Mobile-phone habit costs the British dear

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The Independent Online
Mobile-phone companies saw a record number of connections before Christmas - 750,000 new customers in three months. But, says Glenda Cooper, Consumer Affairs Correspondent, a survey claims Britons are still paying highly to get connected.

Mobile-phone companies saw the number of connections rise dramatically in the last quarter of 1997 as people, tempted by better coverage and more flexible tariffs, bought phones as Christmas presents.

At the same time, however, a survey from the independent telecoms monitoring company Phillips Tarifica showed British mobile-phone users pay higher bills than in most countries. The big four networks - Vodafone, Cellnet, One2One and Orange - showed spectacular growth in the last quarter. Orange said its subscriber base grew by 50 per cent over 1997 and added 130,000 new customers in the last three months of the year - the highest quarterly connections yet. Vodafone Group signed up 459,000 new customers, with December 1997 the best individual month's performance since it was set up in 1985. Cellnet saw a 118-per-cent increase on the previous quarter, while One2One saw a 142-per-cent increase.

Phillips Tarifica compared monthly rental in five countries and found that in Britain it was on average three times more expensive than in Italy. All four networks were also more expensive than France, Germany and Australia. For one-minute calls, peak and off-peak, the difference was less pronounced, with Vodafone having the cheapest peak calls, and Telecom Italia the cheapest off-peak. In an earlier survey Phillips Tarifica compared the cost of using a mobile phone in nine countries.British users who make one hour of national calls each faced an average monthly bill of pounds 25 - on average 20 per cent more expensive than France and Germany and almost twice as expensive as Italy.

Margrit Sessions, managing director of Phillips Tarifica, said: "No one should be paying much more for a mobile than a fixed line. I think mobile phones are far too expensive. And calling overseas is extremely expensive. The cheapest way to call America costs me 8p a minute - from a mobile it can cost ten times as much."

James Tanner, of Tancroft Communications, which supplies hardware for the major networks, said: "You've got two or three different networks per country and the call charges vary. It's nothing to do with the home operator - Vodafone or Cellnet have to charge what the operator charges them." Mike Caldwell, manager of corporate communications for Vodafone, said Britain had one of the most competitive mobile-phone markets. "There are a number of balances. In the UK the majority of handsets are virtually free, whereas in Europe you would be paying the full price. And if we did halve our prices and attracted 20 million new users overnight the network wouldn't be able to cope."

A spokesman for Cellnet said: "We offer value for money and charge a fair price. It is not a like-for-like comparison. We would want to look at other elements, such as the ability to make and receive calls."