Canada had it – lost it – had it again – lost it again….

Tim O’Reilly put up an interesting piece on cell phone carriers, and what he and others on the O’Reilly staff really want from a carrier. It’s over at Ten Things I Want From My Phone: “

The big thing is good services with fair pricing. Notable rants that apply to us in Canada as well include the locked, debilitated cell phones from carriers (not to mention the North America-only CDMA nonsense. (The majority of the planet is on GSM. Plan the transition.) The irony is that twice we’ve had this wonderful situation of having a “JetBlue” of Cell Service as they put it, only to have it bought up by incumbents, and crippled to various degrees.

ClearNet was an absolutely outstanding cell provider in Canada. Cheap entry, good phones, simple plans, and quite a la carte in model. It was CDMA, but that was before the GSM standard really took off. I was a long time happy ClearNet customer. Then, they were bought by Telus. Within 4 months, there was a noticeable change in service and pricing plans, and an emergence of nickel-and-diming mentality. Thus endeth the ClearNet enlightenment. The only thing that survived was the branding and ad agency that was adopted, quite wisely, by Telus. Now even those ads are losing their elegance and getting… “busy”.

So after looking around, and deciding that GSM was the way to go so I don’t need to rent a cell phone when I do wind up on the odd business trip to Europe, I came upon Fido. Again, a great upstart, GSM, clear plans, excellent metropolitan service (the downside being only metropolitan service, but that was just fine for me, and they were new to the game) and again, a great relationship with the customer. That was an enjoyable few years as well, and then Rogers came in and bought them. Now to Rogers’ credit, they haven’t killed them off, they are more a subsidiary, but I still have notices a number of new “nickel-and-dime” bits seeping into the bill starting shortly after the acquisition, and the service was not as good as before, so I needed to add $5 a month to also enable the use of Rogers “extended area” cell footprint. Since that got me access outside of the metro areas, I was ok with that, but still a bit annoying. Essentially the company got an advantage from the purchase of Fido, whereas the customers essentially got nothing, or in some areas slightly less than before.

Now, I’m not against company purchases and it makes good business sense, but it seems there simply are not enough competitors in this marketplace to settle it out. In Europe, you get charges only for calls you make. Incoming calls are only charged if they are roaming calls and you’re on a North American carrier. But the model is caller pays. That makes a great deal of sense, and encourages cell phone use. In Canada, and the US, we get double-tapped by the carriers. Charged on both sides for both parts of the conversation. To say nothing of downright ridiculous data plans.

So as a thought, what if, in this municipal wifi flurry of excitement, we take a bit of public infrastructure and enable the marketplace? If the wifi towers go up in a city, and providing the antenna physics and such work out, allow junior carriers to rent space on the towers at a reasonable cost. The wifi towers should have fiber access to them at any rate to enable the data busses on to the Internet and back to the carrier or exchange point, so adding a cell station (GSM please) as well isn’t a huge capital outlay. The switches aren’t cheap, but it beats plowing cable and negotiating the tower placement. This would enable small cell companies to get rolling, even on a per-city basis, and get some innovation and competition in. Plus they aren’t the huge takeover targets as they don’t own as much of the infrastructure, and perhaps those towers are limited to low-market cap companies or otherwise don’t allow the density per cell some of the big players need. They are enablers, but gradually companies would outgrow them.

Much like the cable and telephone cables that are plowed into our neighbourhoods and houses, the airwaves are in many ways a public infrastructure. They are limited in supply, and are on public land with granted right-of-ways for the service they provide. Lock-in on a public infrastructure is just anti-competitive. The cost of that plant has been paid for dozens of times over by the customers. Otherwise Telus and others wouldn’t be heading to be an income trust. If you’re not making a healthy profit, an income trust isn’t a good idea.

I want the second coming of ClearNet, but maybe done by Orange or T-Mobile from the UK or someone in the leading countries of cellular service, not the backwaters of North America. What would you like to see in Canada for cell service?

Currently playing in iTunes: Razzle Dazzle by Richard Gere & Cast

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