Into the mobile maze

Ask the right questions first and choose the phone last, writes Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
THE COST of running a mobile phone has fallen sharply and the phones are cheaper, lighter and easier to use. Unfortunately, buying a mobile is more complicated than ever.

Choosing a mobile phone is a three-part process. Although the shops are full of handsets (costing from pounds 5 to pounds 200), mobile phone experts say the choice of phone should be your last decision before buying. Ruth Greenwood, marketing manager at The Carphone Warehouse, an independent retailer, suggests you decide first on a network, a tariff and then a phone.

"A lot of customers still think about the phone first. We say: 'Where do you want to use the phone, how much are you going to use it? Make sure it is right for you.'"

The four mobile phone networks - Cellnet, One2One, Orange and Vodafone - each offers its own tariff deals. All the networks now have comprehensive cover in main towns and cities, and trunk road routes across Britain. Southern Devon and Cornwall, parts of Wales, northern England and rural Scotland have patchier services.

Each network produces a coverage map; the first step in choosing a network is to check if it covers the area where you want to use the phone. Even in towns and cities, mobile reception does vary. A knowledgeable dealer will be able to point out any blackspots, but look for a package where you can return the phone if it fails to work where you need it.

The networks' additional services vary. One2One gives its subscribers free voicemail, while the charges for picking up messages on Cellnet or Vodafone are quite high. Charges for international calls, and using a mobile overseas (called roaming) differ, with Orange generally the cheapest and One2One the most expensive.

The next decision is the tariff. Each network has its deals mixing different charges for the monthly subscription, peak and off-peak calls and the number of inclusive minutes. The right choice depends on the way you use the phone. A deal with cheap or free weekend calls is of limited use if you make most of your calls during the week. It can be worth paying a higher monthly rental in return for lower call charges if you are likely to be a heavy user. Networks should let customers switch between tariffs; Cellnet does this automatically on its First programme. Orange rolls over unused inclusive minutes to the next month, so they are not wasted.

The last stage is to pick the phone. Phones are subsidised by the networks, so the price tags bear little resemblance to their cost, a key point for insurance purposes. Size and weight are important, as is battery life. Phones using a technology called EFR give clearer reception than older models.

The conventional way to buy a phone is on a monthly contract, but pre- pay and pay-as-you-go tariffs are increasingly popular. Pay-as-you-go phones have no contracts. Instead buyers pay for the phone, and for vouchers to use it. The vouchers give airtime, the right to connect the phone to the network, and calls. They start from as little as pounds 5. This means you know exactly what you are paying for. The disadvantage is that phone buyers have to keep buying vouchers to keep the phone working. Pay-as-you-go packages now account for over half of sales at Carphone Warehouse, but competition between the networks means buying one is becoming complex. There are 14 contract-free deals, each with their own pricing.

"Buyers should still take advice," says Ruth Greenwood. "You could end up buying a voucher every month, in which case you would be better off with a subscription."

Pay-as-you-go phones are a popular gift, but a pre-paid package might be a more flexible alternative. These bundle a phone, a year's subscription, and the connection charge in one package. The deals are some of the cheapest on the market; unlike voucher phones, they include monthly call time.

the knowledge

Choose the network first, and check its coverage. Find a dealer that will refund your money if the phone does not work where you need it.

Estimate how much, and when, you will use the phone. Find a deal that lets you switch tariffs if your usage changes. Check the inclusive call time: does it suit your calling pattern?

If you plan to use the phone abroad, check the charges and coverage.

Pay-as-you-go phones suit some people, but a contract can work out cheaper. It is not possible to switch from a voucher deal to a subscription: that would mean buying a new phone.

Remember to ask about extras, including insurance, billing and voice mail.