Get smart... hang on to your handset
If you don't need to upgrade your phone, switching networks can save you hundreds
A number of recent developments in the mobile operator market means that the next few weeks and months look set to be a good time to find savings on your mobile bill by switching operators or tariffs.
The first is the re-branding of An Post's pre-pay mobile plans as Post Mobile and the addition of data services for the first time. The service, which runs on the Vodafone network, had been launched five years ago as Post Fone - and while it notched up 30,000 subscriptions, it had struggled to remain competitive as the market evolved.
Carphone Warehouse Ireland is investing €30m in iD, a new mobile service that will announce details of its tariffs sometime next month. Although a spokeswoman wouldn't give any hints regarding prices, the firm looks to make tariff "flexibility" a key selling point of its service - in terms of being able to pick and choose how many minutes, texts or data you want, and even contract duration.
UPC is also due to enter the market in the coming months, and plans to push bundled "quad play" services (TV, broadband, landline and mobile) as a key offering.
Both iD and UPC will be piggy-backing on the Three Ireland network as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). Part of the condition laid down by EU competition regulators of Three's purchase of mobile operator 02 Ireland last year was that it had to provide network capacity to two MVNOs to facilitate competition in the market.
So if you were indeed planning to switch sometime in the next few weeks or months, there's never been more options in terms of providers.
On the other hand, this may not be such a good thing, as more providers will mean more tariffs to figure out. Too much choice can leave you a bit bewildered as to what exactly might be your best or most suitable option, which is probably just the way the main operators like it.
In fact, if you visited ComReg's Callcosts.ie price comparison website and did an open search on all the current providers and tariffs, you'll have to wade through a list of over 100 across all six operators: Vodafone, E-mobile (owned by Eircom), Tesco Mobile, Three, Meteor and Post Mobile.
Nonetheless, details of a survey commissioned by Carphone Warehouse Ireland at the time of the launch of iD last month suggested that 30pc of bill-pay and 20pc of pre-pay mobile customers are "likely" to switch in the next year.
However, the last study of switching behaviour by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission from a year ago found that just 9pc of us ever change our mobile phone service - lower than for utilities like electricity, gas and broadband, car and home insurance.
The same study found that the average savings from switching mobile phone operator - €24 a month or nearly €300 a year - are among the highest of all household bills.
But it is easy to switch operators, and you can even keep your full mobile number.
Shane Lynn of Killbiller, a free Irish app service that allows you to compare mobile tariffs, says that there are three main factors that drive a user to change operators: the plan price, the handset they get with a new contract and coverage in the area where they live.
The second factor, where operators sign you up to a long 12- or 24-month contract in return for "subsidising" an expensive phone upgrade, is obviously one that mobile operators have been exploiting with their ever-expanding (and frequently upgraded) range of smartphones.
However, handset "upgrade fatigue" may at last be setting in, as budget-conscious users are growing bored of makers like Samsung, HTC and Sony upgrading their flagship handsets every year and are opting for cheaper tariffs instead.
In the US, for instance, new analysis by research firm Argus Insights (of more than 600,000 online reviews and comments posted by smartphone buyers during the past six months)suggests consumers are jumping off the upgrade merry-go-round, while demand for smartphones has dropped by 8pc since January 2014.
"I think the rate of innovation in mobile phones has slowed down a little bit," said Lynn. "The next release of your phone may have bells and whistles that you've never heard of - but in reality, the phone you have is probably performing at a reasonably high level; its screen is fairly big, it has a good enough camera. People don't feel the same want for a new handset. Innovation has tapered off. It's incremental improvements."
This is where Irish MVNOs like Post Mobile and shortly iD and UPC may see their opportunity. In Britain, for instance, there are now dozens of such operators competing on the basis of price, particularly on SIM-only deals.
So if you have a handset that you're currently happy with and you are not tied to any contract, you could save yourself a few bob in the next months, as it will be "a really good time for people to have a look around", said Lynn.
He said many people were likely to be paying way over the odds, getting allowances that they don't use. "The ideal is to pay only for what you use," says Lynn.
Pre-pay tariffs have traditionally been more popular than bill pay, but Lynn points to the most recent industry data from telecoms regulator ComReg showing that bill-pay plans have risen in popularity over the last year or two to the point where it's a nearly 50-50 split between the two types.
It's all in the data
In general though, the competition between operators has centred around data services rather than calls and texts.
Vodafone recently increased its monthly data limits after losing tens of thousands of pre-paid customers who switched to rivals with bigger data offerings.
Of course, if you're not a heavy user of data you shouldn't be tempted to spend extra on plans with unlimited data allowances. While it can be difficult to quantify data use, a light data user would be classified today as someone who uses less than 500mb a month. Over 1Gb would define a heavy user who downloads a lot of videos and music.
However, if you're a big texter but recently converted to using tools like WhatsApp instead of traditional texts, it's worth remembering that this may eat into your data allowance.
You can find the plan that best suits you by entering your usage details into a price comparison website like Callcosts.ie. But if that seems too much like hard work, an app like Killbiller may be a better bet.
If you find that you have a number of very similar options with very little to choose between them in terms of calls, text and data, what may swing it for you is some of the bonus offerings that some operators are providing as incentives to get you to switch.
Vodafone customers, for instance, can pick up Cherry points just for topping up, which they can use to get a variety of rewards like free tickets, accessories and free data/text bundles. Those who opt for a Red Extra bill pay plan get two years of free Sky Sports Mobile TV or Spotify Premium.
Three's 3Plus rewards programme offers customers access to a variety of music, football and rugby events, competitions, discounts and offers.
No prizes for guessing what Tesco Mobile customers get: yes, Tesco Clubcard points.
Sunday Indo Business