Dial C for change

The big players in the mobile phone market are changing, as is the way we use our phones. So what does all this mean for consumers? Emma Kennedy Money Editor

From Friday, Irish consumers will be able to get their hands on the latest iPhone.

According to mobile operators, interest in Apple's latest offering has been strong, with consumers pre-registering their interest ahead of this week's Irish release date.

Purchasing a new phone, or considering a move to a new mobile plan or a different operator, requires careful consideration, and is a good time to take a look at what's on offer in the mobile market.

The market landscape here is changing, both in terms of ownership and consumer behaviour.

Earlier this year, the European Commission gave the green light for Hutchison Whampoa, the owner of Three Ireland, to buy O2 Ireland from its owner, Telefonica, in a deal worth €850 million.

For now, the O2 brand will remain, but it will be phased out over time.

A spokeswoman for Three said that Three was "allowed to use the O2 brand proactively for 12 months after the acquisition".

The merger also gives rise to job losses, due to what Three calls "inevitable role duplication".

Beyond the impact on Three's employees and its existing customers, the merger raises bigger questions about competition in the mobile market.

Following the European Commission's decision, the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) flagged its concerns about the "structural competition deficit identified as likely to result from the proposed acquisition".

To allay competition concerns over the merger, Three has agreed mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) agreements with both UPC and Carphone Warehouse.

The agreements mean that two new MVNOs - operators that rely on a mobile network operator's network – will enter the Irish market at some stage next year, meaning more options for consumers.

"We are currently in planning for the launch of our MVNO in the summer of 2015. Our offer is still in development, but we plan to bring a new approach to the Irish market in response to what our customers are telling us is what they want and expect from their network," a spokeswoman for Carphone Warehouse said.

Speaking about UPC's forthcoming entry to the mobile market, the company's chief executive Magnus Ternsjo said it was a "strategic move". "We're very excited about this new move and will make more details available at the time of our full commercial launch," he said.

While the structure of the mobile market is changing, so too is the way that consumers use their mobile phones.

Figures released earlier this month by ComReg highlighted a move away from texting by Irish mobile phone users.

More than 1.88 billion texts were sent in Ireland in the second quarter of this year, down 23.2 per cent on the same period a year earlier.

ComReg's recent update on the market also pointed to the rise of smart-phones, and increased data volumes.

However, mobile operators have seen average revenue per user dip slightly, due to "cheaper mobile plans and increased sales of bundled products", according to ComReg.

"Plans have certainly changed over the years based on consumer demands, in particular offering more data allowances for example," a spokeswoman for Three said. "We recognised the increased demand for data by our customers a number of years ago by launching our All You Can Eat' data package." Figures from Vodafone indicated that 63 per cent of its customers use smartphones.

"Over 68 per cent of all Vodafone Ireland customers are now using mobile internet and data services on their devices with data usage increasing by 45 per cent year-on-year," a spokeswoman for the operator said.

"Both bill-pay and pay-as-you-go plans have certainly changed in recent years, and data is a big feature of this mix," a spokesman for Eircom, which operates the Meteor and eMobile brands, said, '"there is a definite focus on data, but we find that calls and texts are still important to people." Another change in the market is a move towards longer contracts, with a shift towards 18- and 24-month con-tracts. Simon Moynihan, a spokesman for consumer comparison website Bonkers.ie, said that mobile contracts were getting longer due to the cost of purchasing a mobile phone. "In other markets, you pay full price for the phone up front and then sign up for the plan that fits, "he said.

While longer contracts are getting more common, ComReg's spokesman explained that market rules dictate that consumers can not be offered an "initial commitment period that exceeds 24 months". He added that operators should offer users the "possibility to subscribe to a contract with a maximum duration of 12 months".

The challenge of choice

There's a large number of mobile plans on offer, so choosing the right one for your needs can be a challenge.

Consumers face a number of choices when choosing a mobile phone provider. Do you want to pay a bill or would you prefer to use credit to top-up your phone? Do you need a plan with lots of data? Making the right choice requires you to think about how you use your phone, according to the National Consumer Agency (NCA).

"Think about how you use your phone in a typical month - look at the number of calls to mobile phones on your network, the number of calls to mobile phones on other networks, the number of calls to landlines, the number of text messages sent and any data you use on your phone," the NCA's guide to choosing a mobile phone provider suggested.

Also keep in mind that breaking a contract can be tricky. "If you want to switch providers during the contract term, there may be a penalty for ending the contract early and you may have to pay up to the end of the contract," the NCA warned.

If you need some help to sort through what's on offer, take a look at Callcosts.ie, an interactive website developed by ComReg to help consumers to compare the cost of mobile, home phone and broadband price plans. Consumers can compare costs easily by inputting estimated figures on usage, allowing them to see how their current operator stacks up against the broader market in terms of price.

For now, many consumers are weighing up the details of the plans on offer with the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

Figures from Apple indicate that the cost of the iPhone 6 will range upwards from €699, with the 6 Plus costing from 799. Consumers will face an upfront cost for Apple's latest gadget, with that cost varying depending on the plan chosen. With some plans, an upfront charge of hundreds of euro will apply.

"The cost of the phone will vary according to the length of the contract the customer would like. The shorter the contract, the more expensive the upfront cost of the phone. This is a model that the networks determine," a spokeswoman for Carphone Warehouse said.

For example, with Three, the iPhone6 will be available from €179 and the iPhone 6 Plus will be available from €279 on its €55 a month price plan. Preorders are available on Three.ie and in all Three stores since 2pm last Friday.

Vodafone will also be offering both new iPhones, as will Eircom's Meteor and eMobile brands. Vodafone's spokeswoman said that the iPhone 6's upfront cost would start from €49.99. For the iPhone 6 Plus, Vodafone's offer will start from an upfront cost of €149.99.

A16GB iPhone 6 is priced from €99 on Meteor's Smart Classic price plan, with the iPhone 6 Plus available from €199 on the same price plan. According to a statement from Meteor, for a limited period, customers who purchase online at meteor.ie will get a double data allowance.

Tesco Mobile's spokeswoman said that it currently doesn't have an iPhone 6 offering. "We don't have a date on when we will stock it, hence plan details and contract lengths are not currently available, "she said.

Postfone, An Post's mobile phone offering, has never gone the iPhone route, according to a spokesman. "We don't offer contracts. It's a very simple package," he said.

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