What Cellphone









Buy in haste, repent at leisure! Most mobile phone contracts tie you down for at least a year, so it pays to make sure you get the right phone and the right deal...



Q. Networks, service providers, air time contracts, what’s it all about?

A. At first glance buying a mobile phone does seem unnecessarily complicated, but that’s because we’re used to dealing with good old BT who do everything, from install the line, supply the phone and send you a quarterly bill.


Q. So where do I begin?

A. Your first point of contact with the mobile phone industry will be through a retailer or dealer. They’re the companies who supply and sell mobile phones to the public, often at what appears to be give-away prices. Some actually do give them away free, which is pretty impressive considering a typical cell phone is actually worth between £300 to £500.


Q. Are cellphone retailers and dealers are charitable organisations?

A. No, though a lot of them will tell you it sometimes seems that way...  Retailers and dealers offset or recoup the cost of the phones they sell with the commission they receive from an airtime provider, when they sign up a new subscriber.


Q. Airtime Providers, what do they do?

A. There are around fifty airtime providers in the UK. They’re a sort of middlemen, selling the services of the networks to end-users. Under the original legislation enacted by the UK Government back in the early 1980s,  mobile phone networks were not allowed to deal directly with the public. The aim was to foster competition, and keep prices down. More recently, newer networks have been given the freedom to sell airtime directly customers.


Q. Who or what are the networks?

A. There are four cellphone network companies operating in the UK. They are Cellnet, Mercury, Orange and Vodaphone; they’re the people who own, operate and maintain the relay equipment or ‘cell-sites’ dotted around the country, and the communications infrastructure, that links mobile phones with national and international fixed line telephone networks.


Q. Who do I end up paying?

A. You purchase the phone from the dealer or retailer, and that’s probably the last you’ll see of him or her, unless the phone goes wrong, or you decide to change to another model. Once you’ve signed up, the bill for your monthly line rental and call-charges will be sent to you by the service provider, on behalf of the network.


Q. How do I tell which phone and network is right for me?

A. It’s sensible to look at the networks first, and decide how and where you’re going to use the phone, before you worry about makes and models of phone. There are basically two types of network: analogue and digital.


Q. What’s the difference?

A. The older analogue networks operated by Cellnet and Vodaphone give the best general coverage across the UK. They tend work better in rural areas, hilly or mountainous terrain and in and around our coastal waters. Analogue phones are usually cheaper too, but the networks are fast running out of capacity. The analogue networks are due to be phased out over the next ten years or so. They’re being replaced by digital networks, operated by the four network companies. Digital coverage varies considerably from network to network. There’s also a range of additional facilities to take into account, including international coverage and the possibility to send and receive faxes, e-mail and surf the ‘net’, using a digital mobile phone connected to a personal computer. However, there’s a few ifs and buts, which we’ll come to later.


Q. Do digital phones work any better than analogue models?

A. It depends. On a good day, with the wind in the right direction, you will often get a clearer, less noisy signal on a digital phone, but obviously only within the coverage area. However, when the signal deteriorates, it can do so in spectacular fashion, with Dalek-like voices, and sudden dropped lines. You have to judge whether a hissy line is better than no line at all. Study the maps in cellphone dealers showrooms before you make any decisions, and take a lot of what you see with a healthy pinch of salt...


Q. Which network has the best coverage?

A. At the moment there’s not a lot to choose between Cellnet and Vodaphone;  Orange are catching up fast. Cellnet and Vodaphone digital networks now reach over 90% of the population, but note the word ‘population’. Most people live in cities and larger towns and large swathes of the countryside remain outside the coverage areas, which could be important if you break down miles from anywhere. Mercury One 2 One coverage is lagging some way behind the other three networks. Their operation is mainly concentrated in the South of the country, in and around cities, large towns and motorway corridors, but their network is expanding all the time too, and by the end of the decade there may not be a lot in it.


Q. Which network has the cheapest subscriptions?

A. Again it’s not that simple. There are two factors to consider: firstly when and how often the phone is used; and secondly, where you’re going to use it. It’s also worth pointing out that in general, analogue phones and charges are cheaper than digital. Broadly speaking, if you expect to use the phone for more than five minutes a day -- during working hours -- then it will probably work out cheaper to choose a business tariff. You will pay a higher monthly subscription, but the actual call charges are lower.


Q. What’s the alternative?

A. Low-user tariffs are usually better for those who make fewer outgoing calls, or expect to receive a lot of  incoming calls. If you only want the phone for incoming calls then one of the so-called ‘emergency’ tariffs might be worth considering. Line rental charges are very low -- £10 a month in some cases -- but call charges are very high. Calls on all tariffs are charged at peak and off-peak rates; be warned, times vary, with off-peak starting as late as 8pm on some networks, and ending at 6 am in the morning.


Q. Are there any other costs I should know about?

A. Yes, and you should be aware that most cellphone contracts run for at least twelve months. Unless you elect to pay your monthly bill by Direct Debit you may incur additional charges, that can be up to £11.75 a month. Itemised billing is sometimes included as a compulsory extra, especially on low-tariff or cheap phone deals, adding between £2 and £5 a month to the bill. Some companies insist on insurance for the phone -- you will have to meet the full cost of replacing a lost or stolen phone -- and there are all manner of hidden charges, if you want to swap tariff, phones or airtime provider (and want to keep the same number). Remember too that the prices you see for phones, subscriptions, air time and even accessories, rarely include VAT.


Q. You mentioned where you use the phone can affect the cost?

A. That’s right, there’s a clear correlation between prices and network coverage. Mercury One 2 One, which has the smallest coverage area, have the cheapest call charges, including tariffs with free local calls at certain specified times. Next up the price scale is Orange, with Cellnet and Vodaphone the dearest. However, coverage patterns are changing all the time, and charges may alter, moreover there’s other services and facilities to take into account.


Q. What are they?

A. Cellnet and Vodaphone digital phones use the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) system. That’s the same as that used in several dozen other countries throughout the world, including much of Europe, though not the USA. That means you can take a GSM phone abroad with you, and providing the country has a ‘roaming’ agreement with your network company, you can use the phone in exactly the same way as home, to call out, and receive in-coming calls. The networks automatically re-route calls to your location, wherever you happen to be.


Q. What about the other digital networks?

A. At the moment Mercury One 2 One phones only work in the UK. Orange have very limited international coverage --  they work in some parts of Germany -- other European countries and the US are still in the pipeline.


Q. Are there any other advantages to digital phones?

A. They all use SIM cards or subscriber identity modules. These are slot-in cards that contain a microchip, that stores the subscribers details, and in some cases, a personal phone directory as well. SIM cards can be swapped from one phone to another, carrying with it the user’s phone number, effectively making that phone their own.  


Q. What about faxing and the Internet?

A. Some GSM and Orange digital phones can be connected to PCs, laptops and palmtop personal computers, using a modem and PC card. It is possible to send and receive faxes, e-mail and surf the net but it’s nowhere near as fast or reliable as a fixed-line connection. It costs more too, data speeds are slower, incurring higher on-line charges, moreover modems and PC cards are comparatively expensive. You can send brief text messages to GSM and Orange phones, using a facility called SMS (short message service). Several phones can send as well as receive SMS data. However, in all cases only 160 characters can be sent at a time, so it’s not really an alternative to normal e-mail.



Ó R. Maybury 1996 0508





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