Once we packed up our apartment we moved in with a girlfriend of mine. Our determinedly lassez-faire attitude had left us with a multitude of things left hanging so she cheerfully put up with us while we put the finishing touches on our affairs.
Since we were planning on traveling around for a year, through different continents and different weather, it is amazing the amount of stuff that you ‘wish’ you could bring. We arrived at her place with enough stuff to fill up a small apartment. It’s not just the clothes. It’s the electronics – camera, laptop, ipods, camcorder. The sports equipment: bikes, skiis, scuba gear, and windsurfing stuff. And the camping gear: tent, water purification pump, sleeping bags….the list is LONG! The boxes piled HIGH! (This is why we ended up visiting our POD a number of times.)
We decided to deal with this catastrophe by buying one more thing.
A cell phone. We’ve never had one before.
In Canada, the cellular business is heavily regulated by the CRTC which is a government agency. As a result, they are heavily influenced by the well-funded cellular companys’ phone lobbyists. This means that services and options that are readily available in practically any other country in the world (except Australia) are either not available or very expensive to buy here in Canada.
For example, a SIM card which enables you to change cell phone carriers whenever you want – is only an option on a few very expensive phones here in Canada. In any third world country – it is a standard feature on the cheapest phone. The Canadian cell phone companies want to “lock” you to their service. They spent money acquiring you as a customer; they don’t want you leaving just because the competition offered you a better deal or you got pissed off with them for some trivial reason. Phone companies consider you company property.
For us a swappable SIM card is a must-have feature since we are travelling from country to country. If you don’t want to be hit with thousands of dollars in roaming charges – you have to keep changing carriers in each country. You do this by swapping your SIM card. For local cell phone carriers, unsuspecting tourists who use their native carrier to call home, it is an opportunity to hit them with ridiculous long distance charges. It is pure gravy.
In Canada, this means that you have to buy a ‘world’ cell phone outright (for us there was no point in signing a carrier contract with one of the big cell phone providers like Bell or Telus – as we are not staying here in Canada.) A ‘world’ cell phone is expensive. But it is the only way you are going to get a SIM card. Otherwise, all phones here come with no SIM cards. And they are ‘locked’ to a particular carrier so you can’t defect. Your phone simply won’t function with the competition.
Well it is easy to get your cell phone unlocked, the ubiquitous terms in the warranties attached to the cell phones themselves (which are drawn up by the cell phone companies, not the cell phone makers themselves) immediately void any warranty on your cell phone if you do it. They don’t want you doing this. They can’t stop you, so they extract a price. So if a part on your phone goes kaboom, you’re on your own.
This wasn’t the only misery we endured because of the dictates cell phone monopoly here in Canada.
Neither of the two big carriers here in (Telus or Bell) were able to answer direct questions about their particular cell phones. The carrier we eventually went with was Telus. But this isn’t because we ‘chose’ them. There really isn’t any choice. They don’t really cater to our particular niche. It’s take it or leave it in the cell world here in Canada.
Some of the questions we were able to answer ourselves by extensive web surfing in forums such as “Can you tether a computer to this cell phone?” (Tethering means using cell phone so that you computer can surf the internet anywhere there is a cell phone connection. Then you aren’t just stuck looking for Wi-Fi.) The answer is usually buried in the finest of fine print on the specifications of the phone. The Canadian cell phone companies are not eager to advertise tethering features so the capability is seldom mentioned in the general advertising.
Here are a sample of the questions that neither the Telus customer care “experts” were not able to answer, nor were we able to get by surfing on the internet.
Is the SIM card in your ‘world’ phone a special size that only works with Telus? Or does it take a standard SIM card size? Ans: Don’t know. (But we know that Telus has a special international long distance package that they would love to saddle us with!)
Would we have to jail break this cell before it will function with another carrier, or can we just put in a different SIM card. Ans: You can jail break the cell. We don’t know if it is necessary or not. Hmmmmm. Maybe a hint here.
One cell we liked had a Motoblur feature we didn’t want. This is just a software application which kept checking the internet to see if their were any updates to your Facebook, Twitter & MySpace pages. And downloaded them immediately so you can track the minutia of your friends. A great feature if you are a kid. Or you wanted to create a guaranteed revenue flow from data charges. Not so great if it checks your pages while you are in South America and you come home to a $40,000 bill. So we had a crucial question. Can we turn this feature off? Ans: Don’t know.
We had an easy solution to these problems. Why didn’t we just start up a phone out of the box and try it? Right here in the store! We’d find out soon enough. Try to download Skype and see it worked. Bring in a standard SIM card and see if it fit in the slot. Try to turn off Motoblur.
Ummmm. No. Can’t do that says Telus. You want to check out the performance of one of our cell phones here in the store? You have to buy it first. Then it’s yours. You can’t return it.
I love that attitude. Take it or leave it. Take your chances. We know you can’t go anywhere else. Feel free to go to one of our competitors. Their rules are the same.
The Telus helpful attitude didn’t end there. We decided to take our chances with a “HTC Snap 510S World Edition” phone. We had spoken to one of Telus’s customer care experts, a young woman who was located 4 provinces away, and was desperate to make a commission. We spoke to her twice, and she assured us we had ninety days to transfer our home phone number to our brand new cell. This seemed fantastic to us. So the day after we moved out of our apartment, we went to the nearest Telus kiosk and bought our new cell. And transferred our number.
We loved our new cell. It could do all kinds of things. Take photos. Memorize our phone numbers. Talk to the internet where ever we were. For two computer friendly geeks we were in heaven. Except for one small detail. The cell phone part – we could neither make nor receive phone calls. Ummmmmm. Isn’t that what cell phones are supposed to be best at?
Once Telus sells you their service, you immediately drop down the priority list for service. If you are shopping to buy a Telus service, you are immediately hooked into a fluent English-speaking Canadian.
Once you have signed a contract to buy their service, it is a totally different matter. You are now officially locked in, remember? Can’t go anywhere else unless you buy another phone for hundreds of dollars!
Telus has a totally different strategy for dealing with the roiling customers that they have already netted. All help requests are vetted by an electronic secretary whose main goal is to prevent you from speaking to a live body. All the many options lead back to either the internet or to a pedantic voice who will read pertinent parts of a Telus manual to you. Except the final option. The one that you’ve been waiting for. A live human!
Once you pick that option, the electronic secretary cheerfully tells you cheerfully that
“We are experiencing high call volumes………”
I phoned them 10 times in 20 days. Their call volume was always high. Translation: insufficient staff hiring.
All help request calls are routed to the Philippines. This is itself a problem as you can be randomly disconnected while on hold, so you get to start from scratch again. And although their “customer care ‘experts’” are very polite, they are speaking English as a second language and have virtually no power to resolve your issue. You are basically talking to a hapless minion. One of the things I noticed over my many phone calls is that I was forced, each and every one of the 10 times that I called them, to re-explain the problem in detail. The minions either don’t have access, or don’t look at your calling history.
Each time I called them, the minions promised that my cell phone would be fully functional within 24-48 hours. Each time the promise failed to materialize. My phone calls became more frequent and desperate as time went on. We had now moved. No one knew how to get a hold of us. Not friends, not family, not work. Our old number chanted “Not in service” to anyone who called. Do you know how hard it is to find a pay phone these days?
Our trouble call was escalated to no avail. By now I had spent many hours on hold listening to their soother music and divining their obsequious electronic secretary (dial 0 after you pick your favourite language to scoot straight into the line-up for a live Philippine body).
It turns out that you can’t transfer your land line number to a cell phone if you have disconnected your service (i.e. move). You have ninety days to hook back up to a landline. You must move your landline number to a cell phone while you are still hooked up. It took 9 calls to hit a minion that knew enough to tell us this. We needed to get a new phone number.
So I told them to give us one. Not so fast, they said. You have to phone a different number and go on hold……….due to high call volumes of course.
Our cell phone finally works. In fairness to Telus, they ended up giving us 100 free long distance minutes, a nice phone number, and erased our service charges for the first month the phone didn’t work.
But in the mean time, we’ve been told that the very expensive cell phone that we bought has a special SIM card slot. It only takes a special Telus SIM card. Not the standard SIM card that everyone else uses.
Like the Telus’s company moto says: “The Future is Friendly”. Maybe it will be.