The first major change under the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code kicks in from tomorrow: any company selling a mobile plan in Australia must provide a clear, consistent statement of how much you'll pay for calls, texts and data. That's a welcome development, but you still need to check the details carefully. Here's what you need to know.
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The TCP Code was officially announced in July, but its provisions are only being implemented gradually. Mobile companies have had to be signatories to the code since September 1. From tomorrow (October 27), they have to provide unit pricing details whenever a plan is advertised.
It's the same basic model that's already compulsory in supermarkets, and it's designed to make comparisons easier. These are the details that have to be included, and the traps you should still watch out for.
What you must be told: How much it costs to make a two-minute call to a standard Australian number (either a landline or a mobile; plans in Australia don't distinguish between the two). This is the total of the flagfall plus twice the per-minute call charge, and is often higher than people appreciate -- $2 or more isn't uncommon.
Traps to watch out for: The two-minute call cost is instructive, but it can be worth calculating the minimum cost of a call -- how much it costs for even the briefest of conversations. For the majority of plans, this will be the flagfall plus a one-minute charge.
Calls to 13 and 1800 numbers will often cost more, though this varies between providers. Voicemail charges are another hidden source of expense. Overseas calls will also generally cost much more, a factor that is worth considering if you regularly call foreign destinations.
This figure is essentially irrelevant if your plan includes unlimited calls, but that rarely happens on cheaper contract plans that include a phone. Unlimited plans will also generally include a "fair usage" clause that means you can't use the phone non-stop every single day.
What you must be told: How much a standard text to a single Australian number costs. This is typically in the 25 to 30 cent range, though some plans have cheaper deals. Some plans include unlimited texts, which can be helpful if you're a serial texter but may not be worth paying extra for if your usage is light.
Traps to watch out for: Overseas texts will generally cost more. Remember that using emoticons in text can result in unexpected expenses. While you can try to avoid texting costs with 'free' messaging apps, remember that this will use your data allowance.
What you must be told: How much you'll pay (at casual rates) for 1MB of extra data once you've used the data included with your plan. This varies enormously; we've seen rates as low as 10 cents and as high as $2.
Traps to watch out for: Find out what the minimum charging unit is for extra data -- plans that charge per MB or per 10MB will cost more than ones which calculate per KB. Some providers offer "data blocks" if you've used up your allowance, which are cheaper than the casual rate. The data rates only cover Australia; roaming rates for overseas are often painfully high.
Think carefully before signing up
Unit pricing makes the cost of a given mobile phone contract clearer, but those three pieces of information aren't enough on their own. Your own usage patterns are what matters. If you rarely send texts, unlimited texts don't help. If many of your calls are to overseas numbers, those rates matter more than the unit pricing numbers for Australian calls.
We've seen occasional problems with how unit pricing is implemented in supermarkets, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are similar issues with phone plans. We've also seen evidence that consumers don't always use unit pricing information correctly.
Telcos need to include this information but how prominent they make it is up to them. On web sites, it will often end up less visible than the 'headline' detail of how much credit is included with the plan.
The next major stage in the TCP code is the introduction of the Critical Information Summary, which includes not only unit pricing data but also calculates how many 2-minute calls you can make with the included credit. Although it only covers calls, that makes comparing plans directly much easier. However, that won't be required until March 1, 2013. (We've already started including this figure in Planhacker tables when relevant; Lifehacker has your back!)