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I've got those wireless/cable/telecom blues

Dealing with my telecom company (we actually have two, so my husband and I can take turns getting mad at both) always makes me feel like a bunny in a shark tank. I know that one way or another, they're gonna get me.

What kind of plan do I need? How much data? 1GB? 4? Smartphone or Smartphone Lite? What about roaming charges? What about BYOD/SIM? Their products and bundles and deals are so complicated that you need the combined skill set of a computer scientist and a contract lawyer to make sense of them. Unfortunately, I do not have this skill set. I am just an ordinary person with two university degrees.

I, of course, am not alone. Everyone I know has at some time felt baffled, exploited, hoodwinked or abused by their telecom provider. And that is why there will be very little public support for Bell, Telus and Rogers as they wail and moan about the vast misfortunes that will befall them and the entire country if the government decides to allow foreign competition into the wireless market.

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In an effort to head off this impending catastrophe, the telecoms have launched a massive ad campaign to portray themselves as champions of the national interest. Even though the Big Three have 90 per cent of the wireless market, they insist they are not the overdogs at all. They're the underdogs! And if we don't understand all the ways that foreign competition would be bad for us, then we're simply misinformed.

"Canadians pay very competitive rates for some of the best wireless technology in the world," insisted Telus's Ted Woodhead, vice-president of regulatory affairs, in a recent blog post. Meantime, George Cope, chief executive of BCE, says he thinks Canadians are pretty happy with the way things are, so why rock the boat? "Our technology is advanced and our prices are competitive," he declared.

Mr. Cope must not get out much. Maybe he should drop in on any random dinner party, where the mere mention of "cellphone bills" or "cable service" is enough to unleash torrents of invective and hijack the entire conversation for the rest of the evening.

"Forget hockey," says Peter Nowak, a Toronto journalist who writes and blogs about telecom. "Hating telecom companies is our national sport."

Is the loathing justified? You decide. Canadian carriers extract an average wireless revenue per user of $58.22 a month, which is the highest in the entire world, says Mr. Nowak. His figures come from the Merrill Lynch Global Wireless Matrix. Their profit margin is 46.2 per cent – third highest in the world.

So when Telus CEO Darren Entwhistle told the Financial Post there would be a "bloodbath" if the government allows the U.S. giant Verizon into the Canadian market, he was right. The bloodbath will be what happens to his profits.

According to the OECD, Canada is one of the most expensive countries in the world for wireless. Our roaming costs could choke a horse, as most of us have found out the hard way. Our Internet costs, as you may have noticed, keep going up every year. Canada is also among the most restrictive countries for foreign investment. In other countries, customers typically sign two-year contracts, but in Canada, it's three – at least till now. The CRTC has stepped in with a new "code of conduct" that will limit roaming costs and let you get out of your contract after two years. Do not delude yourself that you will get a better deal, though: A lot of experts think the telecoms will just jack up rates to make up the difference.

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So, would foreign competition bring relief? The government says yes. Industry Minister James Moore is promising "more choices and lower prices for Canadian families." But don't hold your breath. U.S. wireless prices are nearly as high as ours, and comparison shopping is even more insane. The four major carriers offer 700 combinations of smartphone plans, according to The Wall Street Journal. My sister in Chicago has a Verizon plan, and she typically pays $150 a month. I looked at her bill once. It is incomprehensible.

The CEO of Telecom New Zealand once publicly admitted that telecom companies used "confusion as a marketing tool." Of course they do! It works. People always threaten to switch carriers, but they generally stay put because switching is just too much hassle. "In effect," reports the WSJ, wireless plans have "become like the Hotel California. Subscribers occasionally try to check out, but they almost never leave."

Or you can think of them as roach motels.

Last week, I called up my phone/cable/Internet company, to whom I fork over hundreds of dollars every month. I wanted to cancel my Internet service in the country because it was lousy. (They were also charging an extra $50 every time I looked up the weather report.) They told me I had a two-year contract – ha ha! – and forwarded my call to Technical Services, where a nice lady offered to fix my problem. She instructed me to type a bunch of meaningless things into my computer, which, for reasons I can't begin to comprehend, seemed to make the Internet work better. Then she sent me back to Sales, which switched me to a newer, better data plan that will be either more or less expensive than the old one, depending.

I actually felt grateful, and also incredibly empowered. I even phoned up my husband to brag. My elation lasted until I got an e-mail from the company. Deep down in the fine print, I learned that I had committed to a brand new three-year contract.

I can't figure out whether I'm a bunny in a shark tank, or a guest in the Roach Motel. Either way, they get me every time.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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