View from City Road: Confusion on the line

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The dizzying stream of news on mobile telephones is enough to perplex all but the most dedicated followers of gadgetry. There are new services, ever more complicated call charges, and equipment prices that can be so low as to be almost ridiculous. Confusion reigns.

The latest mobile telephone network hits the street today. Oddly named Orange, it rivals Vodafone and Cellnet, the entrenched players, and Mercury One-2-One, which came onstream last autumn in a blaze of publicity over its free off-peak local calls.

All four now claim that they can bring mobile telephony to the masses, eschewing the stuffy business image of yesteryear. But the battle for the man in the street has resulted in so many different price and service options, for so many different types of customer, that it virtually requires a consultant to sort out which is the best deal.

Bizarrely, Orange claims that consumer research shows people do not want free calls - on the grounds apparently that it is gimmicky or that there must be some sort of catch. Tell that to Mercury, which was so overwhelmed with demand after its launch that it could not possibly keep up and is only now recovering from an embarrassing shortage of telephones.

Orange's answer is no line rental charges but a range of monthly charges in return for some 'free' calls. Then there are no fewer than five different price packages from which to choose, based on lower charges for the most frequent callers.

Vodafone and Cellnet, meanwhile, have tried to head off their new rivals with special tariffs for low users. Higher-quality digital services are also being introduced to run alongside the traditional analogue cellular service until existing users move across.

All this is not to forget the amazing range of equipment prices - from almost nothing to hundreds of pounds depending on where you buy. Confused? If you aren't already, you soon will be. On top of mobile, consumers are also being bombarded with offers of apparently cheaper telephony from the cable operators.

Right now the evidence is that the mobile telephone business is booming. The danger is that choice - the Government's ultimate goal in opening the market - will send people running back to their familiar old BT fixed wire telephone.