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Why are Canadians’ cellphone bills higher than other countries?

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Despite government promises to lower the cost of mobile wireless plans and efforts to promote more competition in the market, many Canadians feel they’re paying too much with few options for getting better rates.

But the industry will tell a different story: that of a market with fierce or at least adequate competition, and companies providing Canadians with rates comparable to the rest of the world despite extraordinary challenges.

A Marketplace investigation into the cost of telecom services in Canada has found that many of the oft-quoted industry explanations for high wireless prices — costly operating margins and a sparse Canadian population, for example — are insufficient to explain lower prices found in other countries and even between some provinces.

“I’m a snowbird, and [when] I get my service in Mexico from Telcel it costs 200 pesos, which is about $14 a month Canadian,” said Quebecer Cam Moody. Moody, like many Canadian travellers, is fed up with coming home from travelling to higher prices for wireless services than he sees in other countries.

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“I get three gigs of data and I get calling to Mexico, Canada and the United States. Why is Canada so expensive?” he said.

Canadian prices still among highest in the world

Rewheel, an independent telecom research firm based in Finland, publishes reports on the mobile data pricing across 50 countries worldwide twice a year. Its latest, published in May of last year, once again ranked Canada among the most expensive countries for wireless rates.

Canada’s cost-per-gigabyte is seven times more expensive than Australia, 25 times more than Ireland and France, and 1,000 times more than Finland, according to the analysis.
Marketplace calculated the data usage of common cellphone tasks using Rewheel’s cost-per-gigabyte analysis in order to put those numbers into perspective.

 

Wireless mobile plan costs around the world

Cellphone users in Ireland, France and Australia react to cost-per-gigabyte price differences in Canada.

For example, scrolling Instagram for five minutes would cost about half a cent in France, while it would cost 20 cents in Canada. Downloading a half-hour show from YouTube would cost eight cents in Ireland and $1.03 in Canada. Downloading an entire season of Wednesday from Netflix would cost about $1.62 in Australia, and $10.22 in Canada. (All prices are in Canadian dollars based on the Dec. 1, 2022, exchange rates.)

“Canada didn’t used to be one of the most expensive countries when I started measuring about 10 years ago,” said Antonios Drossos, managing partner and researcher at Rewheel. He says that although prices have been falling in Canada, they have been falling much slower than most other countries.

A man is presenting an unknown presentation at a podium.
Antonios Drossos speaks about Rewheel’s telecommunications research at a European industry conference. Drossos says Canada is among countries with the highest cellphone bills. (Submitted by Antonios Drossos)

Price-per-gigabyte isn’t the only measure to compare wireless affordability across countries. Several academics in Canada and around the world have measured the cost of mobile data usage using different methodologies and datasets, but any way you slice it, Canada nearly always comes out among the most expensive.

In fact, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in its 2021 review of mobile wireless services in Canada found that the only report that didn’t find Canada more expensive (submitted to the regulator by Telus) was flawed because it “artificially lowered the average price” by excluding many types of plans from the analysis.

The federal government tried to tackle mobile data pricing in 2020 when then-Minister of Innovation Navdeep Bains demanded that companies lower the costs of their low-data plans by at least 25 per cent, or face more industry regulation. The ministry says the companies have achieved those reductions.

However, critics say the government needs to do more if it wants the industry to stop overcharging Canadians.

“The only thing that makes economic sense when you have three players [each] having around one third of the market is to maintain the price levels at the same levels or even try to increase it,” Drossos said.

“When a new operator comes into the market and you’re starting from zero and want to build a 15-20 per cent market share … you have to do something different to get those customers in.”

A young man in a bright red jacket on a smartphone in front of a castle.
Marketplace tester Theobald McDonald uses his cellphone in Dublin, Ireland. He says he’s shocked at the difference between Canadian and Irish prices. (CBC)

Drossos says he has watched prices plummet in several markets around the world with just one so-called maverick disruptor entering the market with a way lower price and shaking up the status quo.

Francois-Phillipe Champagne, the minister of Innovation, Science and Industry who is responsible for overseeing the CRTC and the telecommunications industry, would not sit down for an interview with Marketplace, but said in a statement that his ministry is “committed to continue doing everything [it] can to make life more affordable for Canadians.”

Big three own much of budget competition

When it comes to the competitive landscape in Canada, most Canadians do have more than one option when choosing their wireless provider, and perhaps even a budget-friendly value brand. But Rogers, Bell or Telus actually own many of those value brands.

Marketplace found that in provinces where there is an additional major regional competitor that wasn’t owned by Rogers, Telus or Bell (or had only recently been acquired), prices offered by the big three were cheaper.

A graphic chart showing which of the Big Three own which subsidiaries. Rogers owns Fido, Chatr, and Cityfone. Telus owns Koodo and Public mobile. Bell owns BellMTS, Virgin Plus, and Lucky mobile.
Many budget-friendly wireless competitors are actually owned by Rogers, Telus and Bell. (CBC)

Each of the big three’s websites for Saskatchewan and Manitoba show at least a $10 reduction compared to the same plans offered in Ontario or British Columbia. Crown corporation Sasktel is a major competitor in Saskatchewan, and MTS was, until recently, a major independent competitor driving down prices in Manitoba. (Bell acquired MTS in 2017.)

In Quebec, where Videotron is a major player, the websites also show more options, including budget options with lower gigabyte allowances.

The Competition Bureau conducted an in-depth review of the Bell-MTS acquisition in 2017 and found mobile wireless pricing in Saskatchewan, Thunder Bay, Quebec and Manitoba — all areas that had a strong regional competitor — was substantially lower than in the rest of Canada, where “co-ordinated behaviour among Bell, Telus and Rogers” causes mobile wireless prices to be higher.

Wind founder says big three pushed him out

In France, the prices have been low for decades and experts say that’s because they have had healthy competition for many years. Ireland, however, had prices similar to Canada prior to 2014, when new competitors entered the market and drove prices down drastically. Rewheel’s research shows that since these maverick companies launched in Ireland, the minimum monthly price for a 10+ gigabyte smartphone plan has dropped by 86 per cent.

“I can bring some true independent competition into the marketplace … that was the thesis of starting Wind,” said Anthony Lacavera, founder and former CEO of Wind Mobile, which he launched in 2008.

The founder of Wind Mobile is standing in front of two cellphone towers on a chilly day.
Anthony Lacavera started Wind soon after the government introduced legislation to promote competition in the telecoms sector, but he says those rules weren’t followed or enforced. (Katie Pedersen/CBC)

The federal government had just decided that measures needed to be taken to enhance competition in the wireless market, and set up policies requiring existing companies to share towers with new entrants and allow them to roam on their networks. This would mean new companies could offer national service coverage as soon as they launched.

Lacavera wanted to be Canada’s disruptor, and he succeeded — for a time — offering lower prices than the incumbents. Unlike the big three, his business was focused solely on mobile wireless rather than legacy cable, landline and home internet bundles.

“That was a real threat to Bell, Telus and Rogers and so they went to the wall with the government, lobbying against our entry into the market,” said Lacavera. “I underestimated what a hurricane I was going to be going up against.”

The big three, he says, fought to keep Wind out from the start, arguing that Lacavera had too much foreign investment, which delayed Wind’s entry into the market by over a year.

Two tall cell phone towers are shown in close proximity to each other.
Lacavera says companies often build cellphone towers right next to each other in Canada — an unnecessary cost that’s passed on to customers. (Virginia Smart/CBC)

The next hurdle was trying to ensure his subscribers had access to data roaming. CRTC found Rogers charged Wind “many times more” to roam on its network than the price it offered its customers or other mobile carriers, including carriers based in the U.S.

“Of course we were not able to offer roaming to Canadians,” said Lacavera.

Even though the legislation was also supposed to allow new competitors to share incumbents’ towers, he found he had to build new ones, often right beside the existing towers.

“We built 1,564 cell sites,” said Lacavera. “We shared one tower successfully, over that entire time.”

Eventually, he said, the pressure from the incumbents became too much.

“In the end … I was forced to sell,” he said.

‘Somewhat higher prices’ justified, expert says

Bell, Telus and Rogers would not do an on-camera interview with Marketplace when asked for comment about pricing, as well as competitive tactics. Rogers noted that prices have come down over the past six years, and both Rogers and Bell deferred to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) for comment.

The CWTA told Marketplace in a statement that it “simply costs more to operate wireless networks in Canada than most other countries,” noting that Canada has a relatively small population density that makes it harder to recover costs.

But the industry isn’t on its own when it comes to funding telecom infrastructure in Canada — federal and provincial taxpayer dollars all contribute to those costs. The federal government invested $7.6 billion in telecommunications infrastructure since 2015, while provincial governments have contributed billions more. Ontario alone has invested $4 billion in that time frame to bring internet to remote communities where companies aren’t building infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the industry’s profitability margin (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) is higher than that of its international peers.

A man smiles in front of a window in the winter.
Telecom researcher Ben Klass says countries with similar population density to Canada manage to have much cheaper prices. (Submitted by Ben Klass)

“There is underlying economics that justify somewhat higher prices in Canada,” said Ben Klass, a researcher with the Canadian Media Concentration Project and a PhD candidate at Carleton University. But he says companies in Canada go too far.

“Countries that have similarly low population density such as the Scandinavian countries and in particular Australia … despite having those similar economics, the similarly situated countries nevertheless are offering service for substantially less, or for significantly better amounts of data,” he said.

Klass says the Australian government has taken steps to ensure the market is more competitive, like allowing foreign-owned companies to enter the market.

“While they’re not like directly regulating the price of mobile service that people pay there, I think they’ve taken measures that have ensured that the marketplace remains more dynamic than it is here,” he said.

A young woman scrolls on a smartphone in front of the Sydney Opera House.
Isabel White lives in Sydney, Australia, and says she ‘doesn’t bat an eye’ about whether her phone is connected to wi-fi or not because her plan includes more data than she could ever use. (CBC)

Klass says Canada is at an “inflection point,” and the government needs to renew its commitment to encouraging competition in the industry, or make drastic legislative changes to reel in a more monopolistic one.

Lacavera says despite the challenges he faced competing in the industry, he wants back in it.

“The regulations as they sit today on paper look pretty good … but it’s a question of enforcement of these regulations,” he said.

Lacavera recently bid to buy back his old company, which is now Freedom Mobile and is owned by Shaw. Freedom however, will likely go to Quebec-based company Videotron as part of the Rogers deal to purchase Shaw, which could be done by Jan. 31 if the Competition Bureau’s appeal of the Competition Tribunal’s decision to green-light the merger is unsuccessful.

Klass says that although the Competition Bureau may lose its battle to block the merger, he’s hopeful that the ordeal will influence the consultation on the future of competition policy in Canada that Minister Champagne launched in November.

“I’m kind of hoping here that out of [the tribunal’s] bad decision we might get some progressive reform in the broader system,” he said.

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New job as head baker helps Ukrainian newcomer find familiarity in Winnipeg – CBC.ca

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Life in Canada is off to a sweet start for a Ukrainian baker who has found a new home for her creations in Winnipeg.

Hanna Tokar, who has only been in Canada for just over a month, is now the head baker at the Winnipeg location of the Butter Tart Lady.

Michelle Wierda, the owner of the bakery, offered her a job after seeing a Facebook post Tokar made where she shared her struggles finding employment in Winnipeg.

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“I saw her pictures and I thought, ‘I have to interview her,'” Wierda told host Marcy Markusa in a Tuesday interview with CBC’s Information Radio.

“I saw her attention to detail. Her work is just spectacular. It looked very delicious.”

Before coming to Canada, Tokar owned a bakery she operated by herself in her hometown of Kherson, a port city in southern Ukraine.

She was forced to permanently close its doors when she came to Canada, fleeing Kherson after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A woman with her dark hair pulled away from her face rolls dough on a crowded wooden surface.
Tokar says she was surprised to get the offer to work in the Winnipeg bakery. ‘It was actually my dream to have that job here,’ she says. ‘So it was amazing for me.’ (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Tokar said she was shocked to get the offer to work at the Winnipeg bakery.

“I didn’t expect [to] … have an offer to work in a bakery, because it was actually my dream to have that job here. So it was amazing for me,” she told Information Radio.

Missing home

Feb. 24 will mark the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine.

Since then, more than 800,000 Ukrainian nationals and their family members have applied for special temporary resident visas to come to Canada, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The ministry said as of late December, more than 132,000 Ukrainian nationals had entered Canada since the start of 2022.

While Tokar’s parents are safe elsewhere in Europe, she says she prays for her grandparents who stayed in Kherson, which has experienced heavy damage due to shelling. 

“I actually miss Ukraine. I actually miss my friends and my life — my previous life,” Tokar said.

“I really want  them to really be proud of me, so that’s why when I have a job I called them and my grandparents really cried.”

As she settles into her new role as head baker at the Butter Tart Lady’s Winnipeg location, the return to what has been a lifelong passion provides Tokar with familiarity in a new place. 

Woman with long curly blonde hair smiles in front of an array of baked goods.
The Butter Tart Lady owner Michelle Wierda says she instantly knew when she saw Ukrainian newcomer Tokar’s work on Facebook that she wanted the young baker to come in for an interview. (Submitted by Michelle Wierda)

Although she is still new to the position, Tokar is already infusing the menu with traditional Ukrainian treats, something Wierda is excited about. 

Of these treats is pampushky, a Ukrainian garlic bread that is traditionally served with borscht, Tokar explained.

On the two days she made pampushky, it sold out immediately, said Wierda.

As they look toward to the future, the two women are excited for their partnership.

“I love to be so creative and imaginative, and that’s what I’ve seen in Hanna, is that she’s very determined,” Wierda said. “She has a strong ambition to excellence and she’s always researching, looking for new ideas, new things.”

For Tokar, this experience provides hope for what life in Canada can be. 

“You know, I never expect that, like, some foreign people can support me like that,” she said.

“And I really like appreciate the kindness of people.”

Information Radio – MB6:15Baker from Ukraine is frosting cupcakes while connecting with a new community in Winnipeg

Marcy Markusa speaks with local bakery owner Michelle Wierda, a.k.a. “The Butter Tart Lady,” and her new head baker, Hanna Tokar, who is settling in Winnipeg after leaving Ukraine.

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Canadian team discovers power-draining flaw in most laptop and phone batteries – CBC.ca

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The phone, tablet or laptop you’re reading this on is likely having its battery slowly drained because of a surprising and widespread manufacturing flaw, according to researchers in Halifax.

“This is something that is totally unexpected and something that probably no one thought of,” said Michael Metzger, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. 

The problem? Tiny pieces of tape that hold the battery components together are made from the wrong type of plastic.

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Batteries release power because of a chemical reaction. Inside each battery cell, there are two types of metal. One acts as a positive electrode and one as a negative electrode. 

These electrodes are held in an electrolyte fluid or paste that is often a form of lithium. 

When you connect cables to each end of the battery, electrons flow through the cables — providing power to light bulbs, laptops, or whatever else is on the circuit — and return to the battery. 

Trouble starts if those electrons don’t follow the cables.

When electrons move from one charged side of the battery to the other through the electrolyte fluid, it’s called self-discharge. The battery is being depleted internally without sending out electrical current.

This is the reason why devices that are fully charged can slowly lose their charge while they’re turned off.

“These days, batteries are very good,” Metzger said. “But, like with any product, you want it perfected. And you want to eliminate even small rates of self-discharge.”

Stress-testing batteries

In the search for the perfect battery, researchers have to watch how each one performs over its full lifespan.

“We do a lot of our tests at elevated temperatures these days. We want to be able to do testing in reasonable time frames,” Metzger said. Heat makes a battery degrade more quickly, he explained.

Different number readings are seen on a battery testing device that's a black box with six dials.
Some of the testing equipment used to regulate the temperature of each experiment. The coloured numbers indicate the temperature of each heated compartment in which battery cells are being tested. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

At Dalhousie University’s battery lab, dozens of experimental battery cells are being charged and discharged again and again, in environments as hot as 85 C. 

For comparison, eggs fry at around 70 C. 

If researchers can learn why a battery eventually fails, they can tweak the positive electrode, negative electrode, or electrolyte fluid.

Seeing red

During one of these tests, the clear electrolyte fluid turned bright red. The team was puzzled.

It isn’t supposed to do that, according to Metzger. “A battery’s a closed system,” he said.

Something new had been created inside the battery.

They did a chemical analysis of the red substance and found it was dimethyl terephthalate (DMT). It’s a substance that shuttles electrons within the battery, rather than having them flow outside through cables and generate electricity. 

Shuttling electrons internally depletes the battery’s charge, even if it isn’t connected to a circuit or electrical device.

But if a battery is sealed by the manufacturer, where did the DMT come from?

Through the chemical analysis, the team realized that DMT has a similar structure to another molecule: polyethylene terephthalate (PET). 

PET is a type of plastic used in household items like water bottles, food containers and synthetic carpets. But what was plastic doing inside the battery? 

Tale of the tape 

Piece by piece, the team analyzed the battery components. They realized that the thin strips of metal and insulation coiled tightly inside the casing were held together with tape.

Those small segments of tape were made of PET — the type of plastic that had been causing the electrolyte fluid to turn red, and self-discharge the battery. 

A piece of metallic tape sits on a wooden table.
One of the metallic sheets removed from a coil inside a cylindrical battery. Each layer of the coil is held in place by plastic tape, shown here as the greenish strips. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

“A lot of companies use PET tape,” said Metzger. “That’s why it was a quite important discovery, this realization that this tape is actually not inert.”

Tech industry takes notice

Metzger and the team began sharing their discovery publicly in November 2022, in publications and at seminars.

Some of the world’s largest computer-hardware companies and electric-vehicle manufacturers were very interested.

“A lot of the companies made clear that this is very relevant to them,” Metzger said. “They want to make changes to these components in their battery cells because, of course, they want to avoid self-discharge.”

The team even proposed a solution to the problem: use a slightly more expensive, but also more stable, plastic compound.

A man in a plaid shirt walks through a room full of battery technology.
Metzger walks through one of the battery-testing laboratories at Dalhousie University. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

One option is polypropylene, which is typically used to make more durable plastic items like outdoor furniture or reusable water bottles. 

“We realized that it [polypropylene] doesn’t easily decompose like PET, and doesn’t form these unwanted molecules,” Metzger said. “So currently, we have very encouraging results that the self-discharges are truly eliminated by moving away from this PET tape.”

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U.S. escalates trade concerns over Canada's online news and streaming bills – The Globe and Mail

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrive for a joint news conference at the conclusion of the North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico City, Mexico on Jan. 10.KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

Washington has escalated its concerns about the trade implications of Ottawa’s online streaming and online news bills, prompting a legal expert to predict the issue will be raised during President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Canada in March.

Deputy United States trade representative Jayme White stressed “ongoing concerns” about the two Canadian bills at a meeting last week with Rob Stewart, Canada’s deputy minister for international trade.

Senior Democrat and Republican senators on the influential U.S. Senate finance committee also weighed in last week, writing a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai about Canada’s “troubling policies,” which they said target U.S technology companies.

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Both bills are making their way through Canada’s Parliament. Bill C-11 reached a third-reading debate in the Senate on Tuesday.

The U.S. is concerned that the two bills unfairly single out American firms, including Google, Facebook and Netflix.

Bill C-11 would update Canada’s broadcast laws, giving the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) the power to regulate streaming platforms such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime and Spotify.

The streaming platforms would have to promote Canadian content – including films, TV shows, music and music videos – and fund its creation.

Bill C-18 would force Google and Facebook to strike deals with news organizations, including broadcasters, to compensate them for using their work. The CRTC would have a role in overseeing the process.

Two sources told The Globe and Mail that the CRTC’s lack of experience regulating print media and digital platforms was raised by Ms. Tai and her team in previous talks with Canada’s Trade Minister, Mary Ng. The Globe is not naming the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

A U.S. readout of Mr. White’s meeting with Mr. Stewart said the American official had “expressed the United States’ ongoing concerns with … pending legislation in the Canadian Parliament that could impact digital streaming services and online news sharing and discriminate against U.S. businesses.”

Shanti Cosentino, a spokeswoman for Ms. Ng, said the Minister “has reiterated to Ambassador Tai that both Bill C-11 and C-18 are in line with our trade obligations and do not discriminate against U.S. businesses.”

Last week, Democrat Ron Wyden, chairman of the U.S. Senate committee on finance, and Republican Michael Crapo, a senior member of the committee, raised concerns in a letter to Ms. Tai that the bills could breach the terms of the United-States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA).

Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet law, said the intervention from both parties means it is now likely the issue will be on the agenda when Mr. Biden visits Canada.

“To see this raised in a bipartisan manner by two U.S. Senators from the powerful finance committee suggests that the issue is gaining traction in Congress,” he said.

The senators urged Ms. Tai to take enforcement action if Canada fails to meet its trade obligations.

Their letter said the online streaming bill would “mandate preferential treatment for Canadian content and deprive U.S. creatives of the North American market, access they were promised under USMCA.”

It added that Bill C-18 “targets U.S. companies for the benefit of Canadian news producers and raises national treatment concerns under USMCA.”

But Toronto-based trade lawyer and former diplomat Lawrence Herman, founder of Herman and Associates, said the U.S. politicians’ intervention is “a reflection of a well-orchestrated lobbying effort by the major digital platforms.”

He said there is no evidence that either bill discriminates against American companies.

“Canada is well armed to defend any trade complaint,” he said.

On Thursday, as Canada’s Senate debated Bill C-11 at third reading, Senator Dennis Dawson, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said the legislation has been thoroughly scrutinized and should now be passed.

The Senate was due to begin debating C-18 this week. But that could now be delayed because of an error in the printed text of the bill sent over from the Commons, the Speaker of the Senate said.

The incorrect text included a sub-amendment that had not actually passed in a Commons committee. It will now have to be pulped and reprinted.

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