Lifeline or chatline?;Consumer Report

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
In a meeting, up a mountain - wherever you go, mobile phones can go with you. But do teachers need them? Gerald Haigh went shopping down his local high street for a deal without strings attached.

Does a school really need a mobile phone? Some of the possibilities seem exciting enough - an expedition to the North Yorkshire Moors perhaps, or if you are away from the classroom, using a combined computer and mobile phone to call up information on the Internet. In a recent survey, a majority of business users claimed that within a year or two the most common use for a mobile phone will be for electronic communication - fax, e-mail and electronic data transfer. But most schools will just want to ring people up with it.

The most common school requirements for mobile phones are likely to be: * School trips and team fixtures, either out-of-doors activities, or on a coach or minibus.

* To accompany the head or other teachers when they go out to meetings.

* For use in a school emergency when the phone lines are being heavily used.

If you consider these three and look at the budget then perhaps there is a case for a mobile, but in my opinion it should be the most cheap and cheerful option possible. On the other hand, it may be that after examining your existing communication systems (fax, e-mail, staff who have personal mobile phones and who may be prepared to use them for school purposes) a school mobile phone may be superfluous.

The basics of mobile phone ownership (upon which there may be variations) are these: * You buy the phone * You pay money to be connected to the service * You pay a monthly rental * You pay for your calls * You pay to insure the phone. (Optional, but if you lose the phone, it could be very expensive to replace.) Often there are "packages" in which some of the costs are rolled up together. Very commonly, for example, the monthly rental includes some "free" calls. And there is a recent innovation whereby you just buy the phone, pay no monthly rental, but buy vouchers in advance that can be cashed in for calls.

As a school governor I went shopping for a phone for our medium-sized primary school. This entailed visiting a number of high street phone shops and making the same request in each: "I'm a school governor and I'm looking into a mobile phone for our school. Can I tell you how I think it will be used and let you advise me on the choice?" The answer, in every case but one was yes, so I would continue: "It will go out on the minibus or with walking parties of children, so the teachers can keep in touch with school or call for help, and the head or other teachers may take it when they go out of school to meetings. I don't see it being used for routine or casual calls, and there will probably be days at a time when it is not used at all. The point is to have it there when it's needed."

Implicit in this is an absence of need for the many supplementary services which are available such as conference calling, answering services, data transfer, text messaging. We just wanted to be able to pick the phone up and make a call, The good news is that every sales person I spoke to fully understood this straight away. They all clearly knew what school life was like, indeed some of them looked as if they had left only the previous week.

The other good news is that either directly or indirectly they were all able to come up with good supplementary questions and then with a thoughtful response to the request.

Orange, Smithford Way, Coventry

A pleasant shop, with lots of phones on display. Immediately attentive and very pleasant assistant, whose first supplementary question was whether "school trips" meant "going to the Peak District; Matlock area for example?" When told this was a possibility he volunteered the information that there are gaps in the Orange network in both the Peak District and in the Welsh hills.

Recommended "Talk Ahead".

Cost pound;129.99 rental for the first year (far cheaper than paying monthly for the same deal). After the first year you pay pound;17.63 a month and pound;36 a year insurance.

What you get Motorola phone; 15 minutes of free calls per month; a year's insurance; 3-year warranty on the phone; 24-hour replacement service.

What you don't get Orange shops sell only Orange products; complete national coverage.

Vodaphone, West Orchard Shopping Centre, Coventry

A tiny shop front in a mall (there are bigger ones elsewhere). The sales person was eager to please although the particular deal he recommended was for a limited time only and fearfully complicated to work out.

Recommended A year's rental Cost pound;17.50 month; phone and connection charge about pound;45 minimum and insurance is about pound;6 per month.

What you get Twenty minutes of free calls; plenty of helpful advice.

What you don't get (on my visit, at least): brochures to take away.

British Telecom Shop West Orchard Shopping Centre Coventry Attractive shop, with lots of merchandise - obviously they do all the latest landline phones as well as mobiles. Extremely busy with queues. The member of staff I spoke to was not especially helpful. I was given a brochure: "All the costs and options are in there." And so they are, but some guidance would have been nice.

Recommended Occasional Caller Plus (brochure recommended).

Cost Cheapest phone costs pound;10, connection pound;35; rental is about pound;17.50 a month. Charges are peak 40p, and off-peak 12p per minute. Insurance is pound;4.99 per month.

What you get pound;5 of free calls a month; a wide choice of phones and an excellent, fully detailed brochure.

What you don't get Much personal assistance from the staff.

The Link, Pallasades Shopping Centre, Birmingham

This chain of shops is owned by electrical retailer Dixons and is not tied to a particular mobile network. It has helpful, thoughtful staff.

Recommended One-2-One network's "Up-2-You".

Cost The phone costs pound;129.99; there are no other further charges after you have bought pre-payment vouchers for your calls. The disadvantage is that the calls are expensive at a flat rate of 50p a minute. Insurance costs pound;110 for four years.

What you get Probably the most liberating deal of the bunch, but more suited to individuals rather than schools for whom a contract is less of a burden.

What you don't get National coverage. One-2-One has huge gaps North of the M62, and in Wales and Cornwall, and a hole in the Peak District. There are lots of other iffy areas, too.

Carphone Warehouse, New Street, Birmingham

Surprisingly, this one is little more than a storefront with a counter and little on display (although there is a bigger, very busy, store not far away). The television ads show eager employees, bursting with energy and dying to sell you the best phone for your purpose. The woman I saw had evidently not yet been on the course and was, shall we say, languid in manner. However, she listened, came up with the right questions, and added some I had not heard before.

Recommended The same package as Vodaphone (see above).

What you get Sensible recommendations and staff that know their stuff.

What you don't get In this particular instance, any enthusiasm.


* Do not underestimate the value of the included "free" calls. Use the phone with discretion and you will rarely exceed the allowance.

* On BT's price list, which is typical, phones cost between pound;9.99 and pound;275. The expensive ones are light and small and powerful and have all sorts of gadgets (how can you manage without "One hand speed dialling", for instance?) I heard one on the train the other day that, instead of ringing, played "The Toreador's Song" from Carmen. For our purposes, though, the cheapest phone is quite adequate.

* Remember to ask about the contract. How long are you signing up for? How easy is it to leave the contract? Often you will have to stay with it for the first year, and then give a month's notice. In some cases by paying a little extra you can leave the contract at short notice. (Carphone Warehouse, for example, gives you this option for a one-off payment of pound;15.) * What if the phone goes wrong? You want quick service, and a replacement phone. Some deals include courier pick up and delivery.


Frankly, there's not much to choose. Were you a company accountant, with 100 heavy mobile users in the firm, you would look at the detail of every cost, balancing them against the phone features required for various kinds of use. For a school, it is hardly worth the bother. By and large the first year of mobile usage is going to cost you, all in, between pound;150 and pound;200, including calls.

The best deal at the moment for our purposes is Orange Talk Ahead. With careful use it would cost you no more than the one-off payment of pound;129.99 for the first year. But if you want to go for that one, be sure that you have no problems with the gaps in Orange coverage. If you do, go for the Vodaphone deal - good coverage of the country, reasonable cost and plenty of outlets around.

But in the end,if you have any kind of reputable mobile phone shop around the corner, you might as well use it and see what they can come up with.

* Gerald's shopping spree took place earlier this year and the prices given are those available at the time. Individual outlets may now be offering improved deals.

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