Money: England scores in the mobile game

Stephen Pritchard compares UK and continental phone networks
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The Independent Online
IF YOU visit France over the next few weeks it will be hard to escape advertising for the country's mobile phone networks. France Telecom Mobiles, which runs the Itineris service, is an official sponsor of the World Cup.

Even mobile networks here are joining in. Carphone Warehouse is promoting a service with Vodafone that sends scores directly to anxious supporters' handsets. Orange points out that its customers can use their phones in France - known as "roaming"- at every World Cup stadium except Bordeaux.

UK mobile users may notice that the French mobile phone tariffs appear to offer better deals than packages in the UK. Part of the price difference can be explained by the strength of the pound against the franc, but the deals are mainly a result of intense competition in the French mobile market. This is all the more surprising as France has three network operators, against the UK's four.

French tariffs start below those from UK networks, and include more free minutes. The cheapest deal on French network SFR is Fr135 a month, including 30 minutes of standard talk time and 30 minutes of weekend use. At current exchange rates, this is around pounds 14. Cellnet's cheapest UK tariff, Occasional Caller Plus, is pounds 17.50 a month, including a pounds 5 call allowance, or 12.5 minutes of peak calls.

France's third network, Bouygues, has even lower charges, but coverage is currently limited to Paris and other large cities.

UK operators argue that a direct price comparison is not all that meaningful: there are differences between the UK and other European operators that have to be taken into account. "To make a meaningful comparison, you have to look at the cost of ownership," cautions Ian Volens, spokesman for One2One. "You can have a low monthly subscription that costs quite a lot to run; you also have to take into account the cost of the handset."

The UK mobile phone market is unusual because of the way mobile phone handsets are subsidised, often by several hundred pounds. When a shop sells a mobile phone in this country, the dealer receives a commission that allows phones to be sold for as little as pounds 10. In continental European markets such as Italy, users pay far higher prices for their handsets.

There are savings in the UK for top of the range equipment, but the differences are not always great. UK networks may sell phones for less, but the connection charge - around pounds 35 - is added to the subscriber's first bill. In France the Alcatel One Touch Club sells for Fr790, including the connection charge. The phone has a UK recommended retail price of pounds 19.99, but only if it is bought with a new airtime contract.

UK mobile users are still better off in some respects. Some continental European networks still charge by the minute or half-minute for calls. SFR, for example, has a minimum charge equivalent to one full minute for all calls, then per second after that. The UK digital networks all have per second billing.

It also costs less to call a mobile phone in the UK than in much of Europe. Germans pay almost twice as much to call a mobile phone from a fixed line. This means friends, families and business contacts pay far more for keeping in touch with people on the move.

UK networks are frequently more innovative than their continental counterparts. Services such as mobile data - which lets laptop computer users send faxes or check their e-mail - were available here first. Mobile operators are quick with new technology and new services.

The UK's four mobile phone networks now offer broadly similar coverage. There is less to distinguish monthly subscriptions than there was even four years ago. But it is still very hard to compare deals. If you don't want to get bogged down, look out for the extras that can make a significant difference to the bill.

One2One, for example, recently launched Precept, a service that claims to offer far better sound quality than is normally associated with mobile phones. Orange offers free insurance and 24-hour replacement with its phones. The trick when choosing a mobile is to find the deal offering extras that suit you - see box for more details.

UK phone prices should drop over the next few years. Last month, Cellnet announced a "fair deal" programme, which automatically adjusts subscribers to the cheapest tariff for them at no extra cost. The long-term trend is for mobile phone subscriptions to become cheaper or to include more free minutes.

q Contacts: Cellnet, 0800 214000, www.cellnet.co.uk; Orange, 0800 801080, www.orange.co.uk; One2One, 0500 500121, www.one2one.co.uk;Vodafone, 0800 101112,.www.vodafone.co.uk

Look out for unique mobile features

Free voice mail

Voice mail acts like an answering machine on your mobile phone. Most networks make a charge for listening to messages. On One2One, retrieving voice-mail is free.

Fax on the move

Orange provides a mobile fax facility. Subscribers can have faxes stored by the Orange network, and then forwarded to, say, a hotel fax machine or collect them with a laptop computer. Orange makes no monthly charge for the service; users just pay for their calls.

Save on calling friends

Cellnet has taken BT's "Friends and Family" idea and extended it to mobile phones. Under the network's "First for Families" scheme, users receive a 10 per cent discount on peak calls to their 10 selected numbers. Off peak, the saving is 50 per cent.

Cheap calls abroad

Orange's international call charges to key countries, including France, the US and Germany, are less than calls from a BT fixed phone.

Cheaper local calls

Both Vodafone and Cellnet run schemes where local calls are heavily discounted. Off peak calls on both networks fall to 2p per minute, although there is a monthly charge for the service. Two One2One tariffs, One2Evening and One2Weekend, give free local calls.

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