Thursday, November 8, 2012

Combating Wireless Phone Bill Shocks

We’ve all heard horror stories of Canadians getting massive wireless phone bills because they used a service they thought was covered by their plan, but their provider disagrees. Fear of this sort of problem makes some people shut off their phones whenever they travel, particularly in foreign countries or even just close enough to the U.S. border to get picked up by a U.S. tower. I think I have a partial solution to this problem.

No doubt there are situations where a wireless phone user knowingly runs up a multi-thousand dollar bill because he or she is doing something just that important. But most of the time, people running up huge bills would stop whatever they were doing if they knew the costs were so high.

What if your phone were to pop up with a message on the screen saying “you have now incurred $50 in extra charges so far this month” and demanded that you type in some password to continue? If you continued to use extra services, you’d get messages at $100, $150, and so on. High rollers might prefer a threshold higher than $50, and other people might prefer something smaller, but $50 seems like a reasonable default value. Allowing users to change their personal threshold would be useful.

Does something like this already exist? Do wireless network providers make it possible to access billing data in real time so that this function could be performed by an app?

This isn’t a perfect solution in the battle between wireless phone users and the providers who try to extract as much money as possible, but it would be helpful for users in Canada’s not very competitive wireless phone market.


  1. Not that I'm a raving fan of the "now with more dropped calls" service I seem to be getting these days, but the last few times I've traveled internationally and *knowingly* used data, fido did send SMS's to indicate that I was roaming and that I had used a good $$ of data and would be better off with one of the travel packs. So there is some progress.

  2. Telus does the same for me. I get messages at $10, $50, $100, etc. of incurred roaming charges. It suggests temporary add-on packages to reduce the costs as well.

    So while I'm not an expert on what they can and can't do, I'm pretty sure anything is possible. Just not profitable.

    For people travelling close to the border, disabling "Automatic Carrier Selection" on your phone will allow you to choose one carrier and to force that connection whenever possible, so I would choose Telus and not have to worry about roaming. In fact, if I'm over the border but a Telus tower is in range, I have full functionality with my phone and no roaming either.

    And for extended data usage, I just get a sim card from a local carrier and an unlimited package. In France and Ireland, the total bill came out to between $15 and $25 in each country for not having to worry about ridiculous charges.

  3. Rogers has an app to monitor consumption.

    I bit of guts and knowledge may help prevent most of high bills troubles:
    - afraid of picking up US network - set your phone on a fixed network
    - cross the border and do not want to use data in roaming - switch data connection off while abroad
    - do not want to pay for roaming minutes - don't answer calls, use sms
    - need to talk using the same number - buy a roaming package from your provider, can be done by sms

    For the more gutsy - unlock your phone and buy a local SIM card.

    For the most advanced: unlock your phone, buy a local sim card, buy a Canadian VOIP number, forward your cell number to this VOIP number, forward this VOIP number to the number of your foreign sim card. Result: calls to your Canadian cell number reach you abroad at a cost of VOIP call and local incoming call abroad(free anywhere in the world except Canada). To call Canada from abroad - install an app and use the same VOIP service via local data.
    works for me :)

  4. @Anonymous, @Preet, @AnatoliN: Based on the replies so far, it seems that there are apps and services available that allow users to monitor their consumption of some services, and there are ways around problems for the knowledgeable and wary. I'd like to take it a step further. I want close-to-real-time access to my current monthly charges including all charges for all types of services. And if the displayed charge is wrong, the service provider eats the loss. This means that all reciprocal arrangements between carriers in different countries would have to include a real-time billing component (or reasonably close to real time). So if my nephew manages to start racking up charges on some game while using my smart phone, he'll have to pass it to me to type in a password when the "you've hit $50 in extra charges this month" message comes up. This is the kind of blanket protection I'm looking for rather than the patchwork of roaming charge messages.