In December Canadians had a glimpse into what affordable cell phone packages could look like. The Big Three — Bell, Telus, Rogers — released a limited-time deal that offered people 10GB of data and unlimited talk and text for $60 a month. If anything, this “too good to be true” package demonstrated that Big Telecom can afford to charge a lot less for their services than they currently do.
But this is not just about having a cheaper cell phone bill at the end of the month. Lower pricing for cell service is one of the stepping-stones for bridging the digital divide that puts many at a disadvantage. In Canada we pay some of the highest prices for cell phone services in the industrialized world. This makes it a lot harder for low-income Canadians to access the internet and the array of socio-economic benefits it affords.
Try working, applying for jobs, accessing government services in a timely manner, looking up directions or basic information, accessing emergency services in remote areas, or coordinating your life in today’s world without a cell phone or internet access — and we’re not just talking coordinating tea with your friends; we are talking coordinating who will pick up your kids from school if you are suddenly called into work or if a snowstorm hits. Without affordable access to telecom services, the barrier of difficulty for all these essential activities increases exponentially.
With the average 2GB cell plan cost in B.C. (about $85) being the equivalent to about a day’s work at minimum wage ($11.35/hour) — not counting overage fees and the cost of other services like call display or voicemail — the sky-high prices for cell phone and internet services that Big Telecom offer are unacceptable if we are truly committed to ensure no one in Canada is left behind. The scenario looks a lot more grim if we take into account that most family households have more than one mobile phone.
What to do? At OpenMedia we are running two campaigns that tackle this issue head on. The first one concerns internet infrastructure as a whole: our campaign for a National Broadband Strategy urges Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains to “implement a properly funded national broadband strategy that includes lowering costs and increasing choice by structurally separating our networks from Big Telecom’s grip.” The second campaign tackles cell phone prices directly: we ask Big Telecom to make their December offer permanent, not just a weekend extravaganza.
Speaking up en masse is incredibly powerful — at the end of 2016 the government declared internet to be a basic service, largely due to nearly 50,000 Canadians who raised their voices. There’s no doubt that together, we can help lower the economic barrier of access to telecom services and continue to work on making the digital divide a thing of the past.
Marianela Ramos Capelo is a graphic designer and part of the communications team at OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free.