How to choose a mobile phone network

If I was writing this 15 years ago when I first got a mobile phone, I'd start by asking if you, the reader, had one too. Obviously I'm not doing that now.

There are five main mobile phone networks in the UK, plus a bunch of "virtual" networks that pretend to be independent but aren't really as they use someone else's masts. I've been with most of them.

I started on Vodafone. Reasons for not using them: they're a bunch of fucking tax dodgers who hate you personally for being a small nothingness. My experience: I was on pay-as-you-go. The method of checking your credit was clunky and frequently out of date. If you went into debt with them – which was possible for some reason – you therefore didn't know it had happened immediately. When it did happen, the phone pretended to work properly, but texts weren't delivered, text sent to you never arrived and calls got engaged tones. Eventually you worked out that the phone was out of credit – it wouldn't tell you – and topped up. But here's the rub: Vodafone felt the need to punish you for going 15p into debt, so after topping up, the phone would only start working again 2 to 48 hours later, depending on how big a crime Vodafone thought you'd committed.

So I went to BT Celnet, again on pay as you go. Reasons for not using them: they no longer exist and good riddance. My experience: the advertised a phone that you could nominate any number in the land and get free calls for life on. I nominated it, made lots of calls and ran my credit down. I topped up, renominated the same number, made lots of calls and ran my credit down. I complained. They offered me ??5 in compensation. I told them I'd go to Oftel. They offered me ??10. I wrote to the managing director. They refunded me the ??40 they'd stolen. Every single contact with them I had from then onward involved them telling me they couldn't help in any way unless I changed tariff. The free-calls-anywhere boxes got stickers on them saying "UP TO* 300 MINUTES FREE!" on them over the free-calls offer. It got to the point that I couldn't even top up the phone – I'd be sent to a customer adviser instead who would tell me that, in order to top up, I'd need to change tariff.

So I went to Sainsbury's Mobile. Reasons for not using them: supermarkets claim they love you and only want to please when actually they want to own your soul and will do, say and promise anything until they have managed it. My experience: I got mugged by them in the foyer of Sainsbury's, which I hate, but the offer seemed good and promised free Nectar points. They said that they'd search each month for the best tariff in the entire market and match it. By the way, said the salesman, how much are you spending a month at the moment? Oh, about ??45 I said. He wrote that down. For the next year, every bill I had was between ??43 and ??44. One month I tried to not use the phone at all. I sent 40-odd text messages but that was it. The bill was ??44: they charged me ??44 line rental and threw in the texts free.

So I went to 3. Reasons for not using them: they'd just launched with super cheap prices, which was good, but every single contact with them is like having your teeth pulled out with rust-covered pliers by a drunken sailor. My experience: they were cheap. Gloriously so after Sainsbury's. But the phone, oh that first generation 3G phone… it was crap. Battery life, even with the bulky extra-power battery plugged in, was easily measured in minutes. The walled internet garden they had didn't allow you to access anything without paying a pound for it – even stuff marked free brought up a screen asking for your agreement to take a pound. Even getting your email cost a pound. And when the phone went wrong, as it often did, you had to spend hours on hold listening to Macy Grey before you got put through to someone speaking via two tin cans and a length of string with an??impenetrable??accent who wouldn't give a name and never once typed anything. The only time I spoke to someone I could understand (sort of, they were in Glasgow) was when I called to cancel. He implied the problems were at my end for being an early adopter. I told him I'd rather stick pins in my eyes than stay with 3 any longer.

So I went to O2. Reasons for not using them: they're a bunch of fucking??thieves. My experience: I signed up for a shiny new phone and a great deal online and waited for delivery. And waited. And waited. After 28 days, I rang them up. Where was this phone I'd ordered? Lost in the warehouse, they said, but we'll send you another. Don't bother, I said. I'm cancelling under the Distance Selling Regulations and because you're in breach of contract. Okay, they replied jauntily, we'll process that for you now.

So I went to… oh, wait, yes, I did go to Orange, but six months later I got a summons through the door. Six months of silence from O2: not a phone call, not a bill, not an email, nothing. The summons said I owed them a couple of hundred for the phone, a couple of hundred for the unpaid bills and a couple of hundred for the??bailiffs'??action they were now taking. I called them up to ask why this had happened on the number given in the summons. The guy at the other end of the line said "what's your O2 number?" I don't know, I said, I've never had a phone with you. "Well," he said, "fuck off" and hung up. The next day and after a bit of googling, I found a number for the serious complaints department. I had an awful lot of trouble making them understand the problem, mainly because they couldn't reconcile me not being an O2 customer with me having a complaint about O2. Repeatedly they'd say "ah, so your number is 07…" and I'd say "how would I know? I never had a phone from you in the first place" and they'd say "oh, that's confusing" and the whole business would start again. Eventually, they accepted that they'd made a mistake. They'd cancel the summons, call off the bailiffs and we'd all live happily every after.

So I went to… oh, wait: they didn't call off the bailiffs! They came to my door and asked for the phone. The phone I'd never had. I explained this and they got the idea remarkably quickly, because… this was common with O2! It happened really often, said the burly men. They went away. I called O2 and demanded compensation (it was worth a try). They offered me ??10. Uh huh. I eventually got them to ??40, which they paid by two cheques for ??35 and ??5. Uh huh.

So I went to Orange. Reasons for not using them: the glossy marketing is just glossy marketing, albeit quite a deep layer of glossy marketing. My experience: Orange were great. Friendly customer services, good deals when contracts expired, great coverage. I was with them for years. Then one day I phoned up to renew my contract. I was looking for the same or cheaper. The guy had really great news for me: he could get the bill down to ??20 permanently! Loads of free texts, loads of free calls, especially as I was keeping my last handset. I signed up for a year and had plenty of cheap calls. My 13th bill came as a shock: it was for ??200. The deal I was on, free texts and calls forever, had expired. I rang them. Ah, they said, that was a very special offer and I had been told it reverted to bazillions after a year. No, I said patiently, I wasn't told that or I'd've done something about it in time. I, I maintained, had been mis-sold. Hmmm, said customer??servicing. Why, I said, after a year of ??20 bills, would I want to start paying ??200 if I could just switch away? And, I added, the bill has taken two weeks to arrive, so I already owe another ??100, don't I? So they cut me a "deal": they'd credit me ??100 if I signed up to an 18 month contract at ??30 a month. I signed up, but I warned the sales droid: it'll be a cold dark day
in hell before I come back to Orange after this, and I'll tell everyone I ever meet about this duplicity. 18 months later and I cancelled the contract. Orange begged me to stay, shocked and horrified that they'd conned me. They offered me a really good deal to stay. I told them that, nothing personal to the guy at customer service this time, they still owed me ??200 – would they credit me with that? No, he said. Well, you can corporately fuck yourselves then, I said. After I switched away, they wrote to me, offering me the ??200 credit if I came back. Too little too fucking late.

So I went to T-Mobile. Reasons for not using them: they're too slow on their feet to deserve your money. My experience: T-Mobile were fine. Unadventurous, even dull, but fine. And they had a fabulous idea for travelling abroad: instead of cutting off your internet or charging a fortune for it, they let you buy?????5 internet boosters that gave you enough basic bandwidth for each day. So you bought them each day, controlled your costs, but didn't go without. And then my 2 year contract was up and I wanted an iPhone. Could I have one with them? Well, they said, you could have this old 3G one we've got knocking about. No, I said, I want a nice shiny modern one. Like the one 3 has for ??99 plus ??35 a month. Match – or beat – that and I'll sign with you again for 2 years. Uhhh, they said. Uhhhh, how about the 3G for ??99/??35pm? No, I've just turned that down for free. Try again. Uhhhhh, how about an iPhone 4 for ??350 and ??45 a month? No, the offer on the table is ??99/??35, not ??350/??45. One more go. Uhhhhhh, how about an iPhone 4 for ??100 and ??75 a month. Hmmm, I said, you really haven't got the hang of this bartering business, have you? Bye then.

So I went to 3. Reasons for not using them: actually, they're now not so bad. Still cheap, but if you have a Mac you have control of the iPhone and will never need to talk to them (fingers crossed) so that's good. However, they will insist on calling you once every 3 weeks, 3 weeks from you signing the contract with them, offering you better contracts. This would be great but they don't mean "cancel the existing contract and put you on a better one" they mean "send you a further iPhone and you can put the old one in a drawer??and keep paying for it even as you pay ever-so-slightly-less for the new one??that they will then try to get you to replace three weeks later in a similar manner. Don't bother opting out (by text, email, phone call or letter or all of the above) because it doesn't work. You've got to live with them constantly trying to up-sell you to your detriment. Also, their roaming charges are HUGE. I mean staggeringly HUGE. They cap them at ??43, which you'll run through in about 2 days unless you get a hotel with free wi-fi. Which I now always do.

My recommendation? Break out the two bean tins and a piece of string. Or overthrow capitalism and replace it with a nice state monopoly that doesn't pretend to care about you while price-gouging and laughing at you. Or just take the cheapest and play the fuckers off against each other. Whatever. They're all the same.


  1. Here’s a brief summary of my mobile phone experiences:3 – Got a PAYG phone when they were almost giving away phones in order to build their customer base. Network was OK and my one experience of their tech support (obviously an Asian call centre) wasn’t too bad either unlike some people’s experiences. Unfortunately the first gen 3G phone I had kept crashing when the signal was weak, even though my NEC handset was supposedly one of the better ones (I dread to think what the others were like if that was truly the case). Expensive calls from landlines to 3 network phones though, which put off relatives from calling me so that may not be a bad thing in itself :)Orange – The PAYG mobile phone network from hell, but admittedly perhaps not quite as bad as Jamie’s O2 experience. Firstly bought an Orange SIM card only to find that I could only pick up a 2G signal with my 3G handset, and Orange wanted to charge a small fortune for the tech support call after a very long-winded maze of prerecorded menus just because it wasn’t a basic "setup" query (I just hung up instead). Orange shop wasn’t that helpful either, but another phone shop gave me the answer: it turns out that Orange were the only network to sell both 2G and 3G-specific SIM cards despite the fact that a 3G SIM card works happily in a 2G phone, and yes, you’ve guessed what happened in my case. (Insane!) And the Orange shop couldn’t transfer my existing credit to a new 3G SIM card either. Useless.Also Orange often butcher their PAYG phones with their "branding experience", unlike O2…O2 – My O2 experience was OK if rather dull, and the Favourite Place option worked handily. Even got a decent 3G signal in a semi-rural area despite very patchy 3G coverage nationally at the time, though their data charges were absolutely ludicrous which was the main reason that caused me to leave them. (Their data charges are now better but still not the best.)T-Mobile – My current network. Plus points: Very cheap data charges; on PAYG my tip is to go for the ??5/month option since that has a less aggressive data cap than the ??20/6 months option at time of writing. Minus points: a strange data corruption bug now seems to be affecting my handset that nobody/nothing seems to solve , and I’m hoping this will go away when Orange roaming is switched on, hopefully before the end of the year. (Poor 3G signal at home may be partly to blame.) Tech support tried to be helpful even though they tried blaming everything else (the 1GB data cap; a weak signal despite the fact that the bug still occurs when the signal is 100%, etc.), and she did call me back after a while to see if the problem had been sorted, which was courteous (it hadn’t but I wasn’t in a position to conduct further download tests at the time).Vodafone – Never tried them. I always had the impression they treated non-contract customers in particular as second class citizens; their special ‘preferred’ customers certainly have much cheaper call charges compared to the unwashed. And their derisory data offering for PAYG customers certainly reinforces this opinion aside from the tax-dodging stuff.

  2. Well I’ve been an Orange pay as you go customer for nearly 12 years. Every now and then I pop online, check the tariffs and decide there’s so little incentive to change provider and just change to the latest, best pay as you go deal that Orange offer. I’m a light mobile user – always have been. Been paying about ??10 top up every two months.I survived a decade with never having to talk to their customer service department. I bought a new phone from the Orange online shop. They wouldn’t let me buy it without buying ??20 topup. Whatever, I thought. I’ll use it.I phone up, get the phone activated. They credit the top up. All ??10 of it.Several phone calls – charged obviously – and they kept saying they’d get someone to sort it out and call me but no one ever did. Pay as you go call centre’s clearly in India as the phone line is appalling (I’m told the contract centre is in Britain somewhere – err… what?!) and at least one person told me I couldn’t have bought ??10.One thing was clear with the Indian call centre – they weren’t actually empowered to do anything useful. They had to get someone else to do it and for whatever reason, it never happened.I got increasingly annoyed with them and complained so much they kept throwing rather useless freebies at me. In the end I discovered customer service bliss. Their Twitter team is excellent – I suspect because Orange actually empower them to do things. Still with Orange all these years on. Can’t be bothered changing yet. The arrival of a new smartphone may change that – will see how my usage changes. But until then…

  3. Bloody hell, sounds like a right nightmare! I’m with 02 who have been great, as their uber hands-off approach has worked in my favour – I’m still getting a 30% discount on my tariff that should’ve expired two years ago!

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