I have a smartphone made by a once-mighty cellphone manufacturer, on a major Canadian mobility carrier’s three-year contract.

A year-and-a-half ago, the phone was considered at the top of the smartphone pile.

Today, I’m counting the months to the end of the contract. Not because of the carrier, but because this phone has been overtaken by superior competing mobile phone manufacturers. It takes forever to access the Internet, is slow to load websites, and too often the words aren’t formatted to fit my device’s screen.

Welcome to the world of lightning change, called cellphones.

How do you decide what carrier/network to use, what phone to buy, when things change so quickly?

I’m hoping this Hicks on Biz – consumer’s edition – will help you make an informed choice.

If I was starting over today, here are some of the things I’d look into.



The network



I want a carrier that has coverage right across Canada, no matter where I am. The most extensive networks belong to the Big Three – TELUS, Bell and Rogers. Generally speaking, TELUS has the best network (most geographical coverage, fast) in Alberta and B.C., but the others are not far behind.

Things they don’t tell you.

If you buy Koodoo, you’re using the TELUS network. Fido and Chat-r use the Rogers network, and Virgin is on the Bell. This is because TELUS owns Koodoo, Virgin is partly owned by Bell, Fido and Chat-r are owned by Rogers. You buy the “baby brand” and you will get exactly the same access to the networks – voice, text and data – as with the parent company.

The new independent networks have some great package deals. But their networks aren’t as reliable as the big guys, and, outside the big cities, are very limited. Roaming fees (see below) could be a problem.



Customer Service



There’s the joke where St. Peter gives a deceased salesman a choice, to spend eternity in heaven or hell. The salesman visits hell for a day, and it’s more fun than an expense account in Vegas. But when the salesman returns to hell for good, it’s all fire and brimstone. “Yesterday,” the Devil tells him, “you were a prospect. Today, you’re a customer.”

Which is how most of us feel about mobility company customer service.

Customer service might steer me to an Apple iPhone over others. It’s about those Apple retail and service centres in Southgate and West Edmonton Mall, where, for a small annual fee, you can actually hand your product or problem over to a LIVE PERSON across the table and they will FIX it for you!

I’m told TELUS now has a customer service centre where a live rep will try to fix your problem. I haven’t seen any advertising for this service, but if it’s there, this is good.



Avoiding roaming fees



If you’re out of your home area, and your phone can’t find its network, it’ll route your call through a compatible local network. But you pay through the nose. On an Asian holiday, I was pleased to find my mobile Facebook and texting worked fine, only to have an extra $500 tacked on my next mobile phone bill.

If you travel outside North America, check into phones/carriers that let you replace your phone SIM card (a kind-of brain of the phone) with a pre-paid local one – in effect giving you a local phone and phone number without having to buy a new phone. This is very common in Europe, and WAY cheaper than roaming fees.



No phone is free



You get the great deal on a snazzy new phone, worth $700 but you only pay $100 on signing a three-year contract. In fact you are paying off the full price of the phone within your monthly payments over the life of the contract. So if you want to ditch your phone halfway through your contract, you will have to pay the balance owing on your existing phone.



Which carrier, which plan



Nothing is more confusing - there are some helpful websites, try comparecellular.com or lovetoknow.com.

In general, the newer independent carriers offer the best deals – one company offers unlimited talk, no-charge long-distance and unlimited data for $55 a month - but the networks are spotty and can be limited to a few Canadian cities.

In general, Rogers, Bell and TELUS have the most sophisticated and hottest new phones, the best networks and the priciest plans. Their subsidiaries – Fido, Virgin, Koodoo and Chat-r – use the same networks, but carry more mid-range and basic phones and have less expensive plans.

When my contract is up, I’d like a plan with unlimited Canada-wide calling and texting, a normal data plan, access to one of the Big Three networks, a mid-level smartphone with fast Internet connectivity and a switchable SIM card. I might lean to an iPhone because of the Apple service centres. And I’d want a carrier with a good reputation.

Hey, here it is! A customer satisfaction survey by JD Power gave Koodoo top ranking of all Canadian mobility companies. Koodoo has iPhones, Koodoo runs on the TELUS network, and offers Canada-wide unlimited calling, texting and lots of data for $55 a month.



Negotiate



Then again, when my contract is up, I can haggle my existing carrier to give me the same deal. These guys are all fiercely competitive, and want to hang on to existing customers. There are deals to be had.

Hope this helped!





Factoids:



From Ipsos Reid study released April 2012:



Number of Canadians 13 or older using mobile phones as of Sept. 2011: 20.1 million

Number of Canadians 13 or older using smartphones as of Sept. 2011: 8 million



67.4% of total mobile users text, 88.1% of smartphone users.

40% of mobile users downloaded apps, 84.2% of smartphone users.

39.5% of mobile users accessed news and information from the Internet, 79.3% of smartphone users.



Almost half of mobile phone users upgrade every 18 to 20 months. By 2014, the “vast majority” of mobile phone users will have smartphones.



J.D. Power 2012 customer satisfaction survey for Canadian mobile phone carriers.

No. 1 (most satisfaction): Koodoo

No. 2: PC Mobility

No. 3: Virgin Mobility

No. 4: Fido