Money: Fancy buttons, but what about the coverage?

In the second part of our series on mobile phones, Stephen Pritchard looks at the selling game
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The Independent Online
The choice of mobile phones available seems dazzling. High street stores have a huge array of phones on display this Christmas, for prices that seem implausibly low: phones that fit in a shirt pocket; phones that recognise voice commands; phones that double as personal computers.

But the choice is not as wide as it seems, nor are the prices as low. Like a good magician, the mobile phone industry is fond of the clever sleight of hand.

Buying a mobile phone means signing up for a package of hardware and services: a monthly subscription, call charges, a connection fee and the phone itself. By trading off the elements of a package against each other, retailers can make their deals seem better than those of their rivals. In reality, the overall cost of a deal is pretty much the same wherever you buy it.

As Cellnet, one of the four network operators, admits in its "Plain English guide to buying a mobile phone": "The total cost of buying the same mobile phone package does not vary too much from one shop to another. What varies most is each of the four factors."

The shop actually has little to do with the total cost. Most mobile deals require a contract between the subscriber and either the network (for Orange and One 2 One) or an intermediary "airtime" or "service" provider for Cellnet and Vodafone. This intermediary may be independent, or owned by the network: Vodafone owns Vodafone Retail, which handles contracts for its shops; Cellnet owns Call Connections, which covers Dixons, Currys and The Link, among others.

The phone is the most tangible part of the package but, in practice, it is the least important. Fancy buttons count for nothing if you are on a network that does not cover the place you live or work, or if the contract is so expensive that the phone languishes in a drawer.

"There are three steps to buying a mobile phone: the network, the tariff, and the phone," advises Ruth Greenwood, marketing manager for Carphone Warehouse, an independent national chain. "Your decision really should happen in that order."

Choosing the network matters because changing networks is expensive and time-consuming. Today, the networks boast roughly identical coverage, reaching 95 per cent or more of the population. In practice, each network has its own coverage quirks, even in London.

Firms such as Carphone Warehouse have a postcode-based system that checks coverage for each network for a particular location. An even better safeguard is a money-back guarantee. It's worth avoiding any deal without a no- quibbles refund.

Independent advice is not always easy to come by. Dixons stores, for example, sell Orange, One 2 One and Cellnet, but not Vodafone. The People's Phone chain of shops, which was independent, was bought by Vodafone.

"Have a think about why you want a mobile phone before you go into a store," Ms Greenwood advises. "Otherwise, you might be pushed into something the store wants to sell."

Choosing the right tariff is harder still. Conventional tariffs, with a monthly charge for using the phone, plus call charges, now compete with pre-pay and pay-as-you-go packages. All networks now offer deals that include some calls in the monthly charge. The more you pay each month, the cheaper the calls become.

Making sense of tariffs means knowing how much and when you plan to use a phone. One 2 One has four tariffs, Vodafone 13, Cellnet six and Orange five. The best deals let subscribers move between tariffs free of charge, as long as they stay with the same network.

The cheapest tariffs, such as Cellnet's Occasional Caller Plus, or Vodafone's Personal World, cost pounds 17.50 per month, with extra peak calls costing 40p per minute. Cellnet includes five minutes' talktime; Vodafone bundles 15 minutes. Orange charges pounds 17.63, including 15 minutes of calls, and charges 29.4p for extra calls. One 2 One charges pounds 17.50 and includes either 30 minutes of calls, or free weekend calls. Extra calls cost 30p per minute peak rate.

All these packages require a one-year contract, but some stores offer a "freedom guarantee", costing around pounds 15. This gives subscribers on a standard tariff the right to return the phone and cancel the subscription, without penalties.

q Cellnet's "Plain English guide to buying a mobile phone" is available by calling 0800 214000. Carphone Warehouse's "Guide to buying a mobile phone" is available on 0800 925925.

q Next week: extras - what they do, and how the costs mount up.