Sugar Mobile aims to sweeten the deal for cellular customers

A regional wireless carrier with a 3G network across the territories is trying to go national - and it's getting pushback from some of Canada's big three telecommunications companies.

A regional wireless carrier with a 3G network across the territories is trying to go national – and it’s getting pushback from some of Canada’s big three telecommunications companies.

In January, Ice Wireless launched Sugar Mobile, a startup offering a $19-a-month wireless service to customers across Canada.

The service uses a combination of Wi-Fi and data networks to allow customers to make phone calls and send text messages over the Internet, kind of like using Skype.

“It’s not a traditional cellular service,” said Samer Bishay, president and CEO of Sugar Mobile and Ice Wireless. “It’s all data. You’re able to make all your voice phone calls, all your SMS messages and obviously surf the Internet through that connection.”

To use Sugar Mobile, customers first have to unlock their phones and download an app. Then, when they’re in a WiFi hotspot – which Bishay said is 80 per cent of the time for most people – they can make unlimited calls and send unlimited texts to anyone in Canada and the U.S.

They’re also given 200 megabytes of data for any time they don’t have WiFi. Bishay said that’s enough for 650 minutes of voice chat or about 20,000 text messages.

Bishay said $19 a month is far less than Canadians can expect to pay for a traditional phone plan with data from any of the major carriers – Bell, Telus or Rogers.

“The price point to actually get on a data plan in Canada right now is at least at $40 to start,” he said, “which is a high price to pay considering that you’re going to only want the data when you’re outside of that (Wi-Fi) zone, right? And you’re only outside of that zone for 20 per cent of the time.”

But it’s Sugar Mobile’s creative way of finding customers across Canada that has now attracted the ire of Rogers and Bell.

Ice Wireless operates in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. But it has a reciprocal roaming agreement with Rogers, so that customers in the North can still use their phones when they’re in southern Canada.

And that’s the key. Sugar Mobile customers are given SIM cards assigned to 867 area codes. So a customer living in Toronto will piggyback off the roaming agreement, and will simply appear to Rogers as an Ice Wireless customer roaming in southern Canada.

Bishay said he doesn’t think the design is sneaky.

“We’re just trying to innovate and push the envelope, and benefit the consumer at the end of the day. … That’s really what it comes down to,” he said.

He said Sugar Mobile already has thousands of customers across Canada, including some in the Yukon.

But Rogers, unsurprisingly, is not pleased with the arrangement. In February, the company sent a notice to Ice Wireless, saying it would disconnect Ice Wireless and Sugar Mobile from its mobile network.

In return, Ice Wireless filed a complaint with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Now, the CRTC has until March 17 to decide whether Sugar Mobile should be allowed to keep operating.

Josh Tabish, campaigns director at Vancouver-based non-profit advocacy group OpenMedia, said the real question here is whether a regional provider should be allowed to go national.

“Companies that have been forced to build out their own cellphone infrastructure fail,” he said, referring to WIND Mobile and Mobilicity, upstart providers that were eventually bought out by Shaw and Rogers. “The bar for building a national cellphone network when three already exist is simply too high.”

He said the only way for regional companies to compete with the Big Three is by doing something new, like Sugar Mobile has done.

“We need innovation in whatever form it looks like,” he said. “This type of thing should be encouraged, not discouraged.”

Sugar Mobile is partly the product of a CRTC ruling from 2015. In the ruling, the CRTC said that companies without their own wireless infrastructure can negotiate access with a single carrier and then take advantage of all the roaming agreements that carrier has with other operators.

Bishay said Sugar Mobile qualifies as one of those companies. It has an agreement with Ice Wireless, and is therefore entitled to use the Rogers network, he argued.

He also said that Sugar Mobile customers are only roaming a small fraction of the time, since they’re mostly using WiFi connections.

“Why doesn’t Rogers do the same thing instead of fighting us?” he said. “Why don’t they launch their own … product and compete?”

But Rogers says Sugar Mobile is violating its roaming agreement with Ice Wireless.

“These customers are clearly not roaming and have no right to use Rogers,” the company said in a submission to the CRTC on Feb. 18.

Bell has also waded into the fray, saying that Sugar Mobile is allowing its customers to spend “all of their air time permanently roaming on the network of the roaming provider rather than on the home network of their service provider.”

But Tabish said he thinks Rogers is just trying to kill any competition.

“We think that if the commission has any sense, they will see this for what it is, which is a blatantly anti-competitive move,” he said.

He said companies like Sugar Mobile already exist in the United States, but the Big Three have made it very difficult for similar companies to thrive in Canada.

On Saturday, OpenMedia launched a petition to support Sugar Mobile, which has already collected over 25,000 signatures.

The organization plans to make a submission to the CRTC before the March 17 deadline.

“What we want to be able to say is Canadians want more choice, they want lower wireless bills, they think these types of innovative services are important,” he said. “This should be a Canadian success story.”

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (yfned.ca)
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Most Read