Phone companies have all the right chat-up lines

DURING THE 1980s, picking a phone service was simple: You phoned British Telecom and waited weeks for installers to put in your phone line. At best, the householder could choose the colour of the handset.

Now there is not only a choice of phone, but a choice of phone companies. There are phone lines with cable television, with internet access, or two lines for the price of one. There is call diversion, and call waiting. Or maybe you'd like extra-value bundles and seasonal special offers, discount schemes and free talk minutes?

It might be worth choosing a provider after sorting out which perks and special offers are worth while. But be warned - the deals are becoming ever more complex.

BT customers have until the end of August to register for "September Chatterbox", which offers money-off calls on Saturdays next month. As long as you tell BT you want to join the scheme, you will get local and national calls cut by a third.

This sounds generous, but BT customers have to choose a time slot for their calls, either 8am-6pm, or 6pm-midnight.

And there are catches. "Non-geographic" local rate or national rate numbers, often used by large companies, are excluded. Nor are calls to mobiles discounted.

"Chatterday" is a one-off, but Cable & Wireless has hit back by offering calls for a maximum of 50p on Saturdays until the end of the year.

General phone tariffs are even harder to unravel. BT operates six "plans" for residential customers. The best-known, "Friends and Family", gives 10 per cent off calls to numbers in a customer's calling circle. This can include one mobile and an overseas number.

C&W has three tariffs, each with different daytime and off-peak, national and international rates. Membership fees start at pounds 1.25 a month. There is a further price list for customers who have a C&W cable line, but who make few international or long-distance calls.

BT and the cable operators also offer services such as call waiting, caller display, and call diversion; BT and some of the cable companies offer voice mail, too. There is a monthly or quarterly service charge for all of these, and with call diversion, the subscriber pays for the diverted part of the call. This can be expensive if it is going overseas, or to a mobile.

BT bundles its extra services together as Value Plans, starting at pounds 2.95 per month, and the company gives a call allowance equivalent to 250 minutes of local weekend calls each month; these are worth pounds 2.50.

Rivals are taking the bundling idea further. C&W is promoting "Headstart", which combines 10 TV channels with a phone line for the same price as BT's phone-only rental - pounds 8.87 a month. Five of those channels are ordinary terrestrial television. The others are Sky One, Sky News, UK Gold, Eurosport and BBC News 24. This charge also includes a credit based on 100 minutes of free local calls.

A recent ruling by the Independent Television Commission makes it easier for cable companies to sell smaller packages of channels. In the past cable customers had to take the full Sky channels pack to be eligible for the extra-cost sport or film channels. Soon it should be possible to opt just for films or sport alongside a phone line.

For the same pounds 8.87 monthly fee, cable operator NTL combines a phone line with cable TV, including Sky One, pop station VH-1, and BBC News 24. The company also has two other bundles at the same price: a line, plus a subscription to NTL's internet service, or a second phone line.

Bundles should become more imaginative as phone companies expand into internet and interactive services with the arrival of digital TV.

Internet access is another area where there are good deals and surprising anomalies. NTL gives discounts to customers dialling into its own internet service. Strangely, C&W charges above local rates for daytime calls to its internet service.

Contacts: BT, 0800 800 040; C&W, 0500 941 940; NTL, 0800 052 2000.

Phone tips

CHEAP DEALS

Caller return: dial 1471 to find the number of the last caller. This is free and needs no extra equipment.

BT "Friends and Family Best Friend": 20 per cent off calls to one number. This is free, and can be set up automatically by calling BT.

Cheap internet access: NTL charges pounds 8.87 for a line and internet access together. BT's charge is more than double this.

HIDDEN COSTS

Unanswered calls to mobiles: if the phone is switched off and the network answers with a recorded message, you pay to hear it - at 30p per minute peak rate.

Ring back: this automatically calls back an engaged number, but you pay 5p on top of the call.

Call diversion: the caller pays to call you; you pay to divert the call; the phone company collects twice. This is expensive if you divert to a mobile or some pagers.

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