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Wireless Roaming in Canada: A Lot of Meaningless Choice

09/10/2013 12:18 EDT | Updated 11/13/2013 08:57 EST

With the CRTC looking into wireless roaming rates, Canadians can expect to soon hear a whole new set of talking points from the industry about why the sky really isn't blue. Telecom consultant Mark Goldberg, in a blog post, gives a sneak preview of what some of those rationalizations will be in a rather silly comparison to shopping for a car.

As he puts it, it's hard to go out and buy a new car with everything you might already want in it. Luckily, there's an after-market that can help tailor your purchase to your liking, offering everything from GPS devices to remote starters. Isn't it wonderful that all this choice exists?

The same holds true, he says, when it comes to wireless roaming. If your provider's rates are too high, there are plenty of alternatives.

That's technically true, although it's too bad that car extras and roaming are nothing alike. While one market provides consumers with lots of simple options, the other involves limitations, extra costs and plain old hassles. There's choice and then there's meaningful choice, and there's a world of difference between the two.

Let's run down the list of these supposed choices. First up is Rogers One Number, which is not a bad option... if you're a Rogers customer. If you're with someone else, well then your choice is obvious: switch to Rogers! That's easy to do, right?

Then there are third-party services such as Roam Mobility, which again aren't entirely bad alternatives per se. Roam offers talk, text and 100 megabytes of data starting at about $4 per day, which is a good deal compared to what big carriers generally charge for roaming. The problem is, you either need to slip one of the company's SIM cards into your unlocked phone, or buy one of its cheapo devices (phones are $49 and Wi-Fi hotspot sticks are $99).

In the best-case scenario, these options mean you either have to carry a separate device or juggle a second number. In many cases, it means arguing with your Canadian provider about unlocking your phone, paying a hefty fee to do so, or voiding its warranty and violating the carrier's terms of service by jail-breaking it. Those are all some pretty sweet choices, huh?

I'm a frequent traveler and the option I usually go with is using local SIM cards in an unlocked phone. Fortunately for me, I write about devices and usually have an unlocked one lying around that I can do that with. That's not a luxury most cellphone users have, although they do have the "choice" of paying $600 or $700 to buy a phone outright and then have it unlocked (hopefully). The CRTC's upcoming Wireless Code of Conduct will require cellphone providers to unlock devices after 90 days or immediately if paid for upfront, but the regulator didn't say anything about what carriers can charge to do so. Fees up to $75 haven't been uncommon.

Still, even an unlocked phone isn't a perfect solution. While getting a local SIM card in, say, the U.S. isn't too difficult, it's considerably harder to do in countries where you don't speak the language. I can honestly say that my trying to get service on a trip earlier this year to France was a true exercise in comedy. But then again, I guess not learning French properly in high school was me exercising my choice as a consumer, right?

Last up, there's the suggestion of Wind and its inexpensive roaming rates. I'm not sure what "inexpensive" means in telecom consultant land, but $1 per megabyte of data in the U.S. ($5 in the European Union) still seems pretty steep to me.

Generally, when you buy an after-market car item, you either drive up and someone installs it for you, or you attach it yourself. It's relatively easy and hassle free. Conversely, imagine having to pay quadruple for gas in the U.S., or having to buy a secondary engine that only functioned there, or your locks not working while in the country unless you paid your dealer an extra fee. I imagine car owners would waste no time in pleading for regulations against such "choices."

Here's a crazy idea when it comes to wireless roaming: how about Canadians being able to use their one and only cellphones with the same single numbers in whatever countries they want at a reasonable cost without having to jump through all kinds of hoops? No one is expecting to use them for the same price as at home, but not paying through the teeth for the privilege would be nice.

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