians seem content making a couple calls and perhaps taking a snapshot.

“We’re about the average of where the developed world was in 2001,” Catherine Middleton, a Ryerson ITM professor, said.

The reasons for the unenviable position are extensive say experts. Some point at the big three (Telus, Bell, Rogers) oligopoly; others say our landmass makes good deals difficult. And lastly, a surprising number of experts agree: consumers should look in the mirror.

Fortunately, the government is now paying a bit of lip service to the issue.

Recently, it mentioned it may set aside some spectrum — needed to offer service — specifically for smaller companies. The hope is such a sale scheme, scheduled for early 2008, will encourage greater competition and maybe stop users getting less cellular bang for their buck.

“It’s more difficult for small companies to buy space because they don’t have the capital capability and need a certain amount of infrastructure in order to provide these services,” said Roy Ng, a Ryerson professor and ex-Area Vice President for Avaya Canada Inc., a communication systems and applications company.

But beyond spectrum, there are a few other issues with Canada’s cell phone situation.

Just an idea

The cell phone seems to have a tendency towards slow production. Sixty years ago, AT&T proposed increasing radio spectrum frequencies to let more wide-spread mobile phone service. But when they asked the American Federal Communications Commission to help with funding, it was a no go.

About 25 years later, the U.S. changed its mind.

Wish I may, wish I might…

We pay more for cell services than other countries, especially for data plans, the ones that allow relatively easy and cheap Internet capabilities.

In Europe, the mantra of unlimited free incoming calls used for land lines was adopted into the cellular world, meaning most incoming calls on cells don’t cost a Euro.

A technology that allows users to make fund transfers, bill payments and receive balance alerts threw their cell have been adopted whole-heartedly by Japan, Korea and Singapore.

In Canada, the high price of accessing Internet and related services has limited the use of mobile banking services.

Canadians pay about $48 each month for medium use while in Denmark, similar service comes at $9.

University of Alberta professor Gordon Gow said to decrease cost demand must go up. “What needs to be done is encourage people to start using phones for access … to use them more like the computers that they are.”

No complaints, no luck

Jasmine Li, Telus sales rep, said customers seem happy with the options.

“Most of our services are available because of the low competition,” she said. “If there was higher demand for the features, new companies are more likely to emerge to offer them.”

Middleton doesn’t see this stopping after the spectrum auction.

“I don’t have a lot of hope that it will go to anyone else other than the existing players,” she said.

Consumers and corporations are working in tandem to degrade Canada’s cell phone technology, Ng said. “To say that one side is the victim and other side is reaping all the benefits is not right.”

Blame grandma, or buy her a cell

A lack of consumers has harmed the industry, leading to higher prices and decreasing the technological possibilities for Canadian cell phones.

The Japanese and Europeans may be able and willing to buy a cell that offers a number of additional and intriguing features, but Canadians aren’t interested in paying full price for a brand new phone.

Meaning contracts are a sales company’s bread and butter.

“It’s not a free lunch. If you’re not paying for the phone, what are you complaining about? The consumer is putting themselves in a less compatible situation,” Ng said.

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