Network speeds are slower and spottier, but they’re good enough – especially for the price.
Wind Mobile Switch:
For Canadian cellphone users, it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. Prices for service remain sky-high, but a brief respite is currently appearing as big carriers deal with what’s known as a “double cohort.”
A larger-than-usual number of subscribers will see their wireless contracts expire in early June, thanks to regulations that took effect in 2013. Although they’re not explicitly banned, three-year contracts will effectively be dead as of June 3 since carriers will no longer be able to charge device subsidies after 24 months.
As a result, anyone who has already been on a contract for two years or more will be able to walk away with no penalties as of that date.
The carriers tried to fight the application of these rules to existing contracts, but the Federal Court of Appeal last week rejected their arguments. Now, deals are emerging. There has perhaps never been a better time for consumers to try and negotiate a deal, or to defect to another carrier. One estimate figures the double cohort could provide opportunities for up to 4 million Canadians.
It’s with this backdrop that I came to the decision to test out Wind Mobile, one of the newer wireless providers available in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
Wind has been operating since 2009, after winning wireless licences in a government spectrum auction geared toward encouraging new startups. It’s now the country’s fourth largest carrier, with 800,000 subscribers.
Wind has had its ups and downs, including regulatory problems, tumultuous ownership and funding shortfalls. In recent months, a more upbeat attitude has seemed to settle in, with management saying it has emerged from its troubles as a stable business that is focused on the future. New government rules and regulations have also helped.
Wind has positioned itself as an alternative to the Big Three – Bell, Rogers and Telus – with lower prices and more generous usage of its network.
Any assessment of Wind’s service is really an assessment of that network. As a company that’s barely five years old, there’s no way it can match the quality of the Big Three, who often boast about having some of the best networks in the world. The question in reviewing Wind therefore has to be: is the network good enough?
I thought I’d document my month-long test here, with a few caveats up front. This review won’t apply to all Canadians or even all Wind Mobile users because coverage differs in quality depending on geography.
Every cellphone user is also different. Some people like to do lots of video streaming, some don’t do any, for example, so there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all review.
I’d tried fellow startup Mobilicity a few years ago, not long after both companies launched. It was considerably cheaper than the Big Three at the time, but I quickly got frustrated with the quality of the service. I seemed to have dropped connections more frequently than not.
Hiccups are to be expected with a new provider, but it was evident that Mobilicity still had a long way to go before it could serve my needs. I don’t know what the company’s service is like these days, but I opted for Wind Mobile for this test because of that bad experience.
Here’s my usage profile: I live in Etobicoke, in the west end of Toronto, and I work at home. I have a landline, but I keep it unplugged except for radio interviews. I treat my cellphone as my only phone. With my Big Three plan, I was getting 400 local minutes, 100 North American minutes, unlimited texting and 1 GB of data, for $55 a month.
I’d been begging and pleading with my provider for months to increase my data cap, but not my bill. Knowing that more data costs the provider mere pennies and that prices are so much lower in other countries has made me staunchly resistant to paying more for my wireless service. Unfortunately, my carrier was just as opposed to granting me anything better.
I frequently travel downtown and occasionally leave the city, either for trips in Ontario or to the United States. I mainly use my phone to check email, weather, maps and movie showtimes, and to post to Twitter. I also send a lot of texts and probably make more phone calls than the average person – the perils of a freelance journalist.
My low usage cap had conditioned me away from certain activities. Streaming video, for example, has been a no-go. In fact, any kind of video is a data killer, so I’ve stayed away from it entirely. I’d even erased the Facebook app from my phone after finding it used too much data.
I’m generally using different phones all the time – it’s part of my job – but my preference is iPhones. I’m never on a contract and insist on unlocked phones, so much so that I urge everyone to buy their own phones and get them unlocked. It’s the best way to retain independence from carriers and maintain the ability to switch if and when better offers become available.
I had some preconceived notions about Wind prior to signing up. The company uses AWS wireless spectrum, which is in a high frequency that isn’t well suited to penetrating walls. When I was with Mobilicity, which uses the same spectrum, I often had service drop out while I was indoors. Subscribers to T-Mobile USA, which also uses the same frequencies, used to complain of the same problems.
Wind and Mobilicity customers also face a unique burden in the form of domestic roaming, which are extra fees they must pay when using their phone outside the carrier’s home coverage area. Given that both companies are relatively new with comparatively small networks, that means most of Canada. I wondered whether I’d be able to use my phone outside of Toronto and whether it would cost me a lot of money to do so.
Lastly, I wondered how fast Wind might be. The Big Three carriers are all using Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology and are delivering blazing download and upload speeds. Wind Mobile hasn’t yet made the jump to LTE, and it’s an open question as to when it will happen.
I signed up at a Wind kiosk in a mall near my house. It went smoothly, although I was miffed by the $25 fee for the SIM card. Wind advertises no activation fees, so I felt like I’d been misled. The Big Three might be known for all sorts of nickel-and-dime fees, but even they don’t charge that much for a SIM.
Nevertheless, Wind’s regular pricing more than makes up for it. I opted for the $35-a-month plan: unlimited nationwide talk and text, plus 2 GB of data, which is what I’d been wanting for months. As an extra bonus, I got a $150 credit for bringing my own phone that could be applied through a number of different options, such as worldwide text or North American calling.
I opted to double my data, to 4 GB, for 15 months. That’s quadruple what I was getting through my Big Three provider, at nearly half the price. The thought of that quickly erased the sting of the SIM card fee.
Still, I made a point of keeping my old account and number open. I wasn’t prepared to fully switch without knowing what I was getting into.
I popped the Wind SIM into my iPhone and fired it up. Then, because I’m a nerd, the first thing I did was a speed test. I was curious to see how the network was and whether it actually worked indoors.
To my surprise, I cracked about 3 megabits per second on the download side, and 1 Mbps with the upload. Make no mistake – that’s much, much slower than typical results on the Big Three, but it was better than I was expecting indoors. So far, so good.
Over the next few days, I performed numerous speed tests. A few times I got downloads up around 7 Mbps, and sometimes down under 1 Mbps. Uploads rarely clocked in at much more than 2 Mbps. Most of the time, it was around 3 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. It was clear Wind is significantly slower – the question became: would I care?
In real terms, I kept using my phone the same way I always had: checking email, posting tweets, getting directions, buying movie tickets. Everything went relatively well, if slower.
I had a few dropped connections when deep inside buildings, but otherwise the AWS plague I was expecting didn’t materialize. My phone works perfectly even in my basement.
After a few days, the realization that I had more data started to sink in, and my behaviour started changing. I reinstalled the Facebook app on my phone. I checked Twitter more often. I even added the Sirius XM and Spotify apps. Over the past few weeks, I’ve actually gotten into music streaming – something I never expected to do.
I’ve even watched the occasional video. Shocking stuff.
It’s hard to put into words how liberating this change of mindset felt. It was like a nagging worry had been put to rest. That angst I normally felt in the latter half of the month, with my data limit approaching, was gone. Although Wind gives set caps, the company doesn’t charge overage fees if you exceed it, you just get a slower speed.
That’s something I haven’t been able to test and probably won’t for some time. I can’t imagine how I’ll go over 4 GB any time soon.
At the conclusion of this test, I’ve found I don’t care that music streaming is occasionally glitchy, or that email takes a few seconds to load. That inconvenience, although it does add up over time, doesn’t outweigh the piece of mind I’ve found in having so much more data to play with.
Roam if You Want To
The wife and I took a trip out to Windsor about a week into my trial, which provided the perfect roaming test. I figured I’d keep using my phone the same as usual, both to test the connection and to see what it would end up costing me.
Windsor turned out to be more hit and miss than Toronto. Speeds either clocked in at the high or the low end, with less consistency in the mid-range. That was concerning, since it’s tough to develop a comfort with the service if it’s behaving erratically. I also lost the connection entirely a few times along the 401 highway, but it was there at rest stops.
We also popped over to Detroit for a Tigers game, which turned up some interesting results. Connection speeds were generally faster and more consistent once roaming on T-Mobile. That’s not surprising, given the U.S. provider has an older and stronger network.
Again, I kept using my phone as normal – checking email and posting pictures to Facebook. That’s not something I’d ever have considered with my Big Three connection, given the punitive U.S. roaming charges.
All told, roaming quality satisfied my expectations. When I got my bill a few weeks later, I found my data usage over that weekend had cost a little under $3. That’s peanuts.
I had another opportunity to test roaming on a visit to Silicon Valley last week. This time, I switched between using my Wind and Roam Mobility accounts. Two days on Roam cost me about $8 (before tax) and about $7 on Wind.
Both companies use the same roaming partner – T-Mobile – but Roam gave me LTE speeds. The costs were about the same, but Roam’s extra speed was certainly better.
On future trips, it’ll be a question of tradeoffs: do I go with the faster Roam speeds and thereby switch to a different phone number, or do I swallow the slower speed in exchange for keeping my regular number?
The Bottom Line
I also conducted a side experiment with the Big Three carriers while testing Wind.
In preparation for the coming double cohort, the so-called flanker brands – Fido, Koodo and Virgin – started offering promotional deal for customers with their own phones a few weeks ago, consisting of unlimited nation-wide calling and 1 GB of data for $45.
I checked to see if my Big Three carrier would provide me with the 2GB I had long been seeking to keep me from switching. To my surprise, the carrier came through with an offer of 2GB and unlimited local calling for the same $55 I had been paying. It was a pyrrhic victory, though, since switching would have meant losing my North American calling.
I asked if the local calling offer could be upped to nationwide minutes, but nope, no dice, so I switched to the flanker brand’s cheaper $45 promo deal. A week later, I called the flanker’s retentions department and offered to pay $10 more, back up to $55, for 2 GB.
I mentioned I was simultaneously testing Wind, and that I had to cancel one service or the other. Again, no dice. The retentions agent told me I had to be a customer for at least six months to qualify for special bonuses.
After much consideration and soul searching – would I miss those faster speeds? – I decided to cancel my service with the flanker brand and move my phone number over to Wind. I wasn’t completely confident in the decision to abandon the Big Three once and for all, but I was willing to take the chance.
But our story doesn’t end there. When I called Wind to finally switch my number over, customer service told me it could take three hours to do so, and if it wasn’t done within that time frame, I should call back. Sure enough, three hours passed so I called, only to be told an error had been made and that it could take another 48 hours.
My wife had made the same earlier switch from her Big Three provider to a different flanker brand and the number port took all of 10 minutes, so this made me angry. A supervisor told me he would speed up the transfer and tacked a $20 credit onto my account for the inconvenience.
Two days later, my number still hadn’t made the switch, so I asked Wind’s tech support via Twitter what the problem was. The representative on the other end couldn’t explain, nor could he say when the port would ultimately take place.
And so emerged the third prong of the wireless business – price, network and customer service, which Wind was failing badly on. The price was great, the network was okay, but the service was bordering on inept.
That sparked my earlier trepidation about switching, so I reneged. I called Wind again with the intention of cancelling the port request and my service. A retentions agent asked me to give him five minutes, and wouldn’t you know it, he managed to instantaneously port my number.
That seems like a win, but I’m not so sure. I’m now suspicious of Wind’s customer service – if they can make a number port happen that fast when a customer threatens to quit, why does it take so long otherwise?
There are clearly problems with Wind, but in the end I decided to park my service with them, at least for now. The extreme irony is that mere days after this whole debacle, the flanker brand I had switched away from introduced yet another new promo deal – 2 GB of data with unlimited calling and texting for $55.
That’s the exact same deal customer retentions had been unwilling to give me just a few days earlier. If they had, I probably wouldn’t have turned my Wind test into a full-on defection.
Customer service snafus aside, Wind does seem to have captured just the right aspect of its offering in its current marketing efforts. The company is pushing “piece of mind” as its main selling point, and on that front I couldn’t agree more. My usage mindset changed considerably over the month-long trial, to the point where I was no longer worrying about blowing through my cap and paying through the nose for it.
There’s no doubt Wind Mobile’s coverage and network aren’t as fast or robust as its Big Three competitors, but for my usage needs they were good enough. The fact that service is priced so much lower is what sealed the deal, even if customer service almost killed it.
I’m going on the expectation that the quality and speed will only improve, since Wind has acquired more spectrum and could soon make deals with other carriers for better coverage.
It’s curious that my original Big Three provider made me a deal only when there was a better advertised plan from fellow Big Three carrier, yet no deal was offered when I threatened to switch to Wind. That pretty much tells the story of how Bell, Rogers and Telus view the upstart – it’s not yet a threat, so they pretend it doesn’t exist.
For my money, things will get interesting when and if Wind is able to offer faster LTE service. Only then will the Big Three’s caps go up and prices go down. Until then, consumers have to make a choice between one or the other.
UPDATE AUG. 18: After a few more months of using Wind’s service, I decided to go crawling back to the Big Three on my hands and knees. Here’s a post on that.