Help always at handbag: a mobile is a girl's best friend

Stylish, fits in the palm, keeps you in touch with mum - the phone's future is female.

For British women the smaller the better - no matter what it costs. And if it fits inside a pocket, keeps you safe as well as in touch with your office, your mother and your children, it is certainly worth having.

This is the view of the band of nearly three million female mobile-phone users who are increasingly dominating the consumer market.

Although Britain has been shown to be one of the most expensive places in the world to run a mobile phone, both professional women and full-time mothers are undeterred. At first, the mobile phone was a rich man's plaything, or a businessman's status symbol. Now women own almost as many telephones as men do - but for very different reasons.

The main attraction for most women customers is that it provides a form of communications back-up, wherever they are, in case of emergency. James Tanner of Tancroft Communications has watched the growth of mobile- phone sales to women: "The majority of people buying phones from us this year were women - often young women - or men who were buying for their mothers, wives and girlfriends. And it always seems to be a question of peace of mind.

"Size is crucial for women. they want something that will fit in a handbag," said Mr Tanner. "The tiny phones coming in are really having an impact. This year's new phones from Motorola and Phillips are only half the size of your hand."

One woman who uses a mobile phone for safety reasons is Michaela Carlowe, 32, who manages a social work team in north London. She bought hers grudgingly a year ago.

"One time last year I was on my own and I couldn't find a flat I was looking for. It was a grotty area and quite dark and the phone box didn't feel very safe. That is when I decided to get one.

"Even though it is expensive, I think I will prioritise it next year because I am so used to it," she said. "I always take it with me just because it makes me feel safe."

Theatrical agent, Kate Haldane, 26, takes the relationship one stage further.

"I absolutely love my phone. When it is not with me I feel like I have lost an arm - and I have only had it since last Christmas," she said.

"I find it indispensable for work. Although no one ever rings me on it. The only person who ever calls is my mum.

"You can talk to your mum in the back of a cab and pretend you are somebody huge."

She believes the mobile phone appeals to women because they see it as a source of both independence and security, whereas men want to look "cocky" and not as if they need any support.

"Bright men also think twice about having a mobile phone unless they really need it. They think it can look like a bit of a statement."

For many women, the mobile phone has become the linchpin of their lives. Some, like Eva Pascoe, the 32-year-old founder of the Internet cafe chain Cyberia, have dispensed with land-line alternatives. After problems arranging for a conventional line in her new home, she simply gave up and stuck with her mobile. "It works well. It frees you up completely," she says.

Ms Pascoe even picks up her e-mail on her mobile phone, avoiding the necessity of checking in and out of her office all day.

"If you have a laptop with you, you still have to go back to the office, and a mobile phone is much lighter.

"Your office then becomes your phone and you can spend your time much better."

There are potential pitfalls, however.

"For some reason people think they can ring you on a mobile anytime. But you don't really want a call from your cousin about her new sofa in the middle of a board meeting."

As a result Ms Pascoe has strict rules about when friends should call. It is only after 7pm that her mobile becomes a personal line.

While it is not surprising to find that someone at the cutting edge of the communications industry is a convert, the mobile phone has also become an essential accessory for many women who were initially much less keen. And they are being persuaded to part with up to 50 per cent more cash than their counterparts in Canada, Denmark and Australia.

A recent report by the Strategis Research Group revealed that British mobile-phone tariffs are the most costly around, along with those in Lithuania, Italy and Norway.

In Australia the peak rate is the equivalent of 18p a minute, while in Britain we pay between 30p and 40p.

Those who signed up last year for the non-business One 2 One deal would have paid a 6p rate off-peak. This year the rate is 10p, a 65 per cent increase. Cellnet and Vodafone rates have also risen, while Orange is the only network whose prices have stayed the same.

Oftel, the Government-appointed industry watchdog, tends to avoid intervening, socompetititve pressure is the only effective price-regulating force.

The Consumers' Association says it is concerned and is carrying out an independent investigation into the mobile phone, due to report in May.

The industry is predictably defensive about costs. The mobile networks all say they welcome the influx of individual customers, as opposed to business buyers, and they claim that, far from being duped, women understand the value of the packages they are being offered.

"We need to look at it in context," says David Massey of Cellnet. "You have to look at coverage and other benefits. We see price as just one element."

Advertising promotions for mobile phones have picked up on the consumer signals. Moving away from an emphasis on high-tech gadgetry, a traditionally male preserve, current campaigns go all out for style.

Since high costs do not seem to matter, the only blot on a landscape increasingly dotted with mobile phone masts is concern about the health effects of the newer, higher frequency phones.

A report by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) sounded a tentative all clear after early alarm about suggested links to cancer.

Dr Michael Clark of the NRPB said that while no risks had been detected the board needed to continue to monitor the effects of mobile phones.

"Such high general usage is a fairly new thing, so we must continue to research with different phones in different conditions," he said.

If any inkling of a health risk is ever established, one of the precautionary measures suggested would put paid to the idea of the mobile phone as a style accessory. Scientist Dr Ronold King of the Gordon MacKay Laboratory at Harvard suggested two years ago that mobile phones should only be used when wearing a round hat with an aerial on top, a la Teletubby.

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