Mobile Phone Plans Are Still Way Too Hard To Compare

Anyone who wanted to pre-order an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus ahead of last week’s launch didn’t just have to grapple with sites that constantly crashed, a shortage of models and a sense of unhelpful panic. They also had to deal with phone plans that are confusing, inconsistent and constantly changing.

Picture: Getty Images

To be fair, much of the specific chaos around the iPhone launch 6 can be laid squarely at the feet of Apple. Its control over the process is maniacal. Carriers aren’t allowed to reveal details of their plans ahead of when pre-orders become available, and all those details must be released at the same time. If the carrier wants to put out a press release announcing its pricing, Apple must approve it first. None of that is conducive to helping consumers make an informed decision ahead of time.

However, even when you take Apple’s behaviour out of the equation, the way plans are presented does not make for easy decisions. It’s part of my job to spend time looking at plans for Planhacker, and one thing you notice doing that is how often the small details involved with plans change.

One area that causes a lot of confusion is “bonus data”, where plans have extra data attached — but only for a limited period. Carriers like offering this because it makes them look generous, but actually forces consumers to make decisions faster, since there are invariably time limits attached. Right now, Virgin Mobile is offering 2GB of bonus data on some plans if you switch from another carrier, but you have to sign up by 12 October and people moving from Optus don’t qualify. Optus is offering extra data on its $80 and $100 plans, but only until 2 November — a detail that wasn’t clear when the announcement was made. Vodafone has matched that deal on its $80 and $100, until 4 November.

Perhaps stirred by all that activity, Telstra also changed its offer. Previously, it had offered a choice of either $500 of call credit or 500MB of data on all but its cheapest S plan. Last week, it doubled both those quantities, but hasn’t said how long the offer will be in place for. The intended effect of all this behaviour is clear though: to persuade people to sign up straight away.

Another confusing aspect of the Telstra plan: on its $130 a month XL plan, you can’t choose the extra call credit, since you already receive “unlimited” calls and texts, so in effect you automatically get an extra 1000MB instead. However, that’s not reflected in the pricing table — which actually has the effect of making the Telstra deal look worse than it is.

I suspect this obfuscation is deliberate. Carriers are legally required to present basic details of their plans in a Critical Information Summary. However, those added bonus offers don’t need to be reflected in the CIS, and can be withdrawn and altered at whim.

There’s nothing wrong with carriers trying to match each other with extra offers — that’s what competition is about. But confusion over what is included in plans is undoubtedly a big part of the reason why so many Aussies end up being slugged with excess data bills

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