Starting today, for our fifth annual Fastest Mobile Networks Canada story, we'll be heading out on the road to see just how fast Canada's LTE networks really are. We'll hit all 10 provinces for the first time, from sea to shining sea, covering 18 of the top 20 metro areas in the country.
There's been a major change in the Canadian wireless landscape since our 2016 report. Wind Mobile was acquired by cable operator Shaw and became Freedom Wireless, with a new LTE network that can finally compete with the national carriers on speed. We're hoping our tests will show Freedom to be a no-compromise, lower-cost alternative to the Big Three for folks living in the major metro areas that Freedom covers.
Canada gained an independent LTE competitor over the past year, but it also lost one. In a hugely unpopular deal last year, Bell purchased Manitoba's MTS; so far it has kept MTS's popular unlimited plans, but it has only committed to keeping them through February 2018. Xplorenet, a rural internet service provider, will launch competitive service in Manitoba in the future, but hasn't done so yet. The Saskatchewan government toyed last year with selling SaskTel, as well, but has settled into looking at selling a non-controlling interest.
LTE upgrades are plowing ahead, especially in major metro areas. Bell and Telus are now running quad-band networks with theoretical speeds of up to 750Mbps in major metropolitan areas, promising average download speeds of up to 200Mbps. If these promises hold, those carriers will be faster than any US wireless carrier, and they'll show speeds that are a major jump up from 2016. We're eager to see.
Speeds Are Up, But What About Prices?
There's still one way US wireless operators are far superior to Canadian ones, and the future doesn't look good for Canada. That's in pricing and data caps.
While the major US operators all now offer some form of very high volume LTE plan, Canadian carriers are still pretty stingy. While $105/month will now get you 6GB rather than 5GB with the three major carriers in Ontario, the same $83 (US) per month will buy you "unlimited" data (typically 20-30GB before de-prioritization) on Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, or several of their sub-brands in the US. With most of those deals, you'll even have money left over from that budget.
Our speed tests are relevant to the pricing debate because speed can often be a proxy for capacity. As T-Mobile and Sprint have both told us here in the US, when you see dramatically better speeds on a mobile network, that means the network has room to deliver more data to its customers, which means it could lower prices if competition forces it to do so.
Where, When, and How We Drive Canada
We'll be driving around Canada in two cars with Samsung Galaxy S8 phones running custom versions of the Ookla Speedtest.net software, running tests every 90 seconds against a wide range of servers. We picked the Galaxy S8 because its Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset is the first one to support quad-band carrier aggregation, which Canadian carriers are using to boost their speeds to new levels.
Drive testing allows us to compare carriers using the same model of phone, at the same time, in the same locations, eliminating variables that may crop up in crowdsourced data. It lets us distribute our tests evenly across a metro area, and lets us find dead zones that crowdsourced apps wouldn't be able to detect. Drive testing and crowdsourced testing have their strengths, and we're happy to be working with our sibling company Ookla Speedtest to use both forms of data.
This year, we have phones from Bell, Rogers, Telus, Eastlink, Freedom, MTS, and Videotron in our cars. SaskTel, which we have previously covered, opted out this year, so we'll be using crowdsourced data to analyze their performance.
Our unmarked cars will be roving the streets in major metro areas around Canada on the following schedule. If you'd like us to zip by somewhere you're curious about, tell us in the comments below. The final story will be published at the beginning of September.
- Newfoundland: August 19-23
- Nova Scotia, NB and PEI: August 8-14
- Quebec: July 30-August 4
- Southern Ontario: July 24-August 1
- Manitoba (Winnipeg area): August 3-5
- Saskatchewan: August 6-9
- Alberta: August 11-15
- British Columbia (Vancouver and Victoria): July 25-27
Watch: PCMag's Fastest Mobile Networks 2017: Mountain West
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