Tech Talk: Getting more for your mobile minute

THE UK has only four licensed mobile phone operators, but with so many “virtual networks” falling over themselves to undercut each other, the range of tariffs has never been so bewildering.

Make sure you're not paying too much for your mobile calls and texts
Make sure you're not paying too much for your mobile calls and texts

A virtual network is one which leases and re-sells airtime on the actual networks of either Vodafone, EE or O2. (The fourth network is Three, which doesn’t sub-let.) Well-known names like Virgin and Tesco Mobile are virtual networks, and set their own rates even if it means underselling the network whose infrastructure they are renting. In some cases, actual networks compete against themselves, as in the case of O2 whose parent company also owns the popular budget provider Giffgaff.

To muddy the waters still further, the old monthly contract and pay-as-you-go tariffs have been supplemented by the hybrid practice of bundling packages of calls, text and data for a regular monthly fee that is free of contract commitments.

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Bundling is a great deal for the networks because it not only guarantees them a regular income from you but also spurs you to greater usage in order to exhaust your monthly allowance before it runs out. Regular top-ups, on the other hand, do not typically run out at all – but they work out more expensive per call or text.

Bundles are more flexible than contracts, though, because you’re not compelled to buy one every month; just when it suits. Giffgaff is the current network of choice for bundles, with packages from £5 a month or from £12 with unlimited internet access. (But bear in mind that the internet is free anyway when accessed via your home wi-fi network.)

Asda and Sainsbury’s are also among the best-value virtual pay-as-you-go networks, using the transmitters of EE and Vodafone respectively. But the flat-out cheapest operator for those who want a regular pay-as-you tariff is Three, which charges 3p per call, 2p per text and 1p per megabyte of internet data.

Many users remain loyal to their existing network because they don’t want the hassle of migrating their phone number. But this can now usually be accomplished online within 24 hours – so don’t let inertia stop you moving somewhere cheaper. Your phone may need to be unlocked from your present operator, though: the networks themselves charge up to £20 for this but you can have it done on Ebay from £2, depending on the make and model.

All the deals have one thing in common: you are required to own your phone outright. But with a raft of decent handsets on the market for less than £150, that matters less than it used to. In fact, the whole concept of contracts may soon become as outmoded as renting your telly.