Major U.S. wireless providers rush to offer unlimited data plans. Why not in Canada?

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The U.S. is in the midst of an unlimited data revolution. Its five largest cellular providers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular — all now offer phone plans with unlimited wireless data.

Prices range from $50 to $90 US a month, and there are some caveats. For example, you might not get high-definition video streaming. Also, data speeds can slow down after burning through 22 to 28 GB — still, that’s a lot of data.

Meanwhile, in Canada no major provider offers a true unlimited deal. That’s something that frustrates many Canadians, who have a growing appetite for it.

Simon Connolly cellphone unlimited data wireless

Simon Connolly wishes he had access to a reasonably priced cellphone plan with unlimited data in Canada. (Simon Connolly)

“At this point in 2017, now, we should totally have unlimited data plans,” says Toronto cellphone customer Simon Connolly.

He pays $85 a month for a plan with 5 GB, and uses his data for everything from communicating to banking. Connolly works hard to avoid getting hit with pesky overage charges for exceeding his data limit.

“I can’t really afford to go over,” he says. “It sort of doesn’t make any sense with people’s usage patterns to be limiting [data] and charging so much.”

More competition leads to unlimited plans

So how come the U.S. is now getting a wide selection of unlimited deals? Tech experts say consumers can thank stiff competition in a country that’s home to numerous providers.

“It’s such a hypercompetitive environment in the U.S.,” says Rose Behar, a Toronto-based writer for the tech site MobileSyrup.

For example, shortly after T-Mobile unveiled an unlimited data deal in August, rival Sprint introduced its own version — at a cheaper price.

And the unlimited data wars began.

Competitor Verizon had previously run a commercial that tried to convince customers they didn’t need unlimited plans.

“The majority of people pay for data they never use,” stated the ad which extolled the virtues, instead, of its new 5GB deal for $55 US.

Then in February, Verizon suddenly changed its tune by launching its own unlimited plan — something it now claims customers want.

“We’ve been working tirelessly but quietly behind the scenes to deliver exactly what you’ve asked for,” said Ronan Dunne, president of Verizon’s wireless division, in a promotional video.

Days later, AT&T made the next move, announcing unlimited data deals for all customers. Previously it only offered the plan to its TV subscribers.

America’s fifth largest carrier, U.S. Cellular, then followed in step with its own unlimited package.

Why not in Canada?

Meanwhile in Toronto, customer Connolly says he waits for the day he could sign up for a reasonably priced unlimited deal. “It would be amazing to see here.”

So what about Canada? Freedom Mobile (formerly Wind) offers unlimited wireless deals in a somewhat limited fashion: once customers use up the amount they’ve paid for, they can use additional data at no cost — but at reduced speed.

Rose Behar MobileSyrup cellphone unlimited data

Rose Behar, of MobileSyrup, believes unlimited wireless data plans will eventually make their way to Canada but are likely to be expensive and come with major restrictions. (Rose Behar)

CBC News could only find one Canadian carrier offering a true unlimited deal to all customers — regional provider Manitoba Telecom Services. The phone plan starts at $75 a month, and data speeds slow down after a user burns through 15 GB. But Bell just bought the company so this deal may not last.

None of the big three in Canada — Bell, Rogers and Telus — offer unlimited wireless data plans.

In Canada’s less competitive marketplace, providers aren’t rushing to offer them because limiting data can be lucrative, says Behar. “Data overage charges have undoubtedly been a large source of revenue.”

Of course, customers don’t aim to exceed their limit and run up the bill. “But in the moment, when you really need the data, of course you’ll pay for it,” says Behar

Verizon ad unlimited wireless data cellphone

A scene from Verizon’s new TV ad for its unlimited wireless data plan. (Verizon/YouTube)

CBC News asked the major players why they don’t offer unlimited wireless plans.

Bell said that its customers already have plenty of options including plans with “generous” amounts of data. The company also said that the usage-based approach is needed to pay for the “tremendous costs” required to build high-speed broadband networks in Canada and manage the surge in mobile data use.

As for Rogers, “It just isn’t feasible to offer unlimited plans,” said spokesperson Andrew Garas in an email to CBC News. He added that the company offers customers tools to manage and monitor their data use.

Telus did not respond to our request for comment.

Coming to Canada someday?

Behar believes unlimited data deals will eventually come to Canada because consumers will demand it.

One of the big three is going to say ‘OK, we’ll get ahead of this and we’ll launch it,'” she says.

But she warns Canadians not to get too excited. She believes unlimited plans here will be more costly than in the U.S. and could include some major restrictions. In other words, they could make Connolly’s $85 5GB deal sound like the better option.

“I think that when it happens, it’s not going to be all we dreamed of,” says Behar.

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Major U.S. wireless providers rush to offer unlimited data plans. Why not in Canada?

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