`Free' call offers lead to tangle of charges

Consumer groups have been increasingly concerned about the plethora of complex charging packages available from different mobile operators and the difficulty experienced by many customers in making the right choice for their needs, writes Mary Fagan.

The issue has been highlighted by the decision by Orange to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority over advertisements by Cellnet which the small operator regards as misleading

Orange pioneered the concept of "free" minutes bundled with a given monthly charge but Cellnet and Vodafone are now taking a similar approach with digital consumer packages. Orange's charges start at pounds 15 per month including 15 minutes "free" airtime. Beyond that, customers pay 25p per minute at peak times or 12.5p off-peak, although the bill is calculated on a per second basis. At the top of the range, the monthly fee is pounds 100 for 540 free minutes with other calls charged at 14p per minute peak and 7p off- peak.

Vodafone's new packages for digital consumers start with a monthly fee of pounds 22.50 including 50 minutes of "free" calls. Thereafter the charges are 30p per minute peak and 10p off-peak but calculated on a per-second basis. At the top end, the monthly fee of pounds 37.50 includes 100 bundled minutes. Calls are then 20p per minute peak and 10p off-peak, based on per-second billing.

Cellnet will also adopt per-second billing for digital customers from April and will introduce new tariff packages. They start with a monthly deal under which customers pay pounds 7.50 but are then entitled to pounds 12.50 worth of calls. They then pay 30p a minute peak and 10p off-peak. At the top end the monthly fee is pounds 12.50 with pounds 17.50 worth of free calls and then charges of 20p per minute peak and 10p off-peak.