Comparison price shopping

Too many are confusing ‘affordability’ with a desire to pay lower prices. Don’t we all want lower prices for everything we buy?

In reality, millions of Canadians are finding mobile data plans that they can afford, as evidenced by Rogers third quarter 2019 financial results. More than a million subscribers signed up for its unlimited data plans, “adopting these ‘no more overage’ plans at three times the pace anticipated”. More than 100,000 net new customers, despite an increase in churn.

Rogers indicated that “Approximately 60% of our existing customers that have migrated to these plans have upgraded to higher price plans.” It is an interesting data point. Clearly, those customers have found that the new plans are delivering much better value, with far more data for just a little more money.

Rogers’ financial results provide evidence that most Canadians are finding mobile plans to be affordable. While we all want to pay less, at the same time, we need to ensure our policies preserve incentives for investment in network expansion for capacity and coverage, maintaining leadership in the delivery of advanced speeds and services.

We should be exploring more creative approaches that deal with the small minority of Canadians who cannot afford the mobile devices and service plans they need to participate in the economy. I have often written about the need to understand all of the factors that have inhibited universal adoption of broadband and mobile services, such as in “Understanding the digital divide”. In “Do we know what we don’t know?”, I asked, “Is Canada doing enough research to explore the nature of its digital divide?”

The price of connectivity is just one of the elements. How can we find solutions for a problem that we may not fully understand?

I have also written frequently about the challenges associated with producing international price comparisons for telecommunications services. Each year, Innovation, Science and Economic Development produces a mobile price comparison study [2018 study | pdf | 1.35MB], examining trends in prices in Canada and how those prices compare to selected trading partners. The annual study looks at 6 baskets of services for mobile:

  • Level 1: 150 voice minutes;
  • Level 2: 450 voice minutes and 300 SMS (texts);
  • Level 3: 1,200 voice minutes, 300 texts and 1 GB of data usage per month;
  • Level 4: unlimited nationwide talk and text along with 2 GB of data;
  • Level 5: unlimited nationwide talk and text along with 5 GB of data; and
  • Level 6: Shared plan with 3 phones lines and unlimited nationwide talk and text along with 10 to 49 GB of data.

A problem arises when those baskets are no longer representative of the types of services that people are buying. For example, the average price for a level 4 plan from 2018’s study was $75.44 which included just 2GB of data. New ‘unlimited’ plans are available from most carriers for less than that price, with at least 5 times the full speed data. However, these new popular plans with no overage charges simply don’t fit into any of the survey’s arbitrary baskets.

As Statistics Canada writes about its updates to the Consumer Price Index, “If the fixed-quantity basket of goods and services was kept unchanged for an extensive period of time, it would gradually lose accuracy and relevance as a reflection of consumer spending.” The report continues, “New products and services are introduced to the market and existing ones may be modified or become obsolete. As a result, the basket needs to be revised periodically to reflect changes in consumers’ spending patterns.”

Over time, we have seen significant changes to consumers’ spending patterns for mobile equipment and services. Regulatory changes have led to a restructuring of device subsidies for many plans; new unlimited plans have caught on faster than anticipated. How will these get captured meaningfully in the annual study?

Consumers were promised lower telecommunications prices as part of the political campaign. Will the government’s annual price comparison study accurately “reflect changes in consumers’ spending patterns” and show that mobile plan prices are already much lower than last year?

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