Bye bye BT?
by Paul Gosling
BT’s call charges are to go up by nearly 15% from October – on top of a similar increase earlier this year. It is time to consider how best to cut those rising phone bills.
The bad BT news is that standard call charges are to jump from 4.5 pence per minute to 5.25 pence per minute and the ‘set-up’ (connection) charge goes from 8 pence to 9.05 pence per call. The good news is that phone users who change their pricing plans can save substantially.
BT is advising customers they should respond to the latest price hike by reviewing their contracts and consider moving to its Anytime calls package. Northern Ireland customers on the Anytime tariff pay £4.95 a month, inclusive of all calls anywhere in the UK or Ireland and no matter what time of day the calls are made.
The Anytime charge is on top of BT’s basic line rental charge of £11.25 per month. Customers not paying by direct debit or who still receive bills in the post will pay more.
Charges for signing-up with Anytime have fallen by nearly a third in the last three years, as BT tries to persuade customers to pay a fixed amount instead of paying per call.
No monopoly now
But BT is not the only phone provider and other services can save customers even more. One of the cheapest is Primus, which costs £10.99 a month for line rental and just £2.99 a month for unlimited calls to UK local and national numbers.
To apply for the Primus service at this discounted price, consumers need to sign-up via an approved intermediary – these include the price comparison websites www.HomePhoneChoices.co.uk and www.uswitch.co.uk.
Alternative low cost phone providers include Yourcalls.net, which charges £3.90 per month for unlimited calls to UK local and national numbers, plus £10.03 for monthly line rental. Another cheap operator is Euphony, at £3.90 for the calls and £10.25 for the line.
More hassle, less cost
Other cheap phone networks can be accessed with more hassle but lower cost by dialling a prefix before the destination number. These services can produce large savings, in particular, on international and mobile calls.
Customers using Call 18866 pay a 5 pence connection charge on calls from Northern Ireland landlines to other UK landlines or mobiles free of charge, but with no additional charge per minute. Phoning landlines or mobiles in the United States via Call 18866 costs 2 pence per minute, plus the connection charge, against a minimum of 11.2 pence per minute with BT. Other low cost operators include 18185, 05Pence and Liquid Telecom.
Many consumers will want inclusive deals, which give them broadband as well as phone, and perhaps tv as well. Analysis by price comparison site HomePhoneChoices.co.uk (and confirmed by another comparison site, uSwitch.co.uk) reports the best buys in Northern Ireland at present for phone plus broadband contracts are Virgin Media, Plusnet and TalkTalk.
However, Virgin Media is not available in all areas or in Northern Ireland, nor to all homes within the areas it does service. Anyone with a strong aversion to BT will probably not wish to sign-up with Plusnet as both it and another BT ‘competitor’ Madasafish are owned by BT.
TalkTalk is a subsidiary of the Carphone Warehouse, which has just purchased another of the phone and broadband operators, Tiscali. In terms of price, Tiscali is also competitive. But I have received so many complaints about the quality of service offered by Tiscali that I would not recommend the company.
As Carphone Warehouse has succeeded in making vast improvements to the service standards of TalkTalk I would expect the same process to take place at Tiscali over the coming months.
Comparing the prices of phone services is extremely difficult, because of the variations in service plans and content. Sky is also worth considering as a phone and broadband provider if customers also want the satellite tv service. Remember whoever you chose, to check whether there is a connection fee and what it is. These can be substantial.
Time for a dongle?
For about 1% of people in Northern Ireland, in remote rural areas, it remains impossible to get a broadband service on a landline. One option, if they have a strong mobile signal, is to sign up with a mobile phone company for a mobile broadband contract. The provider will supply a ‘dongle’ which plugs into a USP socket of a PC, laptop or notebook to provide a broadband service.
Mobile broadband coverage in Northern Ireland is, though, still patchy. A map of mobile broadband coverage in Northern Ireland has just been published by the telecoms regulator Ofcom on its website, www.ofcom.org.uk.
Be warned that heavy usage of dongles can be extremely expensive. A survey just conducted by moneysupermarket.com reveals that O2 customers who exceed their contracted download limit can be hit by a charge of £200.70 per Gb and customers of the 3 network may be charged £102.40.
This demonstrates the risk of very high costs if consumers make the wrong phone connections. It also shows the benefits of getting those connections right.
Best buys on phone + broadband
£5.00 a month package, plus £11 line rental
Calls 5.39 pence per minute, day or evening
Up to 10Mb unlimited broadband
£5.99 a month package, plus £10.95 line rental
Calls 4.50 pence per minute day; free evenings and weekends
8Mb broadband, 10Gb download limit
£6.49 a month a month package, plus £11.25 line rental
Calls 4.50 pence per minute day; free evenings and weekends; free to local calls anytime
Up to 8Mb broadband
Question of Finance
Q. I have three endowment policies. The first one matures in 2015 and the others in 2022. The insurers are predicting significant shortfalls at maturity. I was keeping these policies as small savings plans, but a financial advisor recommended I surrender the policies as they are not the best means of saving. Two of the policies are linked to investments and I have life and critical illness cover attached to them. What should I do? FB.
A. Be cautious about taking the advice you have been given. Your best course of action depends on several factors: these include the type of endowment policies you have (with-profits or unit-linked); who the insurers are; the value of the policies; and the cost of obtaining alternative life and critical illness cover.
It sounds as if you have two policies that are either unit-linked, or unitised with-profits, and one that is with-profits. Three specialists endowment policy advisors said they believe this is a bad moment to surrender a policy. It is normally possible to sell with-profits endowment policies for more than the surrender value on the traded endowments market, but at present the market for selling endowments is very weak. Unit-linked and unitised policies cannot be sold on the open market.
Mark Wayman, a partner at Endowment Surrender Plus, warns that insurers’ projections of policy values at maturity cannot be regarded as accurate. “It’s very difficult to forecast that far away,” he says.
If stock markets recover, then endowment policies could produce good returns by the time your policies mature. This is particularly true with unit-linked policies, where managers can take advantage of currently cheap prices to buy additional units.
Assuming that one of your policies is a ‘with-profits’, this should normally be possible to sell for a higher price than the surrender value. “The difficulty you have is that surrender values are very low and the uplift over surrender values is not very high either,” says Jo Bridger of the Association of Policy Market Makers. “It comes down to whether the policyholders needs to get rid of it at the moment.”
Wayman predicts that the traded endowment market will start to recover in September, potentially providing a stronger price for with-profits endowments that are sold.
Colin Jackson of Baronworth advisors puts it strongest. “Never, never, never just surrender,” he says. Jackson suggests you ask the insurers for the surrender values and then go to an intermediary who can sell the with-profit policy and obtain a quote for selling it. Assuming you still need the life and critical illness cover, you should also obtain quotes for replacing these policies – which may now be much more expensive than when you took them out.
You need to obtain all the relevant information before you can make a sensible decision.
Best Cash ISA
City of Derry Building Society
2.25% at £1,000 / 3.00% at £50,000
Best fixed rate savings account
Bank of Ireland,
12 month limited edition fixed term deposit
3.80% at £2,000
Best long term fixed rate mortgage
The Co-operative Bank
4.99% to 2014
Best short term fixed rate mortgage
Chelsea Building Society
3.75% to 2011
Best variable rate mortgage
HSBC and Bank of Ireland