Archived — Cellphone Choices for Canadians: A Practical Guide to the Canadian Cellphone Marketplace

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Glossary of Terms

Cellphones come with a new kind of language. The following is a glossary of terms to help you understand what to ask for when you are talking with providers. It is important to note that different providers may use their own terminology, which can become confusing. If you are unsure about the meaning of any terms related to your cellphone or service, always ask your provider for a definition or explanation.

Billing/Service Plan Terminology

Access Fee
A fixed amount paid each month to receive wireless service from a provider. Also referred to as a system access fee or network fee. Some providers may use another term to identify the fee or in some cases may incorporate the fee into the basic cost of your service plan.

The process by which a cellphone account is created, phone number assigned, and cellphone programmed so that a subscriber can make and receive calls.

Activation Fee
A one time fee paid to create a subscriber’s cellphone account.

Grouping services together as a package and charging a discounted price. For example, offering various services such as Internet, television cable or cellphone service; or cellphone features such as voicemail, call display or call waiting.

Cancellation Fee
A fee charged by the provider for terminating cellphone service before the end of a contract.

Service Plan
The rate plan selected when choosing cell phone service. It may include a fixed amount of minutes per month, and features such as call forwarding, call display, etc.

Service Contract
The agreement a subscriber makes with a provider to receive cellphone service for a specified amount of time.

Detailed Billing
A feature offered by various providers to include extra details of a subscriber’s usage on their monthly cellphone bill, such as incoming and outgoing calls, telephone numbers called, and any additional charges. Some providers charge more for detailed billing.

Options a subscriber may include in their service plan. These options could be voicemail, call display, call waiting, and many more.

Incoming Call
A call received on a cellphone.

Monthly Plan
A service plan that offers a fixed amount of minutes and features for a specified monthly fee.

Network Fee
A fixed amount paid each month to receive cellphone service from a provider. Also referred to as an access fee or system access fee. Some providers may use another term to identify the fee or in some cases may incorporate the fee into the basic cost of your service plan.

Network Plans
Service plans that offer a special rate for calls made or received from/to subscribers of the same provider. Some network plans may offer free calling among subscribers who are with the same provider.

Outgoing Call
A call made on a cellphone.

Per-minute Billing
When calls are billed by the minute, any call that uses a portion of a minute is rounded up and billed as a whole minute. For example, if a call lasts 2 minutes and 2 seconds, a subscriber will be charged for a 3-minute call.

Per-second Billing
Airtime for each call is calculated and billed to the second and not to the minute.

Prepaid Plans
A system allowing subscribers to pay for cellphone service usage in advance. Instead of paying a fee for a fixed amount of minutes per month, a subscriber purchases cards or vouchers that pay for the calls in advance.

Shared Plans
A single service plan which can be shared by more than one user, with more than one telephone number. Some providers allow users to add additional phones and users to any of their monthly plans (for a fee). Most often, providers only offer the possibility of adding additional phones and users to monthly plans that have been specifically designed to be shared by multiple users.

System Access Fee
A fixed amount paid each month to receive wireless service from a provider. Also referred to as an access fee or network fee. Some providers may use another term to identify the fee or in some cases may incorporate the fee into the basic cost of your service plan.


Air Time
The actual time spent using a cellular network. Billing begins when the SEND key is pressed and finishes when the call is ended or the call is terminated by the other person.

Anytime Minutes
Refers to minutes which can be used anytime of the week, day or night, week day or weekend. Usually a specified number of these minutes are provided with a service plan.

Periods of time during which providers offer discounted airtime changes. Each provider designates its own off-peak hours.

Rate Per Additional Minute
The fee for additional minutes that exceed a service plan’s fixed number of minutes.

A designated time when cellular calling rates are lowest or sometimes free. These times are generally between 5 or 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday. These hours differ according to service plans and providers.


The first generation of cellular technology which uses analog (wave-like) signals.

The second generation of cellular technology which uses digital (on/off) signals. Technologies used by 2G cellular networks are based on either:
  • CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), or
  • GSM (Global System for Mobile communications)
Although frequencies used in North America for both of these technologies include the 850, 900 and 1900 MHz bands, the technologies are incompatible except when bridged by their carriers. "World" phones with both CDMA and GSM capabilities may also be available.

An interim step toward 3G. Enhancements to CDMA networks include 1XRTT and EV-DO. For GSM networks, GPRS and EDGE are similar data communication performance upgrades. Note that as mobility carriers upgrade their networks, new cellular handset models with these technology capabilities need to be acquired to take advantage of them.

The third generation of cellphones includes true multimedia as well as increased bandwidths and transfer rates to accommodate the new multimedia functions of the phone. CDMA 3G networks and phones will use technologies such as EV-DO Rev. A & B evolving within the CDMA2000 standard. GSM 3G networks and phones will use UMTS/HSDPA technologies evolving within the W-CDMA standard.

Is the traditional method of telecommunications. A transmission method employing a continuous (rather than pulse or digital) electrical signal that varies in amplitude or frequency in response to changes in sound impressed on a transducer in the sending device. Analog handsets have been fully phased out in Canada.

Refers to the cellphone's ability to operate within a specific digital frequency range.

The capacity of a telecommunications line to carry signals. A greater bandwidth indicates the ability to transmit a greater amount of data more quickly.

A trademarked, low-power technology designed to replace the wires currently used to connect various electronic devices such as telephones, computers, headsets, microphones, etc.

A communications medium that is capable of transmitting a relatively large amount of data, including video or voice information.

Any type of information, including music, picture and text files, as well as messages and other information that can be sent, received or downloaded onto a cellphone.

Decibel (dB)
A unit of measure used to indicate the power or intensity of sound.

Information represented by non-continuous values or signals (off or on) sent between cellphones is referred to as digital. It is the technology used by most current cellphones.

The transfer of data from one source (the Internet) to another (a computer, cellphone, PDA, etc.).

A "dual-mode" phone used to imply that the phone would default to digital network connection, but if available, was capable of communicating with an analog network. This is still useful in remote areas that don't yet have digital PCS technology. Today it refers to evolving cellular handsets that have both 802.11 "b", "g" or "a" radios that work as Wireless VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) sets on WiFi networks and can fall over to CDMA or GSM cellular networks outside of those public or private "Hotspots".

Stands for General Packet Radio Service. A data transmission technique that transmits and receives data in packets over GSM networks. This allows providers to charge for the amount of information downloaded by a subscriber, rather than the duration of the connection. It also allows for continuous connection to the network.

Stands for Global Positioning System. It is a worldwide radio-navigation system which uses orbiting satellites to be able to tell a subscriber their exact longitude and latitude. Some cellphones have GPS capabilities to help a subscriber locate where they are or map where they plan to go.

Stands for Global System for Mobile communications. It is the most widely used digital technology in the world (originating in Europe) for wireless service.

Kb (Kilobyte)
The unit of measure used by most providers to determine charges for transferring data from the Internet to your cellphone, such as downloading ringtones and music, sending pictures and videos, accessing emails or social networking sites, etc.

Land Line
Traditional wired phone service. Also referred to as wireline.

Multi-band (or Multiple band)
A phone that has multiband (or multiple band) capability can switch between several frequencies. Dual-band, Tri-band and Quad-Band are all multiband devices.

Stands for Personal Communications Services. A general term used to describe digital mobile wireless service that offers voice communications and/or added capabilities, such as email, text messaging, voicemail, call waiting, etc. PCS provides customers with improved voice quality and security as compared to analog services.

SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) Card
A small removable plastic card that must be inserted in a GSM-based cell phone to allow it to access the global network. A SIM card stores data that identifies the caller to the network service provider, as well as information about personal settings on a phone such as your phone number, account information, phone book, PIM data, etc. The card can be plugged into any GSM compatible phone and the phone is instantly personalized to the user.

Wireless Broadband
Transmission facilities that have bandwidth or capacity greater than that of a voice line. Capable of carrying numerous voice, video and data channels simultaneously.


An abbreviation for application. An app is a piece of software that runs over the Internet, on an electronic device such as your computer, or cellphone. Many Smartphones can support hundreds of apps.

Call Display
A feature that displays a caller’s name and phone number, provided that the caller is listed in the cellphone’s contact book.

Caller Identification
A feature that displays a caller’s name and phone number, if available, on the screen of the cellphone receiving the call.

Call Forwarding
Allows subscribers to redirect their calls to a different phone number, for example to their home phone number.

Call Hold
Allows a subscriber to put a caller on hold while a second call is answered or made.

Call Restriction
Allows a subscriber to restrict or bar certain or all types of calls to and from their cellphone, i.e. outgoing calls, outgoing international calls, incoming calls.

Call Waiting
A feature that will alert a subscriber of another incoming call and allows them to accept the call without disconnecting the first.

Conference Calling
A feature that allows a subscriber to connect with two other numbers for a three-way conversation. Also called three-way calling.

Any type of information, including music, picture and text files, as well as messages and other information that can be sent, received or downloaded onto a cellphone.

Data Connectivity
A cellphone’s capacity to be connected to the Internet or another device for the purpose of transmitting data.

The transfer of data from one source (the Internet) onto another (a computer, cellphone, PDA, etc.).

Email Messaging
The ability to send and receive email messages on a cellphone via an Internet connection.

Enhanced 911 (E911)
911 service becomes E911 when automatic number identification and information about the location of the cellular tower handling a call is provided to the 911 operator when a subscriber calls 911 from a cellphone.

Extra Capacity Voicemail
Refers to the option of enhancing regular voicemail service, which can include increasing the amount and/or the length of time that messages can be stored on a phone.

Instant Reply
Allows a subscriber to return calls without leaving the voice messaging service.

Stands for Multimedia Messaging Service. A new version of SMS that is designed to be able to send photos, video and audio clips as well as text.

Mobile Browsing
Also referred to as Web browsing. The action of accessing or searching the Internet from a computer, including a cellphone. Providers usually charge per Kb used or subscribe to unlimited browsing.

Stands for Personal Identification Number.

Picture Element: The smallest unit that makes up an image on a screen. The more pixels there are, the higher the resolution of the image.

Polyphonic Ringtone
A second-generation ringtone that can accurately reproduce complex music using several notes simultaneously.

Predictive Text Input
A feature available on certain cellphones that allows subscribers to write text messages with the help of an integrated dictionary. After only two or three letters are entered, the dictionary will offer the user possible word matches from which to choose. Also called T9.

The sequence of sounds and tones emitted by a cellphone when there is an incoming call. A tone can range from a simple beep to tunes and polyphonic ringtones.

Stands for Short Message Service. See text messaging for definition.

Text Messaging
A service that allows subscribers to send short written messages (usually about 160 characters) to and from wireless handsets. These messages can be sent from a Web site or from one wireless phone to another and enhancements are being made to support special presentation of text and graphics. Also referred to as Short Message Service (SMS).

Voice Activation
A feature that allows a subscriber to dial a phone by voice instead of physically punching in the numbers.

A service that allows callers to leave a voice message if you do not answer. This service will take messages if the subscriber’s phone is either switched off, if the subscriber is already on the line, or simply does not answer the call.

Voice Recognition
The capability for cellphones, PCs and other communications devices to be activated or controlled by voice commands.

Web Browsing
Also referred to as mobile browsing. The action of accessing or searching the Internet from a computer, including a cellphone. Providers usually charge per Kb used or subscribe to unlimited browsing.

Cellphone / Handset

Also known as a mobile, a cellular phone or a cell. A cellphone is a type of handset.

The type of wireless communication that is most familiar to cellphone users. A system of base stations, each of which covers one geographic cell within the total cellular system service area.

Cellular Network
A radio network system which allows providers to supply cellphone service to subscribers.

Stands for Electronic Serial Number. A serial number that identifies the cellphone to the cellular system for the purpose of making and receiving calls.

A hand held device used to transmit and receive calls from a wireless system. The most common is a cellphone.

An accessory consisting of an earpiece and/or a microphone which enables the wearer to carry on a phone conversation in handsfree mode, i.e., without holding the phone in their hand. The headset is connected to the cellphone by a wire, or may be wireless for those with BlueToothTM enabled phones and headsets.

Stands for Liquid Crystal Display. A flat panel screen used to display numbers and/or characters. Often used on wireless devices.

Stands for Milliampere-Hours. The unit used to measure the capacity of a wireless phone battery. A larger mAh number potentially indicates longer battery life.

Another word for cellphone.

Stands for personal digital assistant. A handheld device with organization and basic computing functions.

A handheld device that integrates various cellphone and PDA capabilities together. A smartphone may allow users to store information, access email, install programs along with sending and receiving cellular phone calls. Two examples of smartphones are the BlackberryTM and the iPhoneTM.

Standby Time
The length of time a cellphone can be switched on, without being used, until its battery is drained.

Talk Time
The length of time a cellphone can be involved in an active conversation before the batteries need recharging.

Travel Charger
A device which charges the cellphone battery while the battery is connected to the phone, by plugging the charger into the cellphone and into an electrical outlet.

Wireless Device
Any device that can communicate with other devices without being connected by a wire. A cellphone is a wireless device.


Refers to the region within which a cellphone can reliably receive and make calls and send and receive data.

Refers to calls made within the same local calling area.

Local Calling Area
A geographic area, defined by providers, according to a subscriber’s physical location. The area in which the subscriber is located that day becomes their local calling area, even if their phone is from another calling area. The local calling area changes as the subscriber travels or changes locations. This is not the same as a subscriber’s local coverage area.

Local Coverage Area
A geographic area, defined by providers, as the area that is local to where a subscriber purchased or signed up for cellphone service. This area is sometimes also referred to as home coverage area, local service area, etc., but is not the same as local calling area, defined above. Your local coverage area always remains the same unless you move to another city and notify your provider. The concept is similar to the area you can call with your land line phone from home and not incur long distance charges.

Long Distance
Usually refers to calls made between users of two different local calling areas. Additional fees will be charged, depending on your service plan. Some exceptions apply. Contact a provider for more details.

A service offered by most cellphone service providers that allows their subscribers to extend the geographic coverage by using another provider’s network. Fees apply and vary depending on the provider used. Roaming requires an agreement between providers of technologically compatible systems in individual markets to permit customers of either provider to access the other’s systems.