Sunday 1 February 2015

Switching mobile networks costs you time - and money

Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30

CALL HOME: It can take up to three weeks to switch your mobile, and hundreds of euro worth of calls
CALL HOME: It can take up to three weeks to switch your mobile, and hundreds of euro worth of calls

I have to stand on a chair in my kitchen to get a mobile phone signal. Even this is no guarantee that I will get one. Move a tiny fraction of a millimetre and I'll lose the signal.

Occasionally I have received voicemail messages on my mobile - which were left on my phone two weeks previously. Why it took two weeks for those messages to get to me, I will never know.

I live near Lough Dan in Wicklow - a beautiful part of the world but a bit of a Bermuda Triangle when it comes to mobiles. I'm only a 20-minute drive from the N11 - on Dublin's doorstep so to speak. Yet I can't use my mobile.

My husband, who is a Meteor customer, has no problem getting a signal in our home. So I recently decided to switch to Meteor from Vodafone. I need to be able to use my mobile phone without dangling from a chair in my kitchen. Apart from the woeful signal in Lough Dan, I was very happy with Vodafone so it is a pity I have to switch.

I thought it would be as easy as pie to switch. I was in for a shock. You need to unlock your phone before you can switch to another network. To unlock your phone, you need a unlocking code - which the mobile phone company you are switching from will give you. However, when I rang Vodafone customer service to request the code, I was told that it could take up to ten working days to get it.

It took about a week for me to get the code in the end - however, the wait can be longer, depending on your handset manufacturer.

It can take up to 15 working days to get an unlocking code from Vodafone if you have a Motorola handset that was bought over a-year-and-a-half ago. Vodafone customers with Samsung and HTC handsets have to wait up to ten working days. Otherwise, you must usually wait up to five working days - unless you have an Apple handset, which comes with a maximum two-day wait.

"Normally, customers receive their unlocking code within or before ten working days of their request," said a spokeswoman for Vodafone when queried about the waiting time.

It's a similar story with the other mobile phone networks although the waiting times are shorter with some.

"In the majority of cases, Three can provide an unlocking code within 24 hours," said a spokeswoman for Three. "In certain cases, we have to refer to the manufacturer to generate the code, which can take a number of days."

A spokesman for O2 said that unlock codes for major brands like Samsung, Sony, HTC and Apple are typically available within a couple of working days. "However, it can sometimes take longer," he added.

It can take up to ten working days to get an unlocking code from Meteor - if it has to contact your phone manufacturer on your behalf.

A spokeswoman for Tesco Mobile said that it can take up to two weeks to issue an unlocking code to a customer.

"There's no technical reason why one operator can unlock a phone in one week or less while another takes two weeks," said Dave Millett, director of the British independent telecoms broker, Equinox. "There's no reason for mobile phone companies to lock phones. They're just doing it as a way to control customers."

Not only could you face a wait to unlock your phone, you may be charged to do so - or you could find that you have to spend a certain amount of money on calls before you can even ask to be unlocked.

In Britain, some operators charge as much as €25 to unlock a phone, according to a recent study published by the British telecoms regulator, Ofcom.

The Sunday Independent asked the various Irish mobile phone companies if they charged customers to unlock their phone. There is no unlocking fee for pay-as-you-go Vodafone customers as long as they have topped up their phone by at least €100 since they bought it. "For bill-pay customers, there is no fee to unlock a Vodafone phone after the contract comes to an end," said the Vodafone spokeswoman.

O2 does not charge its bill-pay customers to unlock their phones. However, "unlock codes will only be generated for prepaid customers who have topped up their account by at least €150 since registering the phone in question," said a spokesman for O2.

Three also said that it does not charge customers to unlock their phone. "However, the unlock code will only be available for bill-pay customers who have completed the term of their contract and prepaid customers who have topped up by €130 since purchasing their handset," said a Three spokeswoman.

To be able to unlock a Meteor bill-pay phone, you must have paid more than €200 worth of bills - or six bills in total. Your account must also not be in arrears. To unlock a Meteor pay-as-you-go phone, you must have topped up your call credit by at least €120 in the last six months. "Phone unlocking is not unusual on any mobile network, especially where the price of the handset is subsidised," said a spokeswoman for Meteor.

Tesco Mobile does not charge its bill-pay and pay-as-you-go customers to unlock their phones - as long as they have been on the network for more than nine months. "Pay-as-you-go customers on the network for less than nine months are required to top up by a minimum of €150," said a Tesco.

Clearly, the cost and hassle of switching could put people off doing so. I have to switch though - what's the point in paying for a mobile phone if I can't use it? I asked Vodafone why the coverage in Lough Dan is so bad.

"Due to Lough Dan's topography and its zoning as an 'area of outstanding natural beauty', there are challenges with developing further in this area," said a spokeswoman. "However, Vodafone is currently upgrading our network nationwide which will bring data services to all areas where voice services are currently available. Under this programme, Wicklow will start to experience these improvements before the end of the year."

That will be too late for me.

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