As the market expands, talk is getting cheaper by the minute

Take advantage of the current phone charges price war, says Nick Clayton

Anybody intent on proving the art of conversation is not dead could as much as halve the cost of those hours on the home phone if they can find a way through the maze of offers and tariffs. Or, to put it another way, ignoring the ever-growing list of new suppliers could mean paying twice as much as necessary for calls. Even moderate chatterboxes can knock 20 per cent off their bill with a few minutes' work on the internet.

Anybody intent on proving the art of conversation is not dead could as much as halve the cost of those hours on the home phone if they can find a way through the maze of offers and tariffs. Or, to put it another way, ignoring the ever-growing list of new suppliers could mean paying twice as much as necessary for calls. Even moderate chatterboxes can knock 20 per cent off their bill with a few minutes' work on the internet.

So where do you start? First, you need to establish what sort of phone user you are. Where do you make your calls to? And at what time do you make them? It is easiest to work this out if you have one or two recent itemised bills. Don't forget it is the cost of the calls rather than their duration that is important.

If you find that most of your bill is made up of local calls, especially if they are made mostly in the evenings or at weekends, look for a supplier that provides unlimited "free" calls over those periods.

Ringing a mobile is notoriously expensive, but there are real savings to be made. Check to see if most of these calls are made to one mobile network: some fixed-line suppliers such as Euphony and One.Tel provide substantial "bolt-on" discounts linked to specific networks.

Many of the advertisements for cheap phone services focus on international charges. If you do call abroad frequently look to see which companies provide the best rates for the countries you call. You may find one supplier offers the cheapest rates for the UK and another is better for international calls.

A direct service is provided by BT or one of the cable companies, NTL or Telewest. "Carrier Pre-Select" (CPS) means you pay line rental to BT or a cable company, but you pay a different company for your calls. With "prefix dialling" you use four digits to put a call through a chosen supplier. Alternatively you may be supplied with an "autodialler" that dials the prefix for you. The important point to note is that you always have to pay line rental. For most people that means BT and a minimum monthly charge that will go up from £9.50 to £10.50 on 1 July.

Theoretically, you could use as many autodial or prefix services as you want. But you can only use one CPS. It can be a saving to use one service for national calls and another to ring abroad. The disadvantage is it means three bills: one quarterly for line rental and two monthly ones for calls.

The process of changing to a new supplier is fairly painless. With autodiallers and prefix services the move can be almost instantaneous. It can, however, take up to three weeks to set up a CPS service. The difficult part is finding which services are available.

Undoubtedly the best starting point is the internet. All the phone services have sites listing plans and prices; most offer a direct online sign-up as well. A Google search will produce dozens of alternatives. There are also a number of websites providing directory and comparison services. However, only one of these, uSwitch.com, is approved by the government regulator Ofcom. Using a series of simple online forms, uSwitch estimates your current phone bill and offers a number of alternatives along with estimated savings for each.

As the process has been kept simple, it will not provide a precise usage pattern, but the uSwitch recommendations will almost certainly save you money. In fact, very few people will not reduce their phone bills if they move away from BT as their sole supplier.

Mark Ould, a constable with Devon and Cornwall police force, used to have a home phone bill from BT of just under £1,000 a year. Moving to Euphony to pay for his calls has reduced his annual costs to under £500. He made the move from BT using the uSwitch web service to compare tariffs and applied through the internet. "Making the switch was quite easy. The only drawback is having to pay BT its quarterly rental so now I've got two lots of bills."

So don't let the complexity of shopping around for a home phone service put you off. In the current price war the real savings are to be made by moving to one of the new suppliers. Choosing between them is perhaps less important.

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