One of my keen areas of interest when it comes to technology, especially when it comes to wireless services, has always been whether it’s friendly to consumers or not. By that, I don’t mean whether it’s easy to use, but whether it puts power into the hands of the individual as opposed to some company. For Canadian wireless users, the ultimate consumer-friendly phone may therefore be the new Samsung Nexus S. I’ll explain why in a minute.
As we all know, cellphone service here in North America is considerably more expensive and restrictive than it is in, say, Europe and Asia. With all due respect to our American friends, who also get the royal shaft from their service providers, it’s pretty well established that we Canadians have had it worse than just about anybody.
That said, things are also getting better in Canada at a much quicker pace than in the United States. The secret, of course, is that new companies such as Wind and Mobilicity are making things very competitive for the established trio of Bell, Rogers and Telus. But even before the new guys came along, things were getting somewhat better because Rogers was beating the snot out of Bell and Telus thanks to a plain old lucky choice of technology.
Many years ago, Bell and Telus decided to follow the likes of their bigger U.S. brethren Verizon and Sprint in choosing a wireless technology known as CDMA. Rogers, however, gambled on a different standard, GSM, that was emerging in other parts of the world. There are arguments for and against both, but ultimately GSM grew to critical mass and was essentially anointed the winner.
The crown, of course, came in the form of the iPhone in 2007. While there has been much speculation about why Apple ultimately chose to release its hotly anticipated device on AT&T’s GSM network over Verizon’s CDMA network, the fact that more than 80% of carriers worldwide were using GSM made the decision a no-brainer. By going with GSM, Apple guaranteed at least the potential of mass acceptance of its new venture around the world.
In Canada at the time, Rogers was the only GSM carrier. When the company got the device, it quickly started seeing the benefits: more customer sign-ups and higher monthly revenue from the associated data charges. Bell and Telus users, meanwhile, were stuck with CDMA phones that were not only un-sexy, but they also didn’t work in those GSM-using countries. On the inverse, people coming to Canada with their GSM phones obviously ended up roaming on Rogers’ network.
Not surprisingly, just over a year ago Bell and Telus did the only thing they could do: they converted to GSM (or technically, its HSPA offshoot). Now, all three companies have the iPhone, as well as all the other cool GSM BlackBerry and Android devices.
Theoretically, this was great news for Canadian consumers. The single-standard situation was actually looking better than the U.S., where the four major carriers use three essentially different standards. (Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, AT&T uses GSM and T-Mobile uses AWS, a different flavour of GSM.) Canadians could now buy a GSM phone such as the iPhone, get it unlocked and go shopping for a service plan, thereby making our providers compete for our business. You know, how the grown-up countries in Europe and Asia do it.
Not so fast. The consumer-friendly move to a unified wireless technology has not made our big three any more consumer friendly. I tried to get a deal with an unlocked iPhone 4 when it was released last summer and came up pretty short. Technology may allow Canadians to move between providers but they certainly don’t want us to, which is reflected in the fact that they’re reluctant to offer deals without tying customers to a long-term contract.
The new carriers were supposed to help in this regard, but they introduced a new problem. No sooner had CDMA been banished from Canada than a new frequency – Advanced Wireless Spectrum – was introduced by the likes of Wind and Mobilicity. There’s no need to get into the technical specifics, but suffice it to say that while AWS is still a flavour of GSM, it’s not a widely used one. Very few cellphone carriers in the world use this particular wireless frequency, which means there aren’t many phones being built for it. Why are the new Canadian companies using AWS? Well, it’s the only spectrum that has so far been made available to them, so it’s not like they have a choice.
I wrote about this issue recently for Canadian Business magazine. Basically, T-Mobile is the only big company using AWS, so our new Canadian minnows have basically had to buy whatever phones that company gets. T-Mobile’s selection hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been great either – and there is certainly no iPhone option.
Alas. If only there were a phone that could work on regular GSM and AWS frequencies, thereby truly allowing the Canadian consumer to leverage all Canadian wireless companies against each other and force them to compete for their business. Sigh.
Oh wait, there have been a couple available so far. First, there’s the Nokia N8. The N8 has something called a pentaband chip, which lets it work on five different frequencies, including regular old GSM and the new-fangled AWS. The device is a possible vanguard of truly consumer-friendly devices that will let the user, or the Canadian at least, bounce between all of our wireless providers. The only problem is, while the N8 has a mighty nice camera, it’s just not a very good smartphone and it’s also locked to Rogers.
Then there’s the Motorola Milestone XT720, also known as “the wha?” If you’ve never heard of this phone, you’re not alone. It’s Motorola’s follow-up to the Milestone, which was the international version of the wildly successful U.S. phone, the Droid. The new Milestone was released in the UK and in Canada through Wind in 2010, but it doesn’t seem to have done well, largely because it was barely marketed here, if at all. That’s what happens when you don’t have a deep-pocketed carrier getting behind a particular handset. It’s too bad because the original Milestone was great and by the look of the XT720’s specs, it can run on all of our carriers.
That brings us to the Samsung Nexus S. I haven’t actually seen the device yet, which only became available in the U.S. and UK in December, but it sounds very much like an amalgamation of the Nexus One and Galaxy S, two very good Android phones. The Nexus S is getting solid reviews and will soon be coming to Canada – Mobilicity CEO Dave Dobbin recently spilled the beans that all carriers will have it in March.
I’m not sure if the Nexus S has a pentaband chip, but if you look at the technical specs, it matches up with the high-speed wireless networks of Bell, Rogers, Telus, Wind and Mobilicity. Samsung’s Canadian PR folks won’t confirm it, but I did check with a friend who’s an expert and we both believe this phone will work to its full capacity on all of them.
Imagine that: a good phone with some cachet attached to it that will work on all Canadian wireless carriers. This is truly a momentous first. (I’m being genuine there, not sarcastic.)
The phone is currently being sold unlocked and contract-free in U.S. Best Buy stores and I have half a mind to go and get one. The thought of being able to leave my cellphone provider any time I want for greener pastures is very appealing. It’s downright revolutionary for Canada. I’m actually wondering if we’ll be able to buy it contract-free and unlocked when it comes out here. There’s something about those consumer-friendly ideas that seems un-Canadian. (Okay, now I’m being sarcastic.)
They said the iPhone was the “Jesus phone” when it came along because it “saved” consumers from the iron grip of wireless providers. It’s well known that Apple fought providers on a number of issues and forced them to lower their previously usurious data rates so that people could actually use the damn thing. Apple also took complete control of the device and, to the company’s credit, still doesn’t allow carriers to put their own crappy software on it.
The iPhone certainly did all that but the Nexus S could very well be the next saviour phone, at least for Canadians, because it looks to be the first contender that lets us force competition across the board. Bell, Rogers and Telus don’t want to offer deals to people who own unlocked iPhones because they know they can’t go to the cheaper carriers. It looks like that is about to change.
And even if the Nexus S doesn’t make a big splash, things are looking up as there is clearly already a trickle of phones that can cross networks in Canada (there may actually be more than the three I’m aware of). Whether the wireless carriers like it or not, we’re getting closer and closer to empowered consumers.
UPDATE: My readers write… a couple of folks wrote in (see the comments section) to clarify some of what I wrote up above. When covering this stuff it’s tough to keep it simple enough so that no one is bored to tears, so unfortunately sometimes I do get things confused. The problem is there are tons of wireless standards, frequencies and technologies out there and the carriers don’t make things any easier by how they market them. Take “4G” for example – U.S. carriers are marketing their new services as fourth-generation while the same thing here in Canada is considered 3G. The bottom line when it comes to devices such as the Nexus S is, yes, it looks like it will work on just about all Canadian networks… the only question is at what speed. Fortunately, network speeds are generally improving and phones are gaining the ability to work across networks, so the point of the post above still stands: we’re inching towards more empowered consumers.