We live in a world where technology moves fast. Twenty years ago hardly anyone had a mobile phone and we were still reliant on phone boxes.
Now there are 82.7 million active mobile phone subscriptions in the UK and 94% of adults use a mobile phone, according to Ofcom.
But, while the technology has advanced at speed bringing mobile phones that can now do everything from track your family's movements to switch your oven on, the customer service has lagged. While complaints about mobile phone companies to the telecoms ombudsman CISAS are low (mainly because few consumers are aware it exists), figures from Citizens Advice tell a different story. It received 28,000 complaints about mobile phone handsets and services last year.
"Mobile phone services have come a long way in the past 10 years but so too have the number of ways in which networks can relieve you of your hard-earned cash," says Dominic Baliszewski, telecoms expert at broadbandchoices.co.uk.
One of the biggest gripes customers have are the lengthy iron-clad contracts they are locked into. According to gadget insurer Protect Your Bubble, almost half of pay-monthly mobile phone users are tied into two-year contracts. Industry regulator Ofcom has acted against lengthy contracts once by banning 36-month contracts but two-year deals are very much the norm.
A lengthy contract isn't a problem if all goes to plan but unfortunately that is often not the case.
A multitude of problems can leave you stuck in an expensive bind. Vodafone says it is quite clear in its terms and conditions that it is very difficult to break the contract. "When a customer signs up with us, they sign up to a minimum term – usually 24 months," says a spokesperson for Vodafone. "This commitment means we can offer high-value phones at a reduced rate or even for no charge at all." This is because you are paying for that phone each month throughout your two-year contract.
Broken phone or theft
One of the most common problems is that the handset doesn't last as long as your contract. The average phone lasts just 15 months before it is broken, lost or stolen, according to Protect Your Bubble but not being able to use your phone deal due to the absence of a phone does not mean you can escape your contract.
"There are few things scarier to a mobile addict than a broken handset," says Baliszewski. "Buying mobile phone insurance is a good idea if you are accident prone, particularly for high-end handsets that can cost hundreds of pounds to replace. Make sure you shop around
when choosing a policy as prices and service levels vary hugely – don't just take the insurance package offered to you by your provider as it is unlikely to be the best value."
And theft isn't always an open and shut case when it comes to your mobile contract. Simon Ward, a website editor from London, had his smartphone stolen 11 months into a 24-month deal. Despite not having the phone anymore, Simon couldn't break his contract without paying a hefty cancellation fee. The networks aren't obliged to replace your handset, according to Citizens Advice. Most will send you a replacement sim card but you'll have to carry on paying your line rental.
Faced with either paying more than £150 to leave his contract or paying for two contracts at the same time if he got a new deal, Simon ended up borrowing a work smartphone so he could continue to use his contract.
Poor network signal
Adding to mobile users' gripes is patchy network coverage or poor signal. Whether you move to a place where phone reception is poor, or it mysteriously worsens overnight, apparently this isn't an acceptable reason for cancelling your contract. This is a problem EE customers in particular will be aware of. Over the past couple of years, the company has been decommissioning some of its phone masts as a result of its purchase of the T-Mobile and Orange networks.
Customers who suddenly found their signal disappeared were treated with little sympathy. Mark Oxley, 47, from Holmfirth, lost reception when his closest mast was shut down. Orange – now part of EE – said it would send him a signal booster but kept running out of them and it was weeks before Mark received one. Orange was apologetic and compensated Mark for the weeks when he couldn't use his phone but he wasn't permitted to exit his contract.
"Improving mobile coverage for consumers is a priority area for Ofcom," says a spokesperson for the regulator. "Consumers, when choosing a mobile deal, should check if the operator provides a ‘coverage guarantee' period where the consumer can cancel their contract and return the phone if they experience unacceptable coverage."
Next on the list of grievances is lengthy contracts. The best way to avoid being stuck with one is to avoid getting your handset as part of your deal. Opt for a sim- only deal and your contract will be a lot shorter, a lot cheaper and easier to get out of should you need to. For example, 3 offers a one-month sim-only contract with 200 minutes, 5,000 texts and 500MB of data for just £9.90 a month – although the network's own signal strength hasn't escaped criticism either. But at least this deal is a rolling contract so you only have to give 30 days' notice to leave.
Obviously, many of us can't afford the upfront cost of a brand new handset - the iPhone 5s will set you back £549 - but with so many 0% credit card deals available, it is easy and cheap to spread the cost. Pay for the iPhone 5s on Santander's Credit Card for purchases and you can pay it back interest-free for 18 months. Combine that with 3's sim-only deal and you would pay £37.40 a month and have the freedom to switch providers whenever you like.
If you are stuck on a fixed-term contract though, watch out for price hikes mid-way through that can come as a nasty surprise. You may think the monthly price you signed up to when you took out your mobile phone contract is the one you will pay until your contract ends but that's not always the case. Your contract price can be increased at any time. Your fixed contract is fixed in duration, not price.
However, the somewhat dubious practice has been tackled by Ofcom. It used to be that the mobile phone company could inflate prices mid-term and you would have to lump it until your contract ended. But the regulator has stepped in and now your phone company has to give you one month's notice of any price rise, and if you aren't happy with it you can leave your contract without penalty. But this only applies to customers – mobile, landline and broadband – who signed up to their contracts after 23 January 2014.
Campaigners largely heralded this as a big victory for consumers but they admit there is still a long way to go. "We'd like to see everyone able to leave contracts without penalty if they're getting poor service whether that is due to coverage or mid-contract price rises," says a Which? spokesperson.
Overseas calls and data charges
Another mobile phone rip-off that has been tackled is overseas calls and data charges. Following numerous complaints about people receiving sky-high bills when they returned from holidays abroad, new rules were brought in last summer to cap the cost of using your phone in Europe. Now the maximum cost of making a call while you are in Europe is 24 cents a minute plus VAT, and data charges have been capped at 45 cents per megabyte plus VAT.
But holiday beyond Europe's borders and you can still be slapped with an enormous bill by your mobile phone provider. For example, make a 10-minute phone call home from America and you will be charged around £11 by O2 but an hour of browsing the internet on your phone could cost you as much as £150.
The horror stories are numerous – one of the worst being a man who was in Dubai but wanted to catch up on the latest Formula One action. Two hours of watching the Grand Prix on his smartphone landed him with a bill for £14,000. Ignorance is no defence in these cases: mobile phone companies take the stance that you used the data or minutes so you have to pay for them.
If you are heading abroad, make sure you know what charges you face for using your phone and see if there are any bolt-ons you can add to your phone package to give you cheaper call or data costs while you are abroad. For example, Orange customers heading to America can pay £10 for 100MB data (enough to browse the web for around one hour) and £5.50 for a 30% discount on call and text rates.
Finally, if you do decide you've had it with your current mobile phone firm and want to jump ship to a competitor, it is a far more simple process than it used to be. But almost half of mobile phone owners have never changed their network provider, according to research
In principle, switching provider should be simple. Once you've chosen who you want to move to, you just need to call your current provider and tell it you are leaving and ask for a PAC code so your phone number can be moved to your new network provider. At this point, you'll probably get a sales pitch to get you to stay. If it can convince you, then great - just make sure you cancel the deal you were going to switch to. If you stick to switching, then give your new provider your PAC code and you should be up and running with your old number within 14 days.
Mid-contract price rises: your rights
If your mobile, landline, or broadband provider raises the price of you contract mid-way through, you no longer have to put up and shut up. If you took out a contract from 23 January 2014, you can terminate your deal after a rule change from the regulator. The provider has to give you a month's notice of any price rise and if you're not willing to pay, you can give a month's notice to leave and won't face penalty fees.
Consumer rights groups, who have long maintained it is unfair for providers to raise the price of a contract consumers are then unable to exit, welcome the change but remain frustrated the new rules don't apply to older contracts.