back to article Bargain-happy Brits snub big four mobile network operators

You can stuff your VoLTE and Notched iPhones – bargain-conscious Brits are shunning the big mobile operators for cheap-as-chips virtual network operators instead. The virtual upstarts have not typically offered great deals on expensive flagships, or advanced network features. But they have outsmarted the big four. Which? …

  1. djstardust

    Hardly a surprise

    In the old days, you paid the price for the handset (divided by the monthly amount the handset was worth) plus the airtime on top.

    Now the big boys see contract handsets as a money spinner, so they up the monthly fees, extend the contract length (some now up to 36 months) and add an up-front payment so if you were to get the handset and equivalent sim-only deal it's a couple of hundred pounds more in some cases, and that's not factoring in the bulk buy discounts they get on the handsets.

    Bottom line is that they have tried to rip people off and it's caught up with them.

    In my weekly wonder round town, EE seem particularly expensive, but given they are now owned by BT that's hardly a surprise.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hardly a surprise

      I suspect the real money spinner remains what it always has been, of keeping customers on the full "handset + airtime" tariff after the contract ends. I did some fag packet maths a while back, and it seemed that two months at full rate out of contract made as much profit for the MNO as they made in the first two years.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Hardly a surprise

      With the average price of a flagship or even midrange phone being what it is and going up by £50 every year, and everybody wanting the latest shiny, why wouldn't the contract length be 24 or 36 months?

      Phone manufacturers should also get the blame. And people who like bling.

    3. Tim J

      Re: Hardly a surprise

      I think more and more people are wising up to SIM-only contracts or plans.

      I'd recommend the SIM-only route for everyone!

      1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

        Re: Hardly a surprise

        I would also say if you want a phone with the contract, make sure its seperate so when the phone is paid off thats it (Its amazing the amount of people who havent wanted to change phones but are still paying their original contract as they assumed the phone was free, its an absolute piss take that those people then have to phone to downgrade to a sim only plan).

  2. handleoclast

    It would have been useful

    if the table had shown the MNOs used by the MVNOs. Some were mentioned in the text of the article, but not all.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It would have been useful

      It would also be useful to know what the pricing was for each of the MNO's to allow some meaningful comparison.

      Customer satisfaction is a 'how long is a piece of string' type of value judgement.

      Each MVNO attracts a different type of user/customer and what is acceptable to one is NOT to another.

      i.e. Gifgaf is supported by their own customers and would be useless for many who have a general lack of confidence with Computers/Forums etc.

      The deciding criteria for many is the price so a meaningful comparison of what you pay for what service is needed.

      From recent experience it is very difficult to get valid pricing from every provider to enable a proper comparison. In the time it took to get all the various tarrifs and special offers etc, the prices had already changed with 1 or 2 providers and the cycle had to be started again.

      This is, of course, deliberate to maintain the constant 'churn' of pricing and mis-information from one provider about another to confuse and confound people changing providers/Tarrifs etc.

      When moving from O2, I was given mis-information about pricing of other providers while they tried to convince me to stay on a 'better' tariff. This had also happened with Three moving to O2, previously.

      Comparison sites can also be wrong as the offers are changed so regularly & some of the special offers via the comparison sites are not as good as they sound (read small print).

      You need to 'know' exactly what you want and examine the small print to know what each provider includes & excludes from each tarrif for you to compare against your 'needs'.

      Evaluate your need for meaningful and accessible support and research the reality vs the 'Flashy Adverts'.

      If possible try your choice on a 1 month rolling contract that you can cancel at the end a month if the service/reception/usability are NOT as you were sold. :)

      Transfering numbers does tend to be problem free and quick with the larger providers, again a useful way to test the quality of the Customer Support.

      Reception maps etc are a 'Best Guess' if you are not in a well used area, so the map may say you are in a average reception area but reality will show otherwise particularly if you are on the 'edge' of a busy area.

      (Again a good reason to try the service out.)


      I am in a good/average reception area for Three/O2/EE according to their maps BUT reality is 'Three' does not work inside the house, 'O2' is marginal depending on weather and EE is just a bit stronger to allow usage in the house at all times. [2+ bars].

      1. Warm Braw Silver badge

        Re: It would have been useful

        Gifgaf is supported by their own customers and would be useless for many who have a general lack of confidence with Computers/Forums

        In my experience, giffgaff support is useless without qualification. Because of the perverse incentives, immediately anyone posts a problem, dozens of people post boilerplate responses so quickly they clearly haven't had time even to read through the post to which they're responding in the hope of being first to get acknowledged as having provided the solution. Most of the "helpful" advice I have looked at is, if not totally wrong, entirely irrelevant.

        It's also no worse than the kind of support you get from traditional networks, because actually that's exactly how their systems work too, only they pay their drones in small amounts of money rather than in small amounts of air time.

        The point about giffgaff is that you don't mind the lack of customer service so much when you're paying £10pcm for unlimited minutes.

      2. Paul Shirley

        Re: It would have been useful

        I was given mis-information about pricing of other providers

        I see GiffGaff now only compare their PAYG offer with EE and Vodafone. "3" was dropped the moment their 3-2-1 tariff launched, O2 more recently - I believe because they now compete with "3".

        Competition, they've all heard of it and struggle hard to avoid it.

  3. therebel

    I'm not defending the big networks but chances are the average Utility Warehouse customer is likely to be a low user and not very demanding of the network. Perhaps the average Vodafone customer will be paying more in comparison and also expecting a lot more. Not necessarily fair to compare them all together. A better comparison would be to separate MNOs and MVNOs as customers will be different demographics potentially.

    My Mum pays £7.50 on Tesco Mobile and I pay 6 times that on Vodafone. It wouldn't be a fair comparison to see who was happier with the service.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Just as likely is that the big operators have people on monthly contracts and charging for extras as per the terms of the contracts versus the smaller operators that cap usage and require top ups to continue, avoiding surprises.

      Having helped a variety of friends and family with billing issues, almost all of the mobile companies customer support sucks if you are doing anything other than upgrading your phone or extending a contract. Combined with "I gave my phone to little Harold and he managed to use £50 of wifi while I got pissed without me realising" types of billing enquiries being handled by (generally) poorly trained staff, the results aren't a complete surprise...

      1. AMBxx Silver badge

        A lot of this is down to expectations. For my 'emergency' mobile and car tracker, I use GiffGaff. £10 credit lasts a couple of years. I rarely use either, so am happy with the service I receive.

        My business mobile is through O2. I hated O2's customer service, so now work through a reseller - they're great. IF there's a problem though, I get shouty as I'm expecting good service on an important service.

        1. handleoclast


          I use GiffGaff. £10 credit lasts a couple of years. I rarely use either, so am happy with the service I receive.

          Make sure you use it enough. There's usually a clause which says if you don't make a call from it for 6 months (or some other length of time, depending which bastards you use) then they deactivate your SIM. My terms of use say nothing about receiving calls, nothing about sending or receiving texts, it says you have to make at least one call every 6 months. Otherwise you lose any credit you had on it and you lose the number (which they re-use after a suitable period of time). Tesco did this with my backup phone, the one I keep in the house in case there's an emergency and there's a problem with my main phone.

          I can understand this when the SIM really isn't being used because the phone got dropped where it couldn't be retrieved, or somebody decides he's getting too many unwanted calls so buys a new SIM and chucks the old one. Fairy nuff. But my backup phone was always on, and so presumably always registered to the network.

          Does anyone with deep knowledge of how this stuff works know why they do it? Is it technically impossible for them to tell a particular SIM is registered to the network therefore is still in use even if it's not making or receiving calls? Or is it very hard to implement? Or is it feasible but would be expensive in terms of logging or whatever? Or did they not think about that use case? Or is it just because they're cunts? I had over a tenner on that phone (bought another top-up before the last one was even close to running out) and I'm still annoyed about it 3 years on.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Perhaps the average Vodafone customer will be paying more in comparison and also expecting a lot more.

      In which case the average Vodafone customer is going to be sorely disappointed.

      I've been through the full gamut of MNO and MVNOs, I manage the small household fleet of phones, at any one time there's usual three different providers in use, and my expectations are similar on customer service, regardless of price or brand. Price starts off as what was contracted, so that's immaterial to service expectations, network coverage is what it is and will vary. For customer service though I expect the billing to be accurate, not to be stung with hidden charges, an easily accessible full function web site, ease of contact for any customer service issues, and staff with a proper command of English who can resolve faults. Vodafone were shit at customer service compared to any other provider whether MNO or MVNO (in fact, so poor that they rank equal with Virgin Media's cable customer service).

      Personally, I'm unconvinced by this "different segments have different expectations" argument - putting aside price and coverage, the quality of service expectations will be much the same: "Be easy to use and contact; Just do the job; Don't f*** up too often; When things go wrong, sort them out promptly and politely without making my life a misery and wasting my time". All of those things are in the gift of the MNO/MVNO, but many choose to prioritise cost cutting over customer service. In the case of Vodafone, that's definitely the case, and it is the case because the board of Vodafone plc are typical big corporation wankers, obsessed with M&A, corporate finance, "brand" and global deal making, whereas customers are merely a cash crop.

  4. Jason Hindle

    How many actually buy their phone via an MVNO?

    I assumed most would simply pick up whatever phone they could afford, online, and go for a SIM only contract.

    1. PerlyKing Silver badge

      Re: How many actually buy their phone via an MVNO?

      As with many technical things, I suspect that El Reg readers are probably more clued up than the average Joe/Jane. When I replace my phone I work out what I want, do some research, read reviews and look for the best price for the hardware, then find a SIM-only deal. A less-technical family member simply walked into a shop and bought what the salesman recommended. Both of us are happy.

    2. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: How many actually buy their phone via an MVNO?

      GiffGaff have a mobile phone shop with some good deals on handsets and it does quite well.

      I just stay on the look out for deals and never pay anywhere near the list price for a phone.

      Last one was from O2 with a contract, airtime contract cancelled immediately after requesting unlock, then paid off the handset separately. Unlocked iPhone 7 when 7 was the current phone for less than half price.

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