How to select the right number: Choice confuses mobile users

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The Independent Online
MOBILE PHONE buyers could end up paying hundreds of pounds in unnecessary charges each year if they make the wrong decision about which system to use or which phone they should buy.

They are being bombarded with confusing permutations of offers by the four main networks now on the market - Vodafone, Cellnet, Orange and Mercury One-2-One.

Each has carved a special niche for itself in one area or another, making choices increasingly complicated.

Dave Abrahamovitch manages the Vodafone Centre, in Old Street, central London, where staff also give advice on the entire range of available services.

He said prospective buyers should base their choice on various criteria (see box).

There are other general points to remember. The main one is that most users at present sign a contract with an airtime company, which bills them for calls made, not the network. These companies, about 40 in all, do not offer the same terms. Call charges issued by networks are often no more than guidelines. And airtime firms often delay introducing new and better price offers from the networks.

They may try to restrict the off-peak hours in which you pay less to make a call - one company reputedly defines off-peak as being after 11pm. Others are rumoured to begin charging the second you press the 'Send' button on your mobile, not when a connection is made.

You will almost always have to sign a 12-month contract. Some will then force you to give an additional 3-month cancellation notice, extending the period to 15 months. Always read the small print.

With Orange and Mercury, however, you can bypass an airtime company, because they bill you directly as a network.

Charges are also usually rounded up to the nearest half- minute or minute - bad news if your call only lasts a few seconds over the mark. Orange alone charges by the second.

So shop around. Different places will offer cheap deals on phones or airtime provider charges. If you know what you want, some large electrical retailers also have special offers on particular phones.

More than 12,000 mobile phones are stolen each month, and the number is rising. A replacement phone will be much more expensive - up to pounds 600 - because the first one was subsidised by the dealer who gets a commission for hooking you up to a system.

Check whether your home contents policy covers a mobile phone, and take out separate cover if not. Insurance against loss is free with Orange. It costs pounds 2.99 a month with Mercury and about pounds 75 a year with Vodafone or Cellnet units.

DIFFERENT USAGE CAN CALL THE TUNE

A family living in the London area, with a son or daughter who uses the telephone a lot, especially at evenings or weekends.

A Mercury One-2-One is the best option, with connection charges of pounds 12.50 a month and all off-peak calls free. The phones themselves cost between pounds 200 and pounds 329. Mr Abrahamovitch points out that ordinary BT phones, with line rentals of pounds 80.64 a year, can be cheaper.

A midwife working throughout the Bradford area, who expects to make 30 to 40 minutes of work-related calls a week but hardly any when off-duty.

Geographical coverage is important, as is the cost of the phone. Orange and the two other networks have good reception in this area. Orange might be the best option. But its phones can cost around pounds 300, against pounds 50 for the cheapest Vodafone.

A businessperson travelling the country. Anticipates using mobile phone regularly.

Vodaphone or Cellnet are clear winners, at least until Mercury and Orange extend their coverage to the same parts of the country and even abroad, as is now possible with the first two. Purchasers should ask about business rate charges, cheaper than ordinary peak-time calls, and discounts for heavy usage.

Which? looks at mobile phones in its July issue. To subscribe, call the membership department on 0800 252100

(Photograph omitted)

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