On mobile phone services in Canada and Australia

While planning my return to Canada (which is inevitable, though totally undecided at the same time!) I’ve been investigating telecom options.  I’ve been with the same mobile phone company for the last 10 years, and realised it’s time to at least reevaluate that.  While in Canada in June/July I spent over $100 on mobile phone use, mostly due to poor planning.  Having an unlocked phone makes switching easy, so I started looking more closely.  I tweeted while doing so, and found some empathy from followers with my frustrations.

Either way, that all reminded me that I had this entry drafted and still haven’t posted it.  Continuing in my Canada / Australia blog series, here we go.  I’ve already done a lengthy entry describing internet services in Australia vs Canada, so I won’t spend any more time on it other than to provide a link to it.  My comments in that post about the technical limitations and geography hold true here too — Canadian companies’ arguments that they have to pay a small fortune for the infrastructure for a large geographical area is bunk in light of Australian mobile companies having the exact same challenge.

Mobile phone service is a whole different animal.  Firstly, it’s dirt cheap in Australia compared to Canada.  I’m on Virgin Mobile Australia prepaid, and pay $19/month (well, per 28 days).  For this, I get unlimited calls and video calls to other Virgin customers.  Incoming calls – as with all mobile phones in Australia – are free.  Free! Just like a home phone!  I also get unlimited domestic text messages – and theoretically should pay 35 cents per international text but have never actually been charged for them.  This also includes “$50” of “value” – Australian prepaid phones are deceptively marketed as they charge you a specified rate, and give “value” that is usually much higher, and then charge higher rates for other services (and the proportion of cash paid to value received to cost per call varies depending on the provider).  Calls to other networks come out of this at 90c/min + 40c per call (a call connection fee applies to most outgoing calls here).  This means that if I use my entire balance only for outgoing phone calls, I pay (19/50) * 90 cents = 34.2 cents per minute plus 15 cents per connection.  This is slightly more than Canadian prepaid services (depending on the provider), but considering I never make outgoing phone calls, this is still cheap.  This also includes 1GB of “bonus” data (theoretically it’s a promotion but they keep extending it).  All of these balances roll forward if you renew within the 28 days, so if you only use 750 MB, 250 MB carry forward.  I forgot to renew back in June, but before that I had accumulated 5 or 6 GB of unused data.

In Canada I’ve long been with Rogers PAYGo, where I used to pay about $20/month (plus HST – so $22.60) but often topped up more.  If I automatically topped up each month by giving them my credit card number and authorization, they would reduce the cost of phone calls by 20%.  The cheapest data option was (and still is) $7 / week for 125 MB, and I usually bought a prepaid text package, which is now at $5/month for 250 messages.  That’s ($7 * 4) + $5 = $33 per month just for texting and data, both with substantially lower limits than my Australian ones.  On top of this, phone calls (both outgoing AND incoming) are charged by the minute (but no connection charge), depending on your choice of plan it would either be 40c* 80% = 32c/min, 39c*80%=31.2c/min daytime but 1c/min evenings/weekends (starting at 8), or 25c*80%=20c/min for the first 5 minutes in the day plus 15c*80%=12c/min after that.  Complicated, but easy to pick one and stick with it.  Either way – even if I make NO voice calls, the minimum I would pay to use a smartphone on prepaid is $33/month, but in reality I would pay at least $35 or $40.  Of course I’ve left out HST here (GST is included in Australia) – so it’s actually a minimum of $37.29, almost twice the price for less than half the service.

I’ve been looking around at other companies and they’re all roughly the same – Rogers, despite being an early provider of prepaid data, is now amongst the least cost-effective on data but the others aren’t noticeably cheaper.  Canadian mobile companies almost all charge for incoming text messages, as well, which Australian companies do not do.

One other point of difference is that, like most plans in the US (and like early Canadian mobile phones, even prepaid), there’s no concept of domestic long distance phone calls on mobile phones in Australia.  All mobile phones are assigned the area code 04.  Phone numbers here are also 10 digits, but the area code is two digits, and attached to the entire state – 02 9999 9999 would be a standard landline phone number in New South Wales, 0499 999 999 would be a standard mobile phone number.  I have yet to figure out why there’s a difference in the spacing!  Anyway, calls to 04 numbers are all local from anywhere in Australia, and calls from mobile phones are the same price whether they’re across the country or across the room.  In Canada, of course, long distance varies depending on the company.  You might be lucky enough to have outgoing calls charged the same anywhere in the country, but anyone calling you pays long distance based on the area code of your mobile phone (which is generally attached to where you live, and the same area code (or set of area codes) as landlines).  Many plans, and virtually all prepaid plans, will charge an extra long-distance fee for calls made outside of the local calling area – which is sometimes based on where you are, and sometimes based on where your phone is from.  Some plans (especially prepaid) now charge long distance for all calls that you make or receive when you’re physically outside the local calling area of where your phone is based.  Over the decade or so that I’ve been with Rogers PAYGo, I think I’ve had all of these long-distance treatments.

Of course, the low price doesn’t always work to your advantage – you get what you pay for.  Virgin Mobile Australia uses the Optus network here (the company is owned by Optus, just like Virgin Mobile Canada is owned by Bell).  Optus is comparable to Bell in size (and history, for that matter), but it and Vodafone are notorious for having poor networks.  (So much so that Vodafone, aka Vodafail, was targeted with this amazing and hilarious parody of Lady Gaga’s Telephone (worth the 5 minutes – go now and watch it. I’ll wait.)).  The geographical coverage isn’t all that bad – at least no better or worse than it is in Canada; rural areas often lose signal but that’s to be expected.  Telstra is the third major network, and supposedly has a better signal and coverage, but I’ve equally heard complaints about it.  The problem I (like everyone else here) have with Optus (aka Droptus) is that it’s incredibly unreliable.  It has a 3G network, but it frequently doesn’t work, and in many areas the signal is so weak it’s actually more efficient to turn off 3G and run on GSRM because it has a stronger signal.  What’s worse is that as soon as a crowd of more than a couple dozen people are in the same place – especially if it’s an outdoor venue like the ones where they host public concerts and New Year’s celebrations – the entire network jams.  If you’re lucky, you can make a phone call.  If you’re really lucky you can send and/or receive a text message.  And if you’re really, really, lucky you can send or receive data for about a minute out of every hour.  It’s beyond frustrating.  At Fair Day (the opening weekend of Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras), I was trying to meet up with a friend.  We missed one another where we agreed to meet; I was texting him, and the texts seemed to be going through.  It wasn’t until about thirty seconds before I saw him anyways that I received three texts he had sent over the past 15 minutes, as well as getting notification of a new voicemail that he had left because despite 4 bars of signal, I was apparently unable to receive calls.  This is not even remotely uncommon – it’s the norm.

This isn’t to say Canadian mobile networks are drastically better – but really, they are.  Occasionally, at popular times like midnight on New Year’s, the networks will jam for minutes at a time.  But this usually clears within 5 or 10 minutes, at most.  And it’s very rare for the 3G network to just disappear or to have random dead zones in the middle of the country’s biggest city like it does in Australia.

Is it worth paying twice the price? Not really.  Would I be willing to pay somewhere half way in between, to get service I can actually rely on??  Definitely.

One final note, almost an aside – unlocked phones have existed here in Australia for a very long time.  Not only can you buy unlocked phones (at a premium, just like in Canada and the US as of the last year or two), but if you buy a locked phone with a contract, when that contract is up it is usually quite easy to have the phone unlocked – either it’s automatic, or you pay a small fee.  This portability could be one of the reasons prices are so low – real competition!


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dean on 2011/08/31 at 1:47 am

    I have been with Vodafone all my life but after after the fiasco earlier this year (the merger with 3 and subsequent extremely unreliable service) and not even being able to load a single web page on my siblings phone I switched. I joined Telstra and loved it. They have really re branded their image and products and now offer, albeit at a slight premium, the best mobile service in Australia (or Sydney at least). I agree with your comparison of phone services with Canada – Australia has less the population but far better and more competitive plans. Canada is also inflexible when it comes to buying phones with plans. For example, in aust we can do a 1,2,3 year term – in Canada its mostly 3 year terms – and who wants to own the same phone for three years? That’s a lifetime in technology years! Australia easily wins over Canada for mobile phones IMO.


  2. […] On mobile phone services in Canada and Australia […]


  3. Just a quick update from my latest trip: Virgin Mobile’s $19 cap no longer offers 1GB of data… earlier in December 2012 they reduced this to 250 MB with the ability to add 300MB more at $10 out of your prepaid balance — that is, out of the $19 you added. So if you need to add 300 MB twice, you have to top up again with an additional $19. Knowing this, in combination with price improvements Telstra has come out with over time, it might now be cheaper to go with Telstra (or at least close enough in price that the significantly-better service Telstra provides is worth paying the difference).


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