Rogers vs. Bell

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Latest salvo in wireless wars changes everything

Note: Following is the complete text of my latest technology column, which appeared Monday, July 7 in The Telegram.

On June 27, Rogers Communications announced pricing plans for the Apple iPhone, for which it has exclusive sales rights in Canada. The popular phone, with its revolutionary touch screen, will hit Canadian stores on July 11.

Rogers will levy two separate monthly charges one for cellular service and another for data downloads (wireless Internet access). The price for both starts at $60 per month and tops out at $115 per month, which gets you 800 minutes of weekday cellular (unlimited weekends) and 2 gigabytes of data usage (which is substantial).

However, the Reuters story I saw pointed out that U.S. carriers are charging much less for iPhone cellular and data service. AT&T is charging a total of $70 per month for cellular and unlimited data that's $45 less for a whole lot more. This is the general pattern data downloads cost substantially less south of the border.

I would be ticked about that, if not for a press release issued by Bell Aliant on Thursday of last week.

It changes everything.

Bell Aliant has announced that it is launching the new Instinct smartphone, which is Samsung's competitive answer to the iPhone. It's an interesting device, but more on that in a moment. The big piece of news here is the pricing plan.

Bell Aliant is offering unlimited data downloads for $10 a month.

I wrote about data costs less than a year ago, when I bought a new PDA. Back then, fees ranged from $25 a month (for four meg's) to $300 (for 750 meg's). So $10 a month is revolutionary not evolutionary.

There is a catch, of course. The offer applies to just two handheld devices the HTC and the Instinct and apparently doesn't cover "push email", which is typical to the Blackberry. I received that information from Alyson Queen, Director of Public Relations with Bell Aliant. I asked her why Canadians were paying more than Americans for data downloads.

"The wireless industry is changing so quickly, it's continuously evolving and it's extremely competitive," Queen said. "It's really about offering customers as much value in the products and services they need, whatever those may be, for the home or business. For us, it's looking at all of the communications solutions that our customers need and want, and this (announcement) is certainly an example of that."

That's right, she really didn't answer my question. I placed calls several months ago to both Aliant and Rogers, with the same result. They don't acknowledge that there is a price discrepancy between Canada and the U.S.

Either way, the door to cheap wireless downloads has been opened, and I doubt very much that it can be closed now. The Canadian public has been waiting a long time for this day, and will likely demand similar reductions on other devices, and from other carriers.

As a business strategy, this move by Bell Aliant capitalizes on customer dissatisfaction with the iPhone pricing plans announced by Rogers. (There were more than 33,000 complaints logged at the ruinediphone.com site at deadline day; 60,000 on July 10.) Whether the Instinct can go toe-to-toe with the iPhone is another matter. It has some advantages over the iPhone including a battery that you can replace yourself but the touch-screen is apparently not as responsive and layout not as intuitive as that of the iPhone.

The Samsung Instinct will be available for purchase in Canada on August 8, at substantial discounts if customers sign service contracts.

In the meantime, rates have been dropping at least at Bell Aliant for data downloads on other handhelds. If you download a lot of wireless data but haven't reviewed your plan in the last year or so, you are probably paying too much.

Update: Rogers has responded to consumer complaints by reducing the prices of its data plan, but it's a limited time offer, so there are no guarantees that prices won't be jacked up further down the road.

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