Are multimedia bundle deals always the best way to go?
So-called bundle deals - where your phone, broadband and in some cases TV services are supplied as a package by one provider for a single charge - are getting ever cheaper, and with the convenience of a single bill they should make life simpler too.
But are these deals all they are cracked up to be?
The trend to buy two or more communications services from the same supplier is growing in popularity, according to the industry regulator Ofcom. It reports that 53% of UK adults now opt for bundle packages; and the main reason for this move is cost.
"Bundling together phone and broadband could save you £100 a year. Once you add TV into that as well, the savings are even more compelling," says Matt Bath, technology editor for consumer champion Which?.
For example, BT's Broadband and Anytime Calls plan costs £16 a month, plus the monthly line rental fee of at least £10. The contract promises speeds of up to 20 megabits per second and a monthly usage limit of 10 gigabytes. To get the same phone deal 'unbundled' would cost £4.70 a month with BT's Anytime Calls package, plus line rental.
However, the equivalent stand-alone broadband service would set you back a further £16 a month from Virgin Media.
"The savings offered by bundle deals make them substantially cheaper," says Dominic Baliszewski, broadband expert for broadbandchoices.co.uk. "If you're paying Sky for TV, BT for your phoneline and Virgin Media for broadband, it would invariably be cheaper to bundle together using one provider."
As well as the cost advantage, convenience plays a big part in the appeal of bundles. Not only do you have fewer bills to sort out, but if anything goes wrong you only have to deal with one provider's customer services.
In this respect, many smaller providers come out on top. Their smaller size means they often have a better handle on customer service and billing issues than larger providers. And they are competitively priced too. Baliszewski says that Plusnet and Primus in particular offer "some really good deals".
Do your homework
Bundle deals may therefore at first sight look like an absolute no-brainer. But Bath and Baliszewski both stress that before you jump into a lengthy contract you need to do your homework. Use websites such as uSwitch.com and broadbandchoices.co.uk to compare prices and terms.
Be warned: it isn't that easy to compare stand-alone services with bundle deals, as you have to go through each offer separately to compare what's included in terms of speed, usage limits and so on. "Look at your typical usage and needs to see what package would suit you best.
For example, if you want super-fast broadband service then look for a deal with Virgin Media or BT Infinity, which offer speedy fibre optic broadband," advises Bath.
Baliszewski adds that heavy broadband users should look for a 'high use' bundle deal to get the appropriate service they require.
"Whereas a family of heavy users (for example, mum watching BBC iPlayer, son playing Xbox Live and dad watching YouTube) will need an unlimited allowance, users that only go online to read the news, shop and bank may only need a 'low use' package (10Gb or less)," he says.
But as well as considering what you would like, don't neglect to look at what you don't need. For example, if you don't make many phone calls on your landline, do you need an unlimited calls package?
Likewise, if you're happy enough with freeview and don't need a hundred Sky channels dedicated to extreme knitting, you could group together your broadband and telephone needs but avoid a triple deal that includes TV.
Check the small print
The language that providers use also requires scrutiny. A case in point is the term 'unlimited broadband'. It may sound as though there are no restrictions on your broadband use, but in most cases providers will impose restrictions during peak times, known as 'fair usage limits'. Sky and Orange are the only providers that have no fair usage limits with their 'unlimited' broadband, says Baliszewski.
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Another potentially misleading ploy used by providers is to advertise one of the services within a triple package as free, such as 'free broadband'. "It sounds great, but nothing is free and you'll still have to pay monthly line rental fees which typically add at least £10 to your bill," warns Bath.
The biggest headache with bundle packages, though, remains the switching process. "We're contacted by countless people saying they have had trouble switching with some of the larger providers - indeed, big names such as AOL and Orange come towards the bottom of Which? recommended lists," says Bath.
In theory, switching providers should be fairly simple. Customers need to ask their provider for a migration authorisation code or MAC, which the new provider will use to transfer all services. The length of time to switch varies, but usually takes up to three weeks.
However, the reality is that, for many, moving deals can be a frustrating experience. Consumers may be left without at least one service for a number of weeks; MAC numbers may not work; and staff can be anything but helpful.
"One of the main problems surrounding bundle deals is providers making it difficult for customers to leave," admits Baliszewski.
And what of the customers who are happy with two strands of their bundle but find the third part isn't up to scratch? They're left with the unenviable choice of putting up and shutting up, or leaving their contract early - and paying for it.
With bundles lasting between 12 and 18 months, the penalties for leaving a contract early can be severe, warns Bath.
"Termination fees can be as much as the remaining number of months on your contract," he explains. "It's often better to stick the contract out until the end." Bath's advice makes sense in financial terms - but, of course, it's not much fun if it means you've got to put up with unpredictable or poor service from one of your three bundled services in the meantime.
So if you're considering bundling your services, the message is clear: do your research and don't be too hasty before jumping into a long contract. Providers are keen to obtain your custom but won't necessarily put in the legwork when something goes wrong.