The Tariff Bore: mobile phones

In the late 1990s I caught up with an old friend from university days. We hadn’t met for something like seven years. She had briefly worked in London in the 1980s but had then moved around, usually about an hour’s drive away (in places like Brighton and Oxford), and also spent some time working in Vietnam, which is when we had properly lost touch. There were no social media sites or Apps for staying in touch and many people still didn’t have email. We had made contact in the old-fashioned way, via friends, handwritten cards and phone calls.

During that first weekend of catching-up, and in the nine months or so afterwards when she’d often stay for a few days while studying in London, she established that I was, in her words, “a tariff bore”. I knew exactly how much each type of phone call cost, and used various options to ensure that I didn’t pay through the nose to call my brother in Spain, or friends in America, or friends who no longer had landlines and could only be contacted on their mobile phones.

This piece, which will probably be the first of a series dealing with the subject, records my early years as a Tariff Bore. If that concept fills you with boredom or dread, then look away now, or read the jokes in this earlier post. (The last paragraph contains my favourite joke, about a dog trying to send a telegram.) If you want to explore the life of the Tariff Bore, please read on. This piece deals with mobile phones, in rather a lot of detail. It is over 1300 words long.

Compared to most of my friends I was an early adopter of mobile phones. I bought my first in late 1994, prompted by a deal offered by Barclaycard and One2One, who were still called Mercury One2One at the time. Back then mobile phones usually cost well over £200, though prices had been coming down for some years. One of my former work colleagues had bought one around 1990 and the first bill was for just under £1000, for the handset, one year’s contract and whatever calls he made. If you called a mobile back then you would be paying something like £1.50 per minute. I never did but a friend did, from a call-box, and couldn’t feed the change into the machine quickly enough.

That first Mercury One2One deal offered something extraordinary, which is what prompted me to take the plunge and pay £200, spread out over four quarters on my Barclaycard bills: free local calls between 7pm and 7am every day, and all weekend. Off-peak local calls from a landline would cost 3p per minute back then and our quarterly phone bills were never less that £100, and were often up to £200, just for calls. There was no internet provision, no cable TV, no “Friends and Family” discount, just a landline and call rates that were higher than they are now. An hour on the phone every evening would set you back £50 or more every month. If we could make most of our off-peak calls for free from my new mobile phone we could possibly save money, enough to pay the £200 fixed cost of the handset and the monthly £15 bill for using the phone. And I’d be able to make calls on the move.

We gave that original handset some serious usage and bought spare batteries so that one battery could be on charge while another was being used. The phone had a standalone charger and you couldn’t make a phone call while the battery was charging. The handset lasted about two years before it had to be replaced, in late 1996. My new handset (which cost about £100) could be charged while you were on a call, so you could spend several hours calling a landline without having to hang up.

I kept to the same tariff (with all those free local calls) although other providers were providing different options, including free calls to mobiles. Orange had the Everyday 50 option, with 50 free minutes of calls every day to other Orange users and to landlines. I was tempted, but stuck with One2One.

There was an Urban Legend at the time about people being contacted by One2One to cash in their old tariff and move to a new one. You would hear things like, “A bloke I knew, he got two grand from Mercury to cash in his contract. Two grand! They’re losing so much money they’ll pay you to stop using it.” I don’t believe that this ever happened, any more than the better-known Urban Legends like the bloody axe on the back seat of the car, or the person who woke up in an ice bath with a note saying “Please dial 999 for an ambulance: you have had a kidney removed”, or the man who woke up in an unfamiliar apartment on New Year’s Day to find the message “Welcome to the AIDS club” written in lipstick on a mirror.

Time went by, off-peak local calls from landlines became cheaper, and the monthly rental costs for mobiles became more expensive. By the autumn of 1999, when my future wife and I started going out, my monthly phone bill had gone up from £15 to £25. That’s a 66% price rise in under five years. My future wife had an Orange phone and so did most of the other people I spoke to frequently at the time (business partner, band-mates). And the price of local calls had come down considerably, so there was less incentive to call from a mobile.

I decided to buy an Orange phone, subscribe to Everyday 50 and get those 50 minutes per day of free calls, especially to other mobiles. For a while, in the early months of our relationship, I kept my old One2One phone contract as well. I would leave that phone charging all night, call my future wife during the evening on the landline at her place in North London, and she would leave her phone off the hook until 7am. Every night, for many weeks, I was making 8-10 hours’ worth of free calls to her to test whether One2One really would make me an offer to stop using their service. It never happened. I had been to every single phone shop on Oxford Street and offered the same deal to every sales assistant I spoke to: “If you know a way to get One2One to cash in my contract, to make me an offer, I’ll give you half of whatever they offer.” Only one of them took my number. He had a mate, he was sure, dead sure, that we could make some money out of this. Someone else had suggested making long calls all night, every night, that would do the trick. I waited a few more weeks, heard nothing from the chap in the phone shop who’d taken my number, and nothing from the phone company. I finally cancelled my 25 quid a month contract, and my future wife no longer had to receive those calls lasting up to 10 hours per night.

And that’s the way things stayed. I stuck with Orange, paying around 15 pounds per calendar month, and rarely went over my 50 minutes’ daily allowance of phone calls. For a few years I was paying 10p per text and was only prompted to move to a different contract when I realized I was sometimes paying 5p per letter. Texting “ok” in response to another message I realized that I had probably spent more per letter than if I’d sent a telegram and my next contract included unlimited free texts. It still does.

I originally planned to write something in this piece about cheap phone accounts, with companies like First Telecom, but having written 1300 words about mobile phone contracts I’ll leave it for another time. I’m rather warming to my role as a self-confessed Tariff Bore.

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