<i>Upgrading your business phone soon? Wondering what the best operator deal is? </i>
Thousands of business users are now left to choose their own plan and phone, against a monthly allowance from their office.
But is a bill for €70 or €80 per month ever justified? Which operators offer you the best network quality, value and speeds? Is it worth considering a sim-only deal or are subsidised phones better value?
Adrian Weckler goes through the best plans on offer for the Irish business user and looks at the features that matter.
4G or not 4G? That is the question
How important is 4G when deciding which package to get? Generally, 4G is a future-proofing issue. But that future may be very imminent. As we start to rely on large-screen phones for more and more online work, decent 4G speeds will become more important. They will also lessen our reliance on patchy wifi services in cafes, hotels or public transportation.
So who has the best 4G network? The Irish Independent spent half a day driving around the greater Dublin area measuring 4G data speeds [see panel above].
We went from city centre locations to suburbs and outer ring road areas.
We measured 11 different spots, testing Vodafone and 3 Ireland (which have over 90pc of business accounts between them) against each other using the same phone and same data speed-test software for each service.
Right now, Vodafone comes out on top in terms of 4G data speeds. In our tests, it measured on average three times faster than 3 Ireland (30Mbs v 9Mbs over 11 sites) for download speeds.
For uploads, Vodafone averaged almost twice as fast than 3 Ireland (14Mbs v 8Mbs), although in some areas the results were close.
3 Ireland’s download speeds were faster in just one of the 11 locations (Parnell Road, Dublin 8), while its upload speed beat Vodafone just once, in a separate location (Talbot Street, Dublin 1). What about outside Dublin? Our tests were confined to the capital, but of the big two operators, Vodafone is at a more advanced geographical rollout stage (90pc population coverage) than 3 Ireland, which has yet to launch 4G for the majority of its customers (the portion it inherited when it acquired O2 Ireland). One additional factor is that 3 Ireland says that it will charge an additional €4.99 per month for 4G network access for bill pay and preypay customers from July 1.
“From 1st July 2015, an additional €4.99 monthly charge will apply for access to 4G for all Bill Pay customers,” said a statement on 3’s website. “From 1st July 2015 prepay customers will be required to purchase an add-on in order to attain access to 4G.” This move will bring its prices closer to its nearest rival, Vodafone.
If you’re smart, you’re eating up data
After coverage, data is now the most important element. The average data usage in Ireland among ordinary smartphone users stands close to 2GB per month. But that includes 80-year-olds with feature phones. Those with fit-for-purpose smartphones (including any recently purchased iPhone, Samsung, Sony or HTC) will likely be heading toward 5GB in monthly data this year as data usage rates continue to double every year.
That means that a contract offering you anything less than 4GB or 5GB leaves you open to unwelcome additional charges each month.
3 Ireland traditionally offers the best data packages, while O2 (now incorporated into 3) and Vodafone tend to offer the least data for your monthly euro. Meteor sits somewhere in the middle. But there are signs that the market is narrowing for data. Vodafone’s monthly allowances are creeping up, while 3 Ireland is starting to charge more for data-related services (such as 4G). Data is a sensitive topic for mobile operators as they seek to make more revenue in a tight market. But those who try to tell you that 2GB or 3GB is “plenty” are misleading you.
Even ‘unlimited’ has its limitations
With increased usage of services such as Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, traditional calls and texts aren’t as crucial as they once were. But they still form the bedrock of a mobile service for many business users. Most plans that cost over €50 per month give “unlimited” calls and text messages to any Irish network, including landline networks.
However, “unlimited” can vary. 3 Ireland limits “unlimited” calls and texts to 10,000 combined minutes and texts. Meteor is a little more generous, offering 45,000 monthly minutes and 10,000 texts as its interpretation of “unlimited”. But Vodafone is most generous when it comes to “unlimited” calls and texts, defining it as 45,000 calling minutes and 45,000 text messages.
Have they got you covered?
Dropped calls, reception quality, widest availability: does one operator trump others on quality? Operators argue over who has the ‘best’ network quality all the time, but there is a lack of independent evidence. Vodafone and 3 Ireland are now the biggest spenders on their networks, with Vodafone claiming it will invest €325m in its network over the coming years and 3 Ireland claiming a similar figure (although that will likely include the cost of integrating O2 Ireland into its existing network). In some rural areas, 3 Ireland has a slight coverage advantage having won a (now lapsed) state-subsidised contract to provide basic broadband coverage. But in non-urban regional towns, Vodafone has invested heavily over the last two years. In cities, it’s difficult to separate operators as they often share sites. Meteor roams on the network owned by O2, now owned by 3 Ireland.
When in Rome, can you roam?
For frequent travellers, roaming remains a significant consideration although the differences are not now as great as they once were because of EU regulations capping the cost at which operators can charge intra-EU travellers. Vodafone offers up to 500 ‘international’ minutes and texts on some of its plans while 3 Ireland lets you use your phone as you would at home in five European countries (Italy, Sweden, UK, Austria and Denmark) and in Hong Kong. Meteor has more limited roaming offers for business users.
Who rules when it comes to 4G speeds? An Irish Independent survey shows that Vodafone is currently ahead in the Dublin area when it comes to 4G speeds.
According to our road tests, the average Vodafone 4G download speed across 11 locations was 29.6Mbs compared to average 4G download speeds of 8.9Mbs for 3 Ireland.
How did we conduct the tests? We took two iPhone 6 devices and put a 4G sim card from Vodafone and 3 Ireland in each. We drove to 11 locations around Dublin city and suburbs and conducted two consecutive tests in each location at the same time. We took the lower of the two speeds from each test to be conservative.
However, the speeds did not vary much from one test to the next within the same location. Tests were used using Speedtest.net. Just one location did not record a 4G signal for one of the operators (3 Ireland): Glasnevin Avenue in Dublin 11.
The fastest Vodafone 4G download speed recorded was 60.5Mbs in Clontarf. The slowest was 4.6Mbs on Parnell Road, Dublin 8. The fastest Vodafone 4G upload speed was 22.3Mbs at the Red Cow Roundabout. The slowest was 2.3Mbs at Parnell Road, D8. The average Vodafone upload speed was 13.6Mbs.
The average 3 Ireland 4G download speed across 11 locations was 8.9Mbs. The average upload speed was 7.6Mbs. The fastest 3 Ireland 4G download speed recorded was 10.6Mbs in Lucan. The slowest was 6Mbs in Dame Street, Dublin 2.
The fastest 3 Ireland 4G upload speed was 10.1Mbs in Finglas Village. The slowest was 3Mbs at the Red Cow Roundabout.
* Notes: ‘Overall’ figure in the table above is upfront phone cost plus monthly tariffs calculated over two year contract. Plans selected focus on lowest upfront price for iPhone 6. Phone chosen is iPhone 6 (16GB) model. 3 Ireland will charge €5 extra per month for 4G access on bill pay plans from June 1st. 3 Ireland offers 10,000 monthly ‘flexi-units’ comprising call minutes or texts after which charges are levied.
Meteor offers 45,000 monthly call minutes and 10,000 monthly texts after which charges are levied. Vodafone offers 45,000 calling minutes and 45,000 texts as its ‘unlimited’ ‘offering as well as 500 ‘worldwide’ minutes and texts and the option to upgrade phone every year for additional cost.
* Notes: Regarding the table above, 3 Ireland offers 10,000 monthly ‘flexi-units’ comprising call minutes or texts after which charges are levied. 3 Ireland will also charge an additional €5 per month for 4G access from July 1st. Meteor offers 45,000 monthly call minutes and 10,000 monthly texts after which charges are levied.
Both 3 and Meteor’s service comprise a rolling 30-day contract while Vodafone requires a 12-month contract. Vodafone offers 45,000 calling minutes and 45,000 texts as its ‘unlimited’ ‘offering and 100 ‘worldwide’ minutes and texts. Vodafone’s maximum data allowance plan (without additional paid for add-ons) is 10GB at a cost of €80 per month, including a Spotify or Sky Sports subscription.
Should you consider buying a phone and then going for a sim-only plan? If you can afford the upfront cost of the phone, this is the best way to get a mobile plan in terms of cost and flexibility. For two out of the three main operators, it is the cheapest option. Take the iPhone 6 (16GB), which costs €700 to buy. On Meteor, the sim-free option is a no-brainer: not only is it €170 cheaper and affords greater flexibility, but it provides an extra 9GB of monthly data. On Vodafone, it is €430 cheaper to opt for a sim-only deal, although it only provides half the data (5GB) of the subsidised deal (10GB).
Only on 3 Ireland is it cheaper (by €44) to get a subsidised iPhone 6 (paying €290 instead of €700) and commit to a 24-month plan at €55 per month than it is to buy the phone outright and pay a €39.75 monthly rolling contract. But even here, the main advantage to the more expensive plan is that you’re not tied in to a 24-month contract and can switch operators whenever anyone comes up with a better deal.
* Notes: Information in the table above is based on comparison between purchase of iPhone 6 (€700) with sim-only deal and operator-subsidised iPhone 6 contracts over 24 months. 3 Ireland and Meteor sim-only deals based on rolling 30 day contract; Vodafone sim-only deal based on 12-month contract. Vodafone sim-only deal based on 5GB, subsidised deal based on 10GB. Meteor sim-only deal based on 15GB, subsidised deal based on 6GB.