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According to Canada's new national wireless code, users who are at least two years into a three-year contract can now walk without paying cancellation fees.


Can you win when it comes to shopping for a wireless plan?

The Conference Board of Canada reported last week that its index for telecommunications prices increased by almost 5 per cent in 2014, driven in large part by higher spending on wireless services.

It might ultimately be a futile endeavour, but if you have some time on your hands this summer and you're in the market for a new plan or an upgrade, here are a few strategies that could help trim your bill:

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1. Switch to a "flanker" brand

Canada's Big Three carriers all run discount brands – Rogers has Fido and Chatr, Telus has Koodo and Bell has Virgin Mobile – that offer service on the same network usually at a lower price. The incumbents launched or bolstered these brands around the same time three new entrants – Wind Mobile, Public Mobile and Mobilicity – burst on to the scene in 2009 and they are often referred to as "flankers" for fortifying the low end of the incumbents' offerings.

The plans are not always directly comparable across brands; for instance the flanker brand may offer a package that includes 3GB of data while the main brand sells packages including 2GB or 4GB of data but not 3GB. But if you find a plan that fits your needs, the price point at a flanker brand is often better. A current Ontario example shows Fido customers can get unlimited texts and calling plus 5GB of data per month starting at $90, while at the main Rogers brand, $90 gets you unlimited text and talk but just 4 GB of data.

2. Look at the total cost for the life of the plan

If you have the money to buy a new device outright (and aren't too concerned about forfeiting interest on those funds over two years), you might want to calculate the total price you will pay for both the handset and the service plan over the life of a contract, which is typically two years. Consider this example using current Ontario prices from Virgin Mobile (pricing is similar with Fido and Koodo):

  • Buy a subsidized iPhone 6 from Virgin for $354 up front (with SIM card); an unlimited talk and text plan with 1GB of data costs $85 per month with that level of subsidy. Total cost for 24 months: $2,394. If you want to leave or upgrade early, you will have to pay off the remaining subsidy balance first. Virgin charges a $50 fee to unlock devices from its network (that is comparable to what other carriers charge).
  • Buy an unlocked iPhone 6 with 16GB of storage for $839 from Apple, take it to Virgin and buy a $55 BYOP (bring your own phone) plan with 1GB of monthly data and unlimited talk and text. Total cost for 24 months: $2,159. Plus, since you own the phone, you can leave at any time without paying off the balance of a subsidy.

You can also ask about unadvertised options, which may involve a smaller subsidy up front but lower monthly service rates. The website offers a useful tool for calculating the total cost and comparing different options.

3. Consider ditching your three-year contract early

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Canada's 2013 national wireless code came into effect on June 3 and it limits the time period over which carriers can recoup any upfront subsidies they gave customers to no more that 24 months. That means that after at least two years on your contract, you can walk away without paying any cancellation fees. If you are at least 24 months into a three-year term, you can leave your contract now and own your device outright. You could then look at BYOD discounts of at least $20 per month (you would still have to pay a fee to unlock your phone if you want to switch providers). But be warned that monthly service plans have gone up in price since the move to two-year terms – your old deal might be worth holding on to.

4. Move to Manitoba?

Prices in Manitoba and also Saskatchewan tend to be significantly lower than other parts of the country. That's due to the presence of MTS and SaskTel, established full-service telecom providers with trusted networks, which put pressure on the national incumbents to lower their prices. Fido, Koodo and Virgin Mobile are all currently selling 5GB data plans with unlimited text and talk for just $48 in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The same plan in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, and the Atlantic provinces starts at $90 per month.

In a February interview, SaskTel CEO Ron Styles said he had heard of residents from neighbouring Alberta crossing the border into Saskatchewan to buy cheaper wireless plans, lured by savings of about $500 per year, by his estimate. And last week, technology writer Peter Nowak reported on a Kijiji ad that purported to offer to set people up with the $48 plan from Koodo (only available in Manitoba or Saskatchewan) for a fee of $100.

Residents of Quebec – which similarly has a fourth wireless option from an established provincial communications operator, Videotron – can also take advantage of lower prices. Fido is offering that 5 GB plan in la belle province for $65 per month while Rogers' main brand is currently quoting $70 for a 4GB plan in Quebec that costs $90 in Ontario.

If you live in an urban centre in Ontario, British Columbia or Alberta, you could switch to Wind Mobile, which offers a $45 plan with 5GB of data at full speed. But note that Wind charges extra for roaming in Canada and operates a 3G network with uneven coverage in many spots.

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