Mobile phone providers: the new rip-off merchants

12 April 2012

Oh, how did we ever manage before mobile phones?

That's what people of my age tend to exclaim when they're making out that catching a train on time for a meeting involves feats of communicational planning akin to recruiting a flock of migrating swallows to run a toy shop.

I'll tell you how we managed before mobile phones. For one thing, I didn't actually have to go outside to make a call.

A combination of late-medieval diligence in building solid homes and the mobile phone operators' lack of building sufficient relay masts means that I have to go into the garden to get a signal.

My gripe isn't just that the kit still doesn't work very well (and it really doesn't, unless you're standing right next to a mast when all other subscribers on your operating system have been killed by a mystery virus), it's also mobile charges.

I cannot believe that the human race has evolved to a level where it can get the jam inside a doughnut while still buying the proposition 'free' phone from mobile retailers.

So, Earthlings, let me explain how your contract phone is free only in the sense that a mugger doesn't invoice you for the service he provides. Read very carefully, I will write this only once.

Mobile phone contracts

Take a typical £32-a-month contract over two years at a total cost of £768. Now choose your 'free' phone. Then go to the page where the provider sells phones. What does it cost? £200. So the supposedly free phone has cost you £568 over two years. But you may have been given 300 free minutes a month?

So, go to the page where it'll sell you a SIM card only for the equivalent usage. It'll be about £15 a month. So buy that and bung it in a £10 mobile you've bought on eBay. Total cost over two years is £370, so you've just saved £400 on that contract-free phone. Or buy the £200 phone that you fancied and you've still saved £200, a neat 100% saving.

You would actually get a better deal from the bank, buying your phone with a loan. Now there's a sentence I thought I'd never write. That is a scandal. I mean, no one is meant to rip off the public more than the banks. The banks must be outraged. Something must be done; they have their lack of reputation to consider, after all. Perhaps the mobile phone companies could be nationalised and given to the banks?

Wi-fi and 3G

And another thing. I'm with 02 and foolishly, though on the advice of young people and we know they're never foolish, switched off my wi-fi connection and collected internet data by 3G. I'd been told in the shop that this was only dangerous on charges when I was abroad. But my next statement showed I'd racked up more than £200 in a month, against my usual £30 bill, and I was already up to £150 in the next month.

Okay, my fault. O2 switched my tariff, providing some bolt-on data charges and reimbursed me £100. But two things strike me: first, how many absent-minded middle-aged men does O2 need to be making the same mistake to be really coining it over a year? And shouldn't it be sending out an automated message telling me that my usage charges were unusual when they exceeded the norm by, say, 50%?

And, second, doesn't the refund of £100 smack a bit of being rather sheepish about this racket and accepting there's been a rip-off when you raise it with the company in the first place?

I think the banks have new competition in greed, poor service and misrepresentation of the word 'free'. But I could forgive the mobile sharks anything if only I DIDN'T HAVE TO GO OUTSIDE TO ANSWER THE FLIPPING PHONE.

Reverend George Pitcher is a former industrial editor of the Observer and religion editor of the Daily Telegraph. He is an Anglican priest at St Bride's, Fleet Street. Email him at

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