‘Confuseopoly’: lost in the mobile phone billing maze

Getting the best value out of your mobile is confusing, and who do you think the big winner is from all that confusion? Hint: it’s not you

The mobile maze – by design or by accident – is always working against consumers, but they can fight back. Illustration: Getty Images

The mobile maze – by design or by accident – is always working against consumers, but they can fight back. Illustration: Getty Images

 

Have you any idea how much it costs to make a five-minute peak-time phone call in Ireland today? Outside of your bundled minutes, that is? For that matter, do you know how many bundled minutes you actually have? And how many you use?

Do you know how many text messages you send? And how many you can send under your mobile package? How much data do you download each month? How much does it cost you? Have you any idea how your mobile phone bill is put together?

There are so many options available from mobile phone operators. And the sector changes with almost dizzying speed that it is almost impossible to keep on top of what – back in the days before smartphones – used to be a simple world.

And who do you think are the big winners when it comes to all the confusion? Well, it’s not you, that’s for sure.

A telecoms free-for-all means we can spend as much as €5.58 for a one-second directory inquiry call. Ringing a so-called lo-call number can cost as much as 35 cent a minute.

The high charges don’t stop there. There’s the handset treadmill, which sees new, fancy models coming with unseemly haste just in time for the older models to break. And then there are all those people on mobile phone packages that don’t suit their usage, which means they are expected to pay through the nose for at least some of their calls.

The market, at least, should be simple to decode. After all, there are only three main players in Ireland: Three, Vodafone and Meteor. Tesco Mobile and Lycamobile are also in the mix, although to a lesser degree.

But it is not simple. If you are paying for 350 minutes of calls and only making 250 minutes’ worth, you are effectively giving the company money for nothing. And if you are paying for 150 text messages but only sending 50, ditto.

Similarly, if you are paying for 150 minutes’ worth of calls and make 300 minutes of calls – which is only about 10 minutes a day – then you are paying a lot more for calls above the bundled allowance.

A survey by UK firm Bill Monitor from 2012 found that British phone users collectively wasted £6 billion (€8.1 billion) a year just by being on the wrong mobile phone contracts, a figure that had increased by £1.1 billion in just 12 months. A more recent survey, from Billshrinker in the US, found that 80 per cent of Americans are on the wrong contracts and are paying too much.

 

Half a billion wasted

Assume that Irish phone users are broadly in line with their British counterparts – and, certainly, most of the same companies do business in both jurisdictions. So it is safe to assume we are wasting more than half a billion euro each year by not being more savvy about how we use our phones. Despite the fact that significant savings are there to be made, just 10 per cent of us changed mobile phone provider last year.

The mobile maze – by design or by accident – is always working against consumers, but they can fight back. Hundreds of thousands of phone users could save hundreds of euro each year by switching providers or finding more suitable plans.

The first step to saving money is to carry out a phone usage audit to see how many minutes’ worth of phone calls you make and how many text messages you send. You could go back through your bills and pick a month that represents normal usage and compare it to the bundled package you are on.

 

Finding the right plan

Poring over your bills, trawling the sometimes bewildering website Callcosts.ie or relying on your mobile phone company to tell you about your usage and then find the right plan for you used to be the only options available to us. It is not like that any more.

KillBiller is a rather brilliant app, developed by an Irish start-up, that will find out the best available mobile price plan for you without you having to do any work at all. The app takes details of the calls, messages and data used by you on your phone. Based on this, it works out how much you would have spent on each plan from every network. No two people have the same usage patterns, so all results are uniquely tailored to each user.

Shane Lynn is one of the brains behind the app. “It is in the network’s interests to keep things confusing, as that makes it harder for people to see the best value out there,” he says. “I have heard it called ‘confuseopoly’.”

Confusion is the single biggest reason people don’t switch providers more often, Lynn says.

“It can be bewildering. You need to know how many minutes of calls you make and which of your friends are on what network, and what is the size of that YouTube video you have downloaded.”

He says that the vast majority of people should not have to pay a phone bill of more than €25 a month. If you are paying more than that, then you are probably paying over the odds.

There is a but: if you have a handset included in the mix, that will push up the prices. The network providers will all offer you a “free” handset if you sign up to a two-year contract. But the reality is that the handset is never free; you are just paying for it over two years.

Going down that route wastes money. A contract that comes with an iPhone or Samsung will typically cost at least €50 a month. If you take the calls and data element as costing €25, then you pay the same again each month for the handset.

Lynn and his business partner, Bart Lehane, have a better idea. They buy their handsets outright. For example, a sim-free iPhone 6 cost €699. If you do that and sign up to a €25-a-month contract (not a €75 one), you will save yourself €500 over the course of two years. And always own your handset.

KillBiller, available on Android phones, has been used more than 14,000 times. The iPhone version is currently being tested with those who sign up on Killbiller.com, and the first public release will be within the next two weeks.

What about privacy concerns? The KillBiller duo say the app does not store the phone numbers you call, just the prefix. It also does not log the sites you visit, just the amount of data downloaded.

And technology is coming to consumers’ aid in other ways. Smartphone apps, in particular, allow people to make calls and send texts for nothing or next to nothing. When it comes to freebies, WhatsApp, Facetime, iMessage, Skype and Viber have all made charges moot. The sound quality is getting better, and the operators must all be looking over their shoulders wondering how they are going to sustain their business models into the future.

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