Home » Columns » A Tale of Two Canadas: How Cell Phone Coverage Varies

A Tale of Two Canadas: How Cell Phone Coverage Varies

March 4, 2017 8:16 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

Cell Phone

NEEPAWA, Man. — Did you know that Canadian cell phone users have one of the fastest mobile networks in the world? Neither did I, because I’m usually struggling to find more than three bars of service.

Last month, Open Signal released their annual State of Mobile Networks report, which found that Canada had the 11th fastest network in the world — faster than the U.S. and the U.K., faster in fact than many European countries. Open Signal is an application that users download to help them find networks, towers and improve their connection. It also monitors their usage, and then aggregates that information for reports on characteristics like network speeds and WiFi usage. The speed reported is an average of all of the mobile data connections a user experiences, which also means it effectively measures how much of the users’ networks have been upgraded to the faster 4G technology. The end result is a more accurate picture of real-life network performance.

The problem is that this belies the challenge of access faced by many Canadians outside major urban centres. I conducted an Open Signal speed test on my phone, sitting at my desk. The test registered a download speed of 1.5 Mbps and a combined speed of 3.53 Mbps. For some context, the national average speed, the one that contributed to Canada’s top placing, was an average of 20.26 Mbps.

Even their slowest country, Costa Rica, had an overall speed of 2.69 Mbps and you only have to go four from the bottom to get to Sri Lanka, which has a combined speed of 3.96 Mbps. Canada’s data was based on 289 million measurements from 15,272 users, almost all of whom must be urban dwellers.

Another likely cause for the discrepancy is the fact that Canada’s network information was only based on service experienced by users across the three national networks: Bell, Rogers and Telus. As most people within our coverage area know, only one of those, Rogers, has any kind of presence beyond the province’s major cities and some stretches of Highway 1, though that will change as Bell’s purchase of MTS becomes finalized.

Even the networks that do have a strong presence in the province have dead zones in what could hardly be considered remote locations. Those travelling between Minnedosa and Brandon will be familiar with the common sound of silence when a call is dropped. Or the similar frustration of trying to check your email on portions of Highway 1 between Brandon and Winnipeg.

This high-speed experiences enjoyed elsewhere in the country come at a high cost to all users. According to data released by CRTC last year, Canadians pay among the highest rates for their cell phones. This finding came from the 2016 Nordicity Group price comparison, which examined prices of different categories of mobile services in major cities in Canada, the U.S., Australia, U.K., France, Italy, Germany and Japan. The report found that Canadians paid the most for the most basic level of service examined (150 minutes of talk time) and paid the second highest rates in all other categories, but one. At least urban Canadians are getting their money’s worth!

For now, at least, the federal government and the CRTC are on the same page when it comes to a continued need for infrastructure investment. On December 21, 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) put broadband Internet into the same category as land line telephones, announcing that it will now be considered a basic service. The CRTC also announced speed and access targets for both fixed and mobile broadband services, a category into which today’s smartphones fall.

At least there’s some good news for rural cell phone users staring longingly at the high-speed networks other Canadians are riding.