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Rogers unlimited data plan an inroad for iPhone in Canada?

Canadian wireless carrier Rogers Communications, often criticized for its exorbitant data rates, has just introduced a $20 per month unlimited data plan that could knock out one more barrier to an official iPhone launch in Canada.

The Toronto, Ontario-based carrier said customers could start adopting the new plan, dubbed the $20 Communicate Value Pack, on "feature phones" excluding the RIM Blackberry beginning today. In addition to unlimited on-device mobile browsing, it also offers 2500 standard outgoing text messages, 1000 outgoing picture or video messages, call display and voicemail.

Although it's believed the new plan from Rogers is an attempt to combat a $7 unlimited data offering from local rival Bell Canada alongside its HTC Touch handset, many see the move as key step towards an official iPhone launch in the region.

Steep wireless data rates have been singled out time and time again as one of the primary reasons Canadians have not yet been treated to the Apple iPhone experience.

In the U.S., AT&T's combined iPhone service and data plans start at just $59.99 for 450 anytime minutes, 5000 additional night and weekend minutes, and unlimited data. But in Canada, a comparable plan for Rogers Wireless — the only carrier with an iPhone-compatible GSM network — has long run about $295 per month.

"The barrier to the iPhone in Canada is not Apple," says Michael Geist, Canada research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa. "Rather, it is the lack of wireless competition that [...] leads to pricing that places Canadians at a significant disadvantage compared with other developed countries."

For its part, Rogers has been scrambling to secure a deal with Apple to bring iPhone to Canada for over a year now. Back in January of last year, the carrier sent out an email communication saying it was actively working with Apple to launch the iPhone in Canada "as soon as possible."

In an interview with the Globe and Mail earlier that month, Rogers chief operating officer Nadir Mohamed implied that his firm would make a good fit for the Apple handset, as it represents the only Canadian provider offering GSM service.

"I’m not saying whether we have agreements or anything [with Apple], but given the iPhone was launched on GSM, we’re in good position to reinforce that we’re the first and have the best-feature devices," he said.

Several months later, however, a Rogers corporate communications manager backpedaled on claims of an impending deal with Apple in an e-mail to CBC News Online.

"We haven't announced whether we will carry the iPhone," he wrote. "Everything in the media has been speculations to this point."

Update: Unfortunately, Rogers' new $20 Communication Value Pack is presently limited to just web browsing on cell phones with only those browsers authorized by Rogers for the plan. Browsing through other means, as well as use of email clients over the network, will continue to incur a 5 cents/KB charge.