Smart Consumer: How to get the best cable, net and phone packages
A good deal is not impossible - but read the small print, says Ciarán Byrne
The cable TV company NTL had such a bad name it gave itself a new one: UPC. Unfortunately, the new incarnation is maintaining a glorious tradition of hair-tearing, anger-inducing, chronically bad customer service.
But crucially -- UPC is cheaper than some of its rivals, so if you can bear the experience of dealing with them on the phone, there are lots of euros to be saved.
The media company also offers a nice free option to install the gear yourself -- easy to do and just a €10 charge if you still want an engineer to come out and do it for you.
More than ever, consumers looking for cheaper phone, TV and internet services are trying to drive down prices and get the best deals. But it can be a very confusing market with wildly varying levels of service, charges and free stuff.
I had decided to switch from Sky, fed up with the way they exclude channels such as BBC4 and UTV from the running order and fed up paying €9 extra a month for ESPN -- free on UPC. In fact, when I checked yesterday, Sky have hiked the ESPN fee to €12.
Sky also charges its Irish customers more than British viewers and they don't, unlike in the UK, offer broadband and a phone.
So back to UPC. They've a great deal at the moment for TV, internet and landline. It's €60 a month for a whopping 25Mb broadband connection, phone with mostly free local and national calls, 400 free monthly international minutes -- and the basic TV package.
If you don't want the TV, it's €42 a month for the phone and broadband only. It also gives you a free handset which plugs into your broadband router -- with line rental from €6 a month.
It's a nice deal.But readers in some areas will know through bitter experience that the fast speeds are a pipe dream where, in some cases, there is barely anything remotely resembling broadband. We'll come to that a little later on.
1 So, how do you get a good deal with UPC?
I wanted it all; phone, TV and broadband. A sales agent explained UPC was currently offering Sky Sports and Sky Movies free on a two-month trial -- a saving of about €40 a month. Fantastic.
Getting what I wanted, though, was a Kafkaesque nightmare, and from what can be seen on Twitter and other forums, it's still a common experience with UPC.
On the day the courier arrived, there was a TV box but no phone. The free trial of sport and movie channels was not connected either.
When I rang to see about the phone, they said they had no record of it being ordered.
I waited for a call back. It never came. Instead, over the next five days, I found myself repeatedly ringing UPC and every time there was another balls up.
One after the other, the agents promised solutions but delivered only confusion. One had mistakenly cancelled the phone order, another had ordered the service but not the actual phone.
More calls to get the sports and films. "It's been switched on now," said an agent. "It hasn't you know," I replied, staring at the "You have not subscribed to this channel message" still flashing on my TV.
After five days, I still had no phone. In desperation I turned to their social media account on Twitter and hey presto, success. @UPC_HelpsYou_IE promised to sort out the mess. Within an hour my phone was being delivered and I was up and running.
2 Blimey, I can't face all that -- what about Sky for TV only, as it does not offer broadband?
It's a more pleasant experience -- but pricey. Sky lets you select channels you want and there is a dedicated phone line in Cork for Irish customers -- so no explaining to someone in Newcastle what part of 'Eire' you live in.
A basic package with entertainment, knowledge, music, news and kids channels brings the total to €31 a month and when you toss in Sky Sports and Sky Movies, we're at a hefty €138 every two months. Add ESPN and its now €150 -- and that's with no internet.
If you are joining Sky TV and take free standard set-up, you must also pay a €23 'joining' fee but you get a free Sky+ box. It's €38 with a free Sky+HD box.
3 So that's Sky -- but I also need broadband and a phone and I'm just not interested in UPC. What are the other options?
We've all seen that incredibly irritating advert for WiMax (Imagine.ie) where the smug, baldy fella sings about broadband starting at a modest 1Mb (€35 a month with phone) and going up to 10Mb (€55 a month with phone).
WiMax offers a phone and free off-peak calls here and to the UK. There is no line rental, but a €32.50 fee for the same handset -- by Siemens -- which UPC gives away for free. There is also a €100 'equipment' charge.
4 What about eircom? People bang on about line rental rip-offs. Are they so bad?
It's not that black and white. Eircom is competitive and offers deals on phone and broadband. A basic package is €46.79 (€36.79 for first 6 months) with line rental, modem, 8Mb broadband and free off-peak calls.
Eircom also offers free music downloads from its MusicHub, wi-fi access to its network and an internet security package for three months.
5 Reading all this is maddening. I live in an area where I can't really get access to any of this stuff, the broadband connections simply aren't available.
Well, you can always go mobile. Vodafone 'In a Box' claims to offer up to 8Mb home broadband, free off-peak calls, line rental and mobile broadband for €54.99 a month.
O2, 3 and others offer mobile broadband from €15 a month. In rural areas such as Limerick and Tipperary, Celtic Broadband offers 1Mb broadband from €19.99 a month and €34.99 for 3Mb. But there is also a €149.99 'install fee'.
6 It's a jungle out there. So many charges, hidden extras, delivery, installation and the like. How can I navigate all this?
Go in with your eyes open. Ask about all the charges upfront. And after you've asked, ask again so there are no nasty surprises, eh, down the line, so to speak.
UPC for example will tell you about their suite of 'downgrade charges' -- basically they hammer you with fees for dropping channels though Sky has no such penalty system.
Outrageous? Absolutely, but with a little guile, you can minimise the impact of the extras and have a ball at home with all your new toys.