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article imageRichard Branson Leads Charge in Bringing Canadian Telcos Out of the Stone Age

By David Silverberg     Mar 13, 2007 in Technology
Finally, Canadian cellphone users will be able to transfer numbers seamlessly from carrier to carrier starting tomorrow. Today in Toronto, Sir Richard Branson staged another publicity stunt to urge Canadians to wake up and smell the portability.
Digital Journal — On a massive LCD perched above Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, a digital countdown ticked away the seconds to a daredevil publicity stunt courtesy of Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson. But there’s another countdown in Canada — on March 14, wireless number portability (WNP) will finally arrive in the Great White North
While many Canadian wireless carriers have been mostly quiet on the WNP front, Virgin Mobile Canada has been creating websites and marketing campaigns trumpeting the arrival of the long-awaited service. Transferring cellphone numbers is clearly an indication that Canada is catching up to the rest of the world — the U.S. introduced WNP in 2003, and Britain and Singapore started the trend 10 years ago.
So what would the adventure-seeking Branson do to woo cellphone fans to his two-year-old company in Canada? Perch high inside a jail cell suspended by a construction cane, of course. Going with a prisoner theme, the stunt showed off Branson’s penchant for flair: Mini fireworks blasted the walls off the cell, revealing a hand-waving grinning billionaire. Branson then escaped his “mobile jail cell” by slowly climbing down tied bedsheets. He ran towards several “mobile prisoners” (read: models dressed in inmate stripes) and threw off their chains. Cue applause, cue a press conference so Virgin Mobile could trumpet the practicality of WNP.
Christopher Hogg  DigitalJournal.com
Christopher Hogg, DigitalJournal.com
“This has taken two years too long,” Branson said, out of his prisoner garb and looking relaxed. “Now, customers are no longer locked in with their carriers, so our competitors are going to have to sharpen their pencils and improve their services in order to keep their clients.” He’s been waiting for this day since 2005, when he penned a letter to the Prime Minister and Canada’s telecom industry filled with reasons why WNP is needed for Canadian wireless subscribers.
With the average cellphone bill one-third more in Canada than in the U.S., it’s high time Canadians were offered more choice. “People should be seeking out better proposals,” Branson said.
Customer defection may be rampant come tomorrow, when Canadians are finally allowed to keep their cell numbers but switch carriers. Branson noted that some of these carriers (but not Virgin, of course) tie customers into multi-year contracts that charge cancellation fees, so an uptick in Virgin subscribers probably won’t materialize right away. Branson predicts next year his Canadian branch will see a marked increase over its current 400,000 customers. Virgin Mobile Canada hopes to sway the undecided by giving away free phones to Canadians who switch their number to Branson’s company tomorrow.
Christopher Hogg  DigitalJournal.com
Christopher Hogg, DigitalJournal.com
Amidst the thrill-seeking hoopla in Toronto, it’s easy to forget what the WNP rollout means. In the words of Marc Choma, spokesperson for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, the March 14 WNP launch is a symbol of “the greatest cooperative effort in Canada’s telecom history.” It’s all pats on the back today, but expect WNP to intensify the already fiery competition between Canadian wireless players.
“This will add a layer of competition to the industry,” Choma says, “and it will also add another layer of consumer choice in Canada.”
Which is exactly what the country’s telecom business needs. Too long have Canadians been subject to the price plans offered by a handful of carriers. Cellphone adoption in Canada hovers in the 58 per cent area, giving the country a lot of cushion to grow. WNP is the first step to freeing Canada’s 18.5 million cell users from the routine of lengthy contracts and soaring bills. If the cellphone is the most powerful communicative tool of the 21st century, shouldn’t it be stripped of any limits that stymie its use?
Richard Branson and Virgin Mobile Canada shouldn’t have had to stage a media-frenzied publicity stunt to gain attention to this monumental moment in Canadian telecom. WNP should be an explosive service by itself — it has the potential to ripple across the country in a way that would make libertarian wireless users smile with joy.
For more information, go to the Wireless Number Portability site.
As the leading man behind number portability in Canada, Branson staged an adventurous publicity stunt today in downtown Toronto. DigitalJournal.com was there to catch the action. Check out Richard Branson rappelling from a cage suspended 80 feet in the air in a video compilation complete with DJ's cheeky humour.
More about Virgin, Branson, Wireless, Cellphone, Telecommunications
 
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