Don’t be stymied by confusing wireless service contracts. Know your rights as a Canadian telecom consumer before you head out to catch ‘em all.
Look to your left. Look to your right. Chances are, both of those people are playing Pokémon Go right now.
After its Canadian release in July, so many people downloaded the augmented-reality game that its servers crashed. In Ottawa, hundreds descended on a small park in pursuit of Pokémon, racking up $12,000 in parking tickets and angering residents in the process. While Pokémon-themed memes clog our social media feeds, hand-wringing journalists and bloggers continue to rely on dubious Pokémon Go anecdotes and churn out breathless reports of society’s demise.
These days though, it’s hard to keep up with all the things wrecking society. Remember when Instagram ruined photography? Or when Snapchat turned all our kids into exhibitionists? How about when Tinder destroyed our capacity for true love? What’s especially frustrating about all this pop-sociology is that it distracts us from the practical reality of emerging communication technologies. Pokémon Go—along with countless social media apps before it—is a product, and its users are mobile consumers. Or, more precisely, Canadian mobile consumers. As such, it’s time to take a good hard look at the way mobile services are advertised and sold under the Canadian regulatory regime. Pokémon Go provides a lens to analyze how that regulatory regime works (or doesn’t work) and shapes a consumer’s experience when signing up for a mobile service plan.
Like the Snorlax, one of the rarest Pokémon around, the Canadian mobile consumer has special characteristics setting it apart from the rest (being too docile to put up much of a fight, the comparison between the Snorlax and the Canadian mobile consumer is particularly apt). One critical characteristic is that Canadians have access to a set of rights under the CRTC’s Wireless Code, whose goal is to make it easier for consumers to understand their wireless contract. Each recommendation below will highlight sections of the Wireless Code that consumers should be aware of before they sign up with any telecom provider or when using their mobile services.
A caveat: just like the millions of Pokémon chasers out there using different strategies to catch ‘em all, there is no truly ‘typical’ mobile user. Strategies recommended here will not account for your idiosyncratic usage habits—the ones you might want to keep to yourself—but they will help you load up on consumer know-how and (hopefully) Pokécoins.
Catching Pokémon is hard work—make sure you know what to do if you break your phone
Dropped your brand new phone into a ravine chasing a Charzard? New phones are generally covered by some form of warranty. To avoid any uncertainty, make sure you understand the warranties available when you purchase a new phone or sign up for a wireless plan. Apple Care is a highly-rated plan, although it comes directly from the manufacturer. Service providers also offer warranties, but they vary widely. Find out all you can online and in-store about how the provider’s warranty is administered, and the process by which you’ll have your phone repaired and returned.
The Wireless Code states that service providers must inform the consumer of the existence and duration of a device warranty before offering an extended warranty or insurance on that device. This means that you shouldn’t opt for the pricy add-on warranty until you’re sure the standard warranty isn’t for you. For you to make an informed decision, the Wireless Code says that your provider has to explain both options clearly and in plain language at the time of purchase.
Data in Canada is expensive
By most metrics, Canadians pay some of the highest rates for wireless data of any developed market. In addition, the rates Canadian providers ding you for going over your monthly data can be extremely steep.
Even though Pokémon Go won’t necessarily eat up a ton of data, don’t let bill shock creep up on you. Figure out how much data you need in a typical month (there are handy usage calculators online), and make sure your monthly allowance is slightly higher than this number. If you find yourself continually going over, call your provider and up your limit.
Indeed, the Wireless Code mandates that service providers must suspend data overage charges once they hit $50 in a single month, unless you expressly consent to pay more. The only way for you to consent is to be notified of the overage. However, anyone (even your 8 year-old looking to play more Pokémon) can respond to a data overage notification and consent to pay additional charges. So, make sure you keep a close eye on overage notifications—this is especially true if you share a family plan where others have the ability to respond.
Crunch the numbers before you pick your device
All major Canadian providers offer subsidized devices. A device subsidy means that you pay less up front for the phone, but that you make monthly payments toward the full price of the phone over the 24 months of your wireless contract.
So, before you rush out to get the latest smartphone with the best Poké-catching processor, ask your provider to calculate the total price of the phone (not the monthly payment). Then, compare this to what it would cost to buy the phone outright from the manufacturer (like Apple). Often, buying the phone directly from the manufacturer is the cheaper option, assuming you have the disposable income.
Where subsidized devices are concerned, the Wireless Code requires that your telecom provider must tell you the retail price of the device as well as the actual amount you’re paying for the device up front. Don’t be fooled by a low up-front cost, because you will end up paying the full retail price (or more) by the time your contract is up.
Think before you roam
Don’t play Pokémon Go abroad unless you’ve made suitable arrangements for roaming charges. We’ve all heard horror stories about hapless travellers enjoying 14 streaming hours of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, without realizing their next bill would cost about as much as tuition.
Don’t let this be you. If you just can’t wait to play Pokémon Go until you’re back home, you have a few options. Your best bet is to have your phone factory unlocked and to buy a foreign SIM card. If you’re buying a subsidized device, the Wireless Code says that your provider has to provide unlocking services upon request after 90 days of service for a fee. Other countries have generally cheaper wireless service than Canada and many foreign providers offer affordable monthly packages aimed at travellers. If not, make sure you sign up for your provider’s roaming plan or purchase daily roaming packages. Otherwise, just turn your phone on airplane mode—Pokémon will be here when you get home.
The Wireless Code is particularly clear when it comes to roaming—service providers must notify you when you begin roaming and explain the rates for voice, text, and data services abroad. Also, there is a cap on roaming charges, set at $100 per month, unless you expressly consent to pay more. Just like with data overages, if you wish to avoid being hit with huge roaming fees, it’s imperative that you pay attention to these notifications. If you share a family plan, coordinate with the other users to set up a preferred roaming option before they leave the country. Your wallet will thank you.
There are only three real players in the Canadian telecom industry.
In the early 17th century, a man named Thomas Hobson made his living renting horses to students at Cambridge University. A prospective renter arriving at Mr. Hobson’s stable would see 40 or more fine-looking horses on offer. When it came time to pick one out, however, the renter would find that his choice had already been made for him; the horse closest to the stable door (Hobson’s choice), or no horse at all.
Picking a cell phone carrier in Canada is a bit like Hobson’s choice. A deluge of flashy ads and catchy branding may try to convince us otherwise, but the telecom market in Canada essentially asks consumers to choose wireless service as designed by the Big Three, or no wireless service at all. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, play spot the difference: Roam Better (Bell); Easy Roam (Telus); Fido Roam; Roam Like Home (Rogers).
This is all to say that, until things improve, your best bet is to pick the provider you feel is most responsive to your personal needs as a consumer. Is your provider forthcoming with information? When you encounter an issue, is your provider keen to rectify it quickly and painlessly? Don’t be afraid to complain, make noise, and change providers if you’re dissatisfied. In fact, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS) exists solely to help resolve your issues when they can’t be resolved directly with your provider—don’t be shy to give them a call or visit their website. When all else fails, you have the freedom to move to a number of smaller competitors, who offer significantly cheaper plans than the big three. However, you might find the wireless service itself to be lacking, as smaller providers’ resources and network may not have great coverage outside of urban core.
This also means that being aware of the Wireless Code—and then using it to your advantage—is especially important. Without savvy consumers who know their rights to hold providers to account, those providers will be free to shirk their regulatory responsibilities. Why be a Snorlax when you can wake up and take a stand?
Sean Grassie is a second year student in the joint JD/MA program at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Law and Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (Carleton University). Sean is currently a Research Assistant with Professors Cavanagh and Pavlovic’s LFO-funded project, and was a 2016 Technoship student and 2016 CIPPIC Summer intern.