Opinion » Cybernaut


The phone trap



In most ways I'm the complete opposite of a Luddite, embracing every new technology that comes down the pipe. In recent trips to the mall I've been blown away by 3D television displays, touch screen desktops, iPhones, tablets, video game consoles (that PS3 is small AND quiet), video game handhelds and other stuff. If I won a $10,000 shopping spree I'd probably rush to the electronics sections first with a carefully researched shopping list of items to grab.

But while I can appreciate all this new technology I have yet to make the leap to owning a real cell phone, much less a smart phone - despite the fact that they've been around now for a long, long time and are so very, very cool. It's not that I don't want a smart phone or couldn't make good use of one, it's just that I really don't think I can afford it.

Our landline is predictable. There's a monthly fee, a certain amount of free long distance, then a predictable rate for more long distance when we've reached the limit. I've never looked at a phone bill and had to wonder where I was going to get the money to pay it.

I also have a cell phone, a 7-11 handset that came free with the purchase of $100 worth of pay-as-you-go minutes. I put about $50 on it every two or three months and keep my calls short to stretch out those dollars as much as possible. On average I pay between $15 and $25 per month.

Cell phone plans are far more expensive. A poll in the Pique office found an average monthly cost of around $80 once all fees and extra charges are taken into account. Some spent as "low" as $65, while others were over $100. The cost seemed to depend somewhat on features and plans, but also on the person's willingness to play hardball with their providers to get the best possible deal.

Here's where I have an issue. My home phone bill is currently around $35 a month. My wife and I spend around $40 a month combined on our pay-as-you go phones for a total of about $75 a month on average.

If we were both to get smart phones and keep our landlines our collective phone bill would increase to around $200 a month. If we were to cancel our landline and get two cell phones then we would pay anywhere from $130 to $160, depending on what plan we opt for. Either way, our monthly costs would at least double and possibly triple.

Then we have Elly. Elly is not even two years old yet but a day will come when she will need her own phone. It's entirely possible that rates in Canada will drop by then but we could seriously be looking at a monthly cost over $250 - almost enough to lease a car.

Right now Canadians pay the third-highest rates in the world, according to a comparison made by CBC in August - $500 U.S. a year compared to $635 U.S. for Americans and $508 U.S. for Spaniards. On the other end of the spectrum Dutch users had the cheapest rates at $131 U.S. per month, although to be fair you could probably provide coverage for that small, flat and crowded part of the world with a few dozen towers while Canada is closing in on 10,000 cell towers with spotty coverage over our mostly unpopulated land mass.

The Canadian government is aware of the issue of high rates, which is also thought to be the culprit behind low cell phone usage. Canada falls last in terms of cell phone users in the entire 30 nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and well-behind less developed nations like Mexico.

When usage rates increase our costs should go down, but at the same time our usage rate won't increase as long as costs continue to be this high. It's a classic Catch-22.

While I am no Luddite, I am cheap. I also like to think I have the ability to put things into a practical perspective, after having lived through the harrowing experience of growing up with cell phones. Somehow I don't think it's right that a smart phone would cost more per month than my electrical and gas bill combined, and truthfully I'm not willing to sacrifice my ability to save for the future or enjoy my life now in exchange for a little convenience and some cool features.

In that sense, a technology that was originally marketed to high powered executives and car owners as an extra measure of safety is now being marketed as a lifestyle product. It's no longer a question of whether it even makes sense to own a smart phone (e.g. you actually need it for work), but rather a question of what smart phone you should get. You get something that can text message because all your friends have it. You need Twitter and facebook. You also need music, games, video, Internet, GPS and all kinds of other features you didn't really need before but suddenly can't live without.

I'm not anti-smart phone but I really can't see myself buying in until the day it actually becomes affordable, which means it fits into my current budget without sacrificing something else. That day is a long way off.