Special Report on Mobile Telecommunications: Operators who aim to spread their net with lower charges: Susan Watts looks at how the mobile phone companies are trying to persuade more 'ordinary' people to buy

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The Independent Online
IF YOU happen to be a modern-day suffragette, a father who collects his children from playgroup or a student who makes a habit of missing the last train home, then you are one of a group of consumers selected as targets of the latest sales drive for mobile telephones.

The two network operators - Cellnet and Vodafone - have decided it is time to go for 'ordinary' people. They admit that this has been prompted partly because saturation point is in sight for sales to the city slicker. The idea is to persuade people that what was once the archetypal executive toy is now tumbling in price. What's more, the adverts tell you, today's lifestyle justifies having your own mobile telephone, even if only for 'life's little emergencies'.

The two new services - Lifetime, from Cellnet and LowCall, from Vodafone - should work out cheaper for 'occasional' users than the current business services. Stafford Taylor, Cellnet's managing director, explained that it is not a change in the technology that has prompted the new cellular services - simply a change in the way people are charged for them.

Rental charges are down by roughly pounds 10, to pounds 15 a month, and connection fees have been halved to around pounds 30. But the cost of each call is higher. Overall, it is worth opting for the new consumer-tailored services only if you expect to spend less than about pounds 35 a month on calls.

Handsets have also come down in price. Handsets for the business services cost typically pounds 400-500. But both network operators have struck deals with the main manufacturers to provide handsets at around pounds 250 by the time the new services start up - Vodafone's in early October and Cellnet's in November.

Cellnet has teamed up with Sony, which is offering handsets at pounds 299 for the Lifetime service. They will be pre-programmed to run on the Cellnet network, although they will be 'tweakable' to run on Vodafone's. If enough people buy the new services, the price of the handsets should drop further still - perhaps to around pounds 200 by the end of next year.

Hutchison Telecom, the UK's largest 'service provider' (the people who send out your monthly bills and act as a link between the network providers and the public), is also spending heavily on advertisements aimed at explaining the services to technophobes. Hutchison estimates that by the end of the decade up to 20 per cent of the UK population could be using a mobile telephone - four times today's figure.

Mr Taylor at Cellnet says he is expecting to attract between 150,000 and 200,000 new customers in the first 12 months of running the Lifetime service. His optimism reflects the early response to Cellnet's advertising campaign - launched at the end of last month.

Some people may want to wait, however, for the latest in digital cellular telephony. Digital networks will have extra security features, should have higher quality sound and you will be able to use them in ever growing chunks of continental Europe.

Vodafone already has a digital service running in the south-east of England, and plans to cover the rest of the country from spring next year. This would be attractive to business users who make lots of international calls and calls when travelling on motorways.

Vodafone is also planning a cheap 'Micro-Cellular' digital network, with small cells covering only local areas so requiring only cheap, low-power handsets. The service will be aimed at people who make mostly local calls within the main towns and cities. The MCN will have a low monthly rental and low call charges of around 10 pence a minute. Vodafone boasts it is spending around pounds 120m a year installing the new network for its MCN service - technology that will eventually take over from its existing set up.

Vodafone's MCN should be up and running by the spring of next year, when Mercury and Hutchison plan to introduce their versions of locally-based digital mobile telephony - their Personal Communication Networks, or PCNs.

Cellnet is lagging behind Vodafone in bringing in a digital network, and Vodafone says it would rather have waited a while to transfer its customers to its digital systems. But the company says it felt it had to bring out its LowCall service to counter Cellnet's Lifetime, and keep Vodafone customers loyal until the new digital networks are in place.

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