Most of us now have a smartphone, with 69% of the population - and rising - owning one, according to Mintel. Although smartphones cost more than a standard phone, the introduction of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and related apps has meant we can often offset these additional costs and save money on our bills.
What is VoIP?
Colin Duffy, chief executive of Voipfone, explains: "VoIP is a way of making a telephone call over an internet connection. That means calls can be made from purpose-built VoIP telephones in your home or office, from your PC or laptop using a downloaded softphone like Skype and even from your mobile with a VoIP app."
But Duffy warns: "The quality of the call will vary. A call over a 3G connection while on the move is likely to be very poor and unstable. Then there are the data costs. If you make a call over a mobile data network (either 3G or 4G), you will be paying for it out of your data allowance so there may be nothing much gained.
"But if you're sat in a wi-fi hotspot, particularly if you are abroad, the VoIP app on your mobile is your very best friend because you're making calls at UK rates based on your normal call package for UK dialled numbers and not using your service provider's expensive data network."
Each provider below offers a variety of packages. For comparison purposes, we have focused on their ‘evening and weekend' deals excluding introductory offers.
Access your BT calling plan via the app on your smartphone and you can use your inclusive calls or applicable call rates wherever you are. It is available on both Android and iPhone and can be used over wi-fi, 3G and 4G – though the latter two would eat up your mobile data allowance.
Up to five phones can be registered and although broadband is required, you don't need to use BT Broadband, although a landline package is a must. If you have free evening and weekend calls and use SmartTalk to phone a friend on their UK landline on a Saturday – whether you are in France or Fyfe - the call is free. The same can be said for 0800 numbers.
However, if the phone call lies outside of your free calls, you will be charged whatever price your landline deal would charge. The package would be £36.75 if you paid your annual line rental in advance and added the Unlimited BT Infinity 1 that has 38Mb download speed (the latter also giving you free access to BT Sports channels). There is a £30 activation charge.
SmartCall can only be used for free calls, working off your landline call plan. The app allows two smartphones to be registered and is available on Android and iPhone. Paying for your line rental a year in advance and having free evening and weekend calls, plus 60mb broadband works out at £31.17 a month (inclusive of the landline charge), with installation costs starting at £49.95. So with this package you could make free calls via the app to a UK landline in the evening while relaxing in a wi-fi-enabled café on the beaches of St Tropez or St Ives.
Vonage offers internet-operated home phone services, but its Extensions app extends this to people who have their home phone services with an alternative provider. It means Android and iPhone users can take advantage of Vonage's free/low-cost internet calls. But, again, if you use your mobile phone data allowance, you could face a heftier monthly bill, so wi-fi is best.
Vonage's monthly Talk package is £7, giving unlimited UK landline calls, 8p per minute to a UK mobile and 2p per minute to Ireland (landline only), USA and Canada (mobile and landline). There is a £15 one-off fee for the Talk package.
So using the app, you can call a friend in the UK on their landline for free. Equally, you could phone the US via the app for only 2p a minute.
Vonage at home relies on a good broadband connection. Although the service won't make or receive calls on your home phone if the broadband connection is down, you can set up an alternative number, including your mobile, to ring when this occurs. You can still make outbound calls through the Vonage Extensions app.
Skype can be used via your smartphone and as long as the person you are calling has Skype, the call is completely free over wi-fi, with no contract required.
If you wanted to phone a non-Skype user on their mobile or call a standard landline, you can purchase 400 minutes of UK landline calls for £3.44 a month. Alternatively, you could buy 120 minutes of a combined UK landline and mobile package for £5.97.
Utility Warehouse FreeCall
Utility Warehouse (UW) is a company that can package your landline, mobile phone, broadband and energy bills. There is a £10 one-off connection fee for the FreeCall app, which only works when using a wi-fi signal. Calling other Utility Warehouse members via the app is free. All other calls are subject to whatever home tariff you are on, though there is a minimum charge of 12p even if you are on the phone for one minute.
On its ‘standard' package, calls to local or national numbers are 8p a minute peak, off-peak would attract the 12p minimum charge. UK mobiles per minute are 10p peak and 5p off-peak. So you could use the app via a wi-fi connection during off-peak time, calling a non-UW customer on their UK landline for 12p and be on the phone for half an hour or even more.
Its ‘standard' package costs £21.98 a month for 16Mb broadband, unlimited data and landline. There is around 6% of the country where the local network has not yet been unbundled by BT and this costs £31.98 for a similar package, but with only 100Gb data allowance. FreeCall is available to customers on iPhone and Android devices.
With a wealth of wi-fi hotspots, all these apps offer additional value to consumers, giving them an edge over competitors that haven't released an app. Being canny and combining your operator's app with free Skype-to-Skype calls can really help save money on your phone deals – allowing you to take the minimum packages for a landline and smartphone.
But should you move providers? This depends on your phone usage. Many firms offer special introductory deals - visit the sites and browse the offers. As an example, there are international packages for those who make calls abroad and want to use their smartphone.
Whichever route you choose, always read the small print, making sure you understand how to get the best out of the app and don't find yourself being charged excessive rates, as terms and conditions vary.