8 December 1995

Going for right mobile

decisions

The mobile minefield appears to become more mind-blowing as each year passes. Here

James de Havilland picks his way through

the mobile phone options

NETWORK, airtime provider, tariff, contract type – choosing the right mobile phone is about more than picking out the prettiest handset. But break those various steps down, and the decision making process becomes somewhat easier.

So where to start? Picking the most suitable network is as good a place as any.

Analogue networks

If wide UK coverage is needed, or you live in a remote rural area, your choice will probably be restricted at present to the Vodafone and Cellnet ETACS analogue networks. These are the original and easily the biggest systems, and both still enjoy the best support in terms of the actual telephones and ancillaries available to work with them.

This is not to suggest that an ETACS analogue system is always the best bet or that the networks are not without their drawbacks. But for many rural users, ETACS networks are the only viable options.

Among the analogue ETACS weaknesses are cloning. In simple terms, this means a third party can effectively steal a given number and then use it to run up huge call charges.

Although the crime is estimated to cost the industry £150m/year, the reality for most victims is that they suddenly find their mobile is disconnected. Airtime providers will usually spot different call patterns to normal, and cut that mobile off as a result.

Calls made on analogue networks can also be scanned by eavesdroppers with units costing as little as £200.

ETACS "cellphones" are numbered Class 2 (3W) and Class 4 (0.6W). In basic terms, the former specification is usually applied to a "carphone", with a transportable, as opposed to the ubiquitous handset, being the portable equivalent. Handsets typically fall into the Class 4 category. For most users their performance is usually satisfactory, but anyone working in remote rural areas may find them wanting. A larger, and more expensive, transportable may be the better option if portability is important. It is not permissible, incidentally, to have one number for two different telephones.

Digital networks

The Cellnet and Vodafone alternative to their analogue ETACS networks is GSM digital.

Although digital systems promise clearer reception and greater call security, the reality is that a GMS telephone can respond poorly to a weak signal, with conversation sometimes being reduced to "Dalek-like" speech. Unless you know the digital coverage in your area is good, best policy is probably to stick with analogue for the present.

The GSM network, however is superior in many ways. It does allow users to make calls in a number of countries abroad, and as a technology it is also likely replace analogue systems over time.

Despite this, and the fact that parity in call charges make GMS more attractive, GMS may not provide the coverage or call quality you would perhaps expect at present.

Airtime providers

Cellnet and Vodafone are the biggest networks, however it is their airtime providers you are more likely to have to deal with.

Although both companies will publish recommended tariffs, it is the airtime provider who determines what the customer actually pays. Both networks tariffs are related to usage, with examples being outlined separately. Use these recommendations to compare prices with those charged by the airtime provider. On top of call charges will be a connection fee, line rental and the cost of the car or mobile telephone selected.

To entice new users, some airtime providers will offer free connection or telephones, discounts on call charges or extras. These could include itemised billing for a period of months.

No matter what is on offer, however, always look through these points and concentrate on the monthly line rental and call charges. Also look at the contract and see how long it ties you into a given providers services, if there is a fee for terminating the service early (by you or the provider) and how much a replacement handset will cost.

Even these points are just the basics, with newcomers to the mobile world being strongly advised to talk to existing users.

Other networks

The remaining network choices are the PCN (personal communications networks) offered by Orange and Mercury One-2-One. These are both digital services, but the hardware each uses is neither compatible with the GSM networks of Cellnet or Vodafone or with each other.

Both Orange and One-2-One can deal direct with subscribers, with prices being fixed and connection tending to be faster than with Cellnet or Vodafone.

Coverage, however, is still limited. Orange is expanding and claimed 70% coverage of the UK at the end of last year. But large areas, including Wales and the south-west, remain "Orange-free".

One-2-One is an attractive system in terms of pricing, but is also limited by its current coverage. This is still confined to a fairly tightly defined area of the south-east of England, Birmingham and parts of the West Midlands. City centre coverage also exists in Manchester and Bristol. Expansion continues, but not as fast as the networks early growth suggested. On the plus side, One-2-One offers cheaper calls than any of the other cellular networks, and has a fully integrated voice mail service as standard.

Orange makes much of its charging by the second, as opposed to the 30sec increment system – after the first minute – used by its rivals (except Mercury). A fixed number of call minutes are also incorporated into the monthly line rental fee, although Orange prefers to describe line rental as being free and users pre-paying for a certain amount of talk time.

Orange also claims to be flexible. If you have been advised that a certain tariff will suit you best and it turns out to be the wrong choice, then a switch to an alternative is offered free.

Hardware

On the purely hardware side, the actual range of telephone equipment now on offer is gradually expanding and improving. It could be argued that more development money is going into PCN and GMS digital equipment than ETACS analogue, but ETACS options still outstrip the alternatives in terms of choice.

Also remember that whatever item of equipment you choose it will be your only link with the network. A cheap handset can be a false economy if it has poor battery life or does not work well when a signal weakens.

Although most modern handsets will at worst be reasonable, the best units will make a wiser long term bet. Ask around before making a choice.


RECOMMENDED TARIFFS

(£)£)(£)

CompanyService MonthlyCallsCalls

Line RentalPeak/minOff-Peak/

min

ETACS NETWORK

VodafoneLow Call150.500.2

Business

Call29.380.290.12

CellnetOccasional

Caller150.500.20

Frequent

Caller 29.380.290.12

GMS NETWORK

VodafonePersonal

World17.630.410.17

Business

World29.380.290.12

CellnetRegular

Caller Plus17.630.410.18

Frequent

Caller Plus29.380.290.12

PCN NETWORK

Mercury

One-2-OneBronze17.620.290.05

Silver29.370.170.05

Gold41.120.170.05

Orange*

Talk 1517.630.290.15

Talk 6029.380.240.12

Talk 20058.750.210.10

*Orange monthly line rentals include "free" calls up to 15, 60 or 200 minutes respectively a month. Other tariffs are available.

Both One-2-One and Orange bill by the second.

The above prices include VAT and are intended as a guide only. Airtime providers will charge a connection fee, and monthly line rentals may be higher. Tariff names may also alter, but will essentially cover emergency, low user and business user sectors. Peak rates within the M25 motorway may be lower.


&#8226 Charges for connection.

&#8226 Cost of line rental.

&#8226 Duration of contract.

&#8226 Opt-out costs if not satisfied.

&#8226 Start and finish of peak and off-peak hours.

&#8226 Cost of calls, peak and off-peak.

&#8226 Tariff charges and can they be changed mid-contract?

&#8226 Charges to call your mobile.

&#8226 Cost of direct debit billing.

&#8226 Charge for itemised billing.

&#8226 Cost of replacement handset.

&#8226 Can the mobile selected be insured.

&#8226 Coverage in your area.

In the yard or out in the field, more and more farmers are recognising the benefits of mobile communications. Inset: Picking the right hand-set is one of many choices facing the mobile phone buyer in a confusing market.