Shopping: Choosing a Phone

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What a confusing world we live in. From one corner of the globe to the next, there are different languages, different cultures, different foods and different politics. And through all this confusion, one would hope that at least our telephone systems could get along! Unfortunately, as every newcomer to Canada learns as soon as they get off the plane, the phone from home doesn’t work here.

Just as newcomers to Canada have to work hard to adapt to the new country they choose to live in, they are often surprised to find that they have to adapt to a telecommunications environment which is very different from the one in their home country. Different companies, different products, and different prices all contribute to the confusion. However, as unfriendly as it all may seem at first, there are certain basics that a newcomer should understand which would clear up a lot of this confusion and permit them to make better choices for themselves and their families.

The new world

Those consumers who are shopping for a new phone will be happy to learn that according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international organization that monitors international economic activity, Canada is ranked among the top 10 of more than 30 countries for offering the lowest prices to their customers. This is good news, considering that today, two thirds of Canadian households and fully half of Canada’s population, 17.8 million people, own a wireless phone, creating an industry which generates more than 11 billion dollars in revenue per year and employs more than 25 thousand people.

Now that you are one of those households, you need to know that there are several different phone options to choose from: traditional land line systems, wireless technology, and the newly developed “VoIP” (Voice over Internet Protocol).

The companies that offer the traditional “land line” technology in Canada are Bell Canada, Rogers, Primus and, in Quebec, Videotron. There are also companies that only provide long distance service but they still use the traditional land line technology.

If you prefer the convenience of wireless technology, there are over 10 manufacturers of cell phones available, but in Canada, there are only five wireless “carriers” (cell phone service providers) to consider: Rogers, Bell Mobility, Virgin, Telus and Fido. Each of these carriers offers a wide variety of “bundles”, or groups of services, for your cell phone.

Many companies in Canada offer VoIP, including Telehop, Vonage and Skype.

Planning your Plan

To decide which plan works best for you, it is important to think about your priorities. For example, if you are usually at home, a cell phone may not be your best option. A basic home phone line with Bell Canada, with no special “features”, or services, can cost less than $25 a month. You don’t have to worry about bad reception or “dropped” calls and a home line permits unlimited calls at any time.

However, if you want a phone just for emergencies, then you could consider getting a cell phone, but with a cheaper “prepaid” package, where you buy your calling time before you use it and, unlike with “postpaid” packages, features like voice mail and caller ID are included. With a “postpaid” package, you pay for services after (post) you have used them, and that can get expensive, although sometimes a postpaid package is necessary.

For example, a postpaid package is needed with the new “Blackberry” phones. With technology developed in Canada, the Blackberry permits the user to have full access to his e-mail. Because of the special keyboard, it also permits the user to type more comfortably than with normal phones. All five wireless carriers offer several models of Blackberries or a version of it. However, if you want your phone to have access to the internet or e-mail, a postpaid package is the only option.

With the postpaid packages there are many different “bundles” for personal use, but there are also “family packages” available. These offer a small block of minutes shared by everyone in the family, but unlimited calling among family members. Another postpaid option exists if you work for a company that has a “corporate package”, or an agreement with the phone company to provide the same features to all of its employees. These corporate packages often provide more features and are usually cheaper.

As saving money is important to everyone, another type of phone service to consider is a very new technology called “VoIP” (Voice over Internet Protocol). This new system uses a “broadband”, or high speed internet access such as cable or DSL modem (ask your internet provider if you have the necessary technology). With VoIP, voice phone calls are “sent” through the internet just like an e-mail. One company which provides this service, Vonage, was only founded in 2001, but already has over two million customers in North America.

The reason for VoIP’s fast growth is the low cost and simplicity of the system. Although you use the internet, you make a phone call with your regular home phone. The difference is that Vonage, and its competitor Skype, offer free long distance calling across North America. This means any call within North America is considered a local call; there is no long distance cost. Packages for this service run from $19.99 per month to $69.99 per month for business packages and that includes the usual features that you would normally have to pay for with a wireless or land line phone.

Nevertheless, if you need a phone outside the house, VoIP may not be for you; Vonage and Skype do not offer cellular service. Another thing to consider is that all those services offered by wireless and land line companies (211, 411 and even 911), are not offered by Vonage or Skype. However, Vonage does have a system that will put you through to their centre, which then connects you to 911 in your calling area.

Calling home

Calling your family in your home country can be expensive. If you have a home phone, you can check with your service provider to find out the cost to that particular country. A way to reduce the cost of long distance with a home phone is to buy a calling card. Calling cards provide you with a block of long distance minutes at a reduced rate.

Another option you have if you find that your phone company is charging you too much for long distance calls is to use a 10-10 service like Telehop. They use the same phone line and technology as your home telephone company. Their success is based on the fact that they generally offer lower rates for long distance calling. They also offer hi speed internet and VoIP services.

For those who use cellular service, the cost of a long distance call can be huge. You have to pay for the local minutes on your package but also the long distance rate that your local phone company would charge you. Furthermore, if you make the call outside of Canada, you must pay a “roaming” charge which can be extremely expensive. A way to avoid these costs is to use the text messaging feature. For as little as 10 cents for every message sent, or free with a bundle, you can communicate with your family in the home country regardless of the phone system they use. When using a cell phone, text messaging can save you a lot of money.

For VoIP customers, Vonage already offers free long distance calling across North America, but they also have long distance plans for the international market as well. However, the best way to get free long distance calling to your family is to just send them the Vonage phone adapter. Just like a modem, this little machine will attach to the phone in Shanghai, Mumbai or Moscow, and will permit you to call that phone free of charge from Canada, or them to you. If you call home a lot, you can calculate how much money you would save.

Our telephones may one day get along….

Now, remember our newcomer who found out the old cell phone didn’t work in Canada? The reason for this is due to the technology that we use in North America. Around the world there are four different wireless systems: Tri band, quad band, GSM (Global System Mobile) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Every phone that is made on the planet uses one of these “bands”, or group of frequencies. In North America we use a combination of CDMA, Tri band (three groups of frequencies), or quad band (four groups of frequencies). The GSM is a combination of tri band and quad band.

If your phone uses a tri band system, it will not work in a CDMA region. If your phone uses CDMA, then it will not work in a quad band region. Since only North America uses the CDMA system, when you try to use your phone from Europe or Asia, it will not function. Furthermore, unless you bought a phone here in Canada which uses tri band, quad band or GSM, your phone will not work in your home country either.

For this reason, GSM is the best type of phone if you want to travel with it. The GSM can work in any system around the world because it has all four technologies in it. When shopping for a phone, ask your salesperson which system it uses and tell them where you are going to use it. Your salesperson can direct you to the best phone for your needs.

It’s all up to you……

Just as newcomers learn to adapt to this new country with patience and experience, they can also learn to understand the new telecommunications world that exists in Canada. In order to take advantage of the system that exists here you need to do the research. You can check the company website, visit a retail store or call any of the customer service call centres that exist across the country.

If you ever feel that you have a complaint against a telecommunications company or you need more information about your consumer rights, you can call or e-mail the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission) at This is a government agency which serves to protect and inform Canadian consumers. And with just a little bit of information, you will find the Canadian telecommunications world will become just a little bit friendlier.

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