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Richard Branson of Virgin Mobile gives his thumbs up during a PR stunt - Image courtesy
Canada's cell phones just got a little more mobile

Taking effect this week for consumers in Canada is wireless number portability (WNP). Consumers throughout the majority of Canada will be able to keep the same telephone number when changing cell phone service providers—a freedom that U.S. wireless customers have enjoyed for years.

This follows a decision issued in 2005 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) requiring Canadian cell phone service providers to implement WNP by March 14, 2007. Earlier in 2005, the Government of Canada had requested that the Commission move expeditiously to implement WNP.

“Although the 18-month implementation of WNP has been one of unparalleled complexity and co-operation within the Canadian telecommunications sector, the industry's significant investment and commitment to deliver this service to Canadians has resulted in the fastest deployment of its kind in the world,” said the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association's chief executive Peter Barnes. “The introduction of WNP brings yet another layer of competition to the industry that will only further drive the delivery of world-class wireless products and services that Canadians expect and deserve.”

Consumers who live in areas where local number portability is currently available will now be able to transfer their phone numbers between cell phone service providers, as well as between landline and cell phone service providers.

“I know there are other companies out there that I could get a better deal with,” said Clifford La Rose, who runs a mobile diesel-repair service in Toronto. “But the problem was, owing to the business that I'm in, a lot of customers have got my present number. Along with that, I had printed up a lot of business cards, so I didn't want to change.” Thanks to WNP, La Rose may soon be spending less on his cell phone bill.

Although consumers may freely take their numbers with them to new providers, their handsets may not be able to make the transition. Canada, like the U.S., operates with two different wireless systems—CDMA and GSM. Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility share the CDMA market (and cell towers), while Rogers Wireless rules the GSM market. Fido was the next largest GSM provider until it was acquired by Rogers in 2005. Both Rogers and Fido, along with several smaller brands, such as 7-11 Speakout Wireless, all operate using Rogers’ cell towers. Recent entrant Virgin Mobile competes in the wireless market's value segment, but has no cell towers of its own. Instead, Virgin Mobile partners with Bell Mobility for use of the CDMA network.

Consumers aiming to switch providers will likely find that they have to purchase new handsets that are compatible with the network. Furthermore, handsets that are sold by wireless providers are normally “locked” specifically for use on that network. Even if a consumer owns a network-compatible handset, the phone must first be “unlocked”—a process that can cost between $20 to $50 at aftermarket phone shops.

It is also important that consumers who wish to change providers before the end of their service contract verify the terms and conditions, as they may be subject to early termination fees. Depending on the service provider, customers could pay upwards of $720 in penalty for early cancellation.

Some industry onlookers expect an increase in competition and a decrease in the monthly service fees charged by providers, but Ken Wong of the Queen’s School of Business predicts that most consumers are going to stay put. “Except for the most disgruntled consumer, no one is going to migrate phone companies just because they suddenly can,” he explained to the Winnipeg Free Press. “The carriers are being very careful to point out to people that the migration path is not necessarily a smooth and easy one.”

The hardware and early termination fee barriers are temporary ones. Wireless providers often offer free or heavily discounted handsets as incentives to attract new customers and to entice existing customers to renew their contracts. Once a consumer is at the end of a contract, he or she does not have to face the monetary challenges of switching providers.

“We had a large volume of calls from customers wishing to port their numbers into our system on the first day of WNP,” said Mike, a customer service representative for Rogers Wireless. “Most of them just wanted to get away from the bad experiences from our competitors, or they just wanted to have phones that they couldn’t buy before.”

WNP allows the consumer to jump to whichever carrier is offering the best value, but if the U.S. market is to be of any indication, the frequency of customers switching to another provider may eventually decrease to levels below those before number portability. With the freedom to switch, consumers will find the carrier that best suits their needs, while service providers find better ways to serve their customers—making for a winning combination for mobile users in Canada.

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Sweet !!
By DeadPooL on 3/16/2007 9:30:11 AM , Rating: 2
Now I can switch up no problem after my current contract expires.

RE: Sweet !!
By Moishe on 3/16/2007 9:41:44 AM , Rating: 3
Hate to say it, but it hasn't been a utopia of wireless portability here in the states since it was allowed.

Unfortunately, the providers have found ways to screw us. If you switch there is a fee and the prices have gone up in general. My family has used mobile phones exclusively for the past few years. The cost increase has made me want to go back, or switch to a VOIP based service as soon as my contract is up. While the relatively higher price before was excusable for the convenience of mobility, now the price is almost double of that of a landline for me (and I have two phones). I'm having a hard time swallowing it every month. For someone who talks a lot or uses a lot of long distance maybe mobiles are good, but it just doesn't make sense for me and the companies seem to have no plan that really suits what I want.

As you can probably tell, I'm fairly disenchanted with the wireless provider industry.

RE: Sweet !!
By MrDiSante on 3/16/2007 11:33:09 AM , Rating: 2
I don't really talk much on my phone, so I have a pre-pay phone with Virgin Mobile, then they switched the pay structure and jacked up the prices. I've been meaning to switch to 7/11 (for those living in North America, they offer great prices if you talk litte: 20 cents/minute and fill ups last 365 days), but I kept putting it off because of the ensuing number switch. Now I'm going to. While it may be a serious pain in the behind for people on a plan - it's really not that bad for pre-pay and pay-as-you-go. Aside for needing a new handset (I need a new one anyways).

Two Days Late
By Flunk on 3/16/2007 9:42:16 AM , Rating: 2
Congratulations, this is one example of the internet being beaten to the punch by every other possible media outlet. Even the newspapers.

RE: Two Days Late
By MrDiSante on 3/16/2007 11:33:51 AM , Rating: 2
Don't know why you got rated down. Perfectly legitimate comment.

RE: Two Days Late
By Pandamonium on 3/16/2007 8:59:02 PM , Rating: 2
Legitimate comment, but it's only a complaint.

Not everyone has the time or energy to read every article in every major newspaper. I didn't hear anything about this until the DT news broke, but as of late, my news sources are and DT. Personally, I'd rather hear about it 2 days late than never at all.

About friggin' time!
By Hoser McMoose on 3/18/2007 3:32:31 AM , Rating: 2
This is something that we *SHOULD* have had here in Canada AGES ago! Better late then never I guess?

FWIW I just did the switch the other day (on the 14th, the first possible day), and it worked sorta ok. My old phone was disconnected and the number moved from my old provider Bell to Virgin Mobile fairly quick, but my phone didn't get programmed right (incorrect instructions provided to the customer service people as best as I can tell). I had to call back twice and it took two days before I could actually USE my new phone, after my old one was de-activated.

There were zero fees to do the switch, but you DO need to buy a new phone (at least for the CDMA providers like Bell, Telus and Virgin, I dunno about the GSM folk like Rogers/Fido and Videotron). Virgin had a 1-day deal giving a credit for the full value of the phone without requiring any contract, which was a pretty sweet deal. There was nothing particularly wrong with my old headset, but the new one is WAY better and since it was "free" (not quite) I didn't mind.

Still, this is only one step (albeit a very important one) to fixing the piece-of-crap mobile phone service in Canada. The real solution requires the CRTC (Canada's version of the FCC) to get rid of their stupid rules preventing foreign competition and to properly open up the market! Virgin Mobile is the closest thing we've got to real competition, and they still need to hang off Bell's network.

RE: About friggin' time!
By MarcLeFou on 3/20/2007 4:55:21 PM , Rating: 2
Actually the CRTC will be selling more frequencies for cellphone carriers next year. They're thinking about reserving a portion of those for new carriers only so that a 4th player can enter the market since fido and clearnet were both bought off (bell/virgin, rogers/fido/videotron, telus/clearnet).

Keeping same handset....
By Deusfaux on 3/16/2007 10:10:24 AM , Rating: 3
Could only possibly be done if switching between the handful of GMS providers (Rogers/FIDO, some of their MVNOs)

Bell and Telus don't allow foreign ESNs on their networks (just like Sprint and Verizon in the US)

There aren't any fees yet as far as I can tell.

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