Advantages Reasonable cost and a straightforward range of tariffs
Disadvantages Some underlying network problems
Want to buy your mobile while picking up your beans? Why not go one better and have the supermarket BE the mobile network with Tesco Mobile (well almost… see below!).When did Tesco build a mobile network?
The answer, of course, is that they didn't. The Tesco Mobile network is a 'virtual' network, similar to Virgin Mobile, in this case being carried on the O2 network. It is a joint venture between Tesco and O2. Why do these virtual networks exist? On the (physical) network operator's side they use up spare capacity while someone else picks up the marketing bill. On the (virtual) network operator's side they gain the ability to offer mobile telephony services without the need to spend (many) millions and years building a network. Here O2 effectively get access to Tesco's undoubted marketing ability and Tesco add another income stream to their increasingly diverse portfolio.As Tesco Mobile is actually carried on O2's network then the coverage and performance is determined by O2. O2 has a network coverage of better than 99% - but note that this relates to 'population' coverage rather than geographic. What this means is that there are still plenty of remote (and some not so remote) areas across Britain that have little or no coverage. I have found the network quality to be sometimes disappointing. I feel that this is a reflection of O2's generally slipshod approach. For a more detailed commentary on O2's problems see the footnote below.
Tesco have managed to accumulate something over 500,000 subscribers. How many of those were formerly with O2 would be interesting... What this means is that Tesco are doing quite nicely but in global telecoms terms can only be considered in the minnow league. This can impact on supply of equipment at busy times, as Tesco found out around Xmas 2003 - they couldn't source adequate numbers of the most popular models of handsets as the big networks had snapped up all the production capacity.So what do Tesco offer?
Firstly, we should remember that Tesco offer only prepay (Pay-As-You-Go) phones. If you want a contract (technically, post-pay) phone account then you will need to go elsewhere. Also note that they currently offer only a GSM service and there is no indication when, if ever, they will offer 3G.So what do they have to make for an attractive package? What Tesco initially did was to keep the tariff as simple as possible with only one tariff package. That has now changed and hence the rewriting of this review.
There are three tariffs available which Tesco chooses to link with its general branding; Value, Standard and Extra. In the context of mobile phone tariffs, however, the parallels to baked beans do not work quite so well so some care is needed I making a choice.Value - All calls to UK mobile or 'geographic'* landlines cost 15p per minute and texts cost 5p each. It is not possible to use the phones overseas. It is also not possible to top up your account via an ATM (see below) or to use e top-up.
Standard - All calls to UK mobile or 'geographic'* landlines cost 20p per minute and texts cost 10p. At first glance this seems a worse deal than the Value tariff, so why choose it? One factor is the favourite number scheme, this halves the cost of calls or texts to your three favourite mobiles or landlines (which means 10p per minute and 5p per text). Favourites can be updated once per month. You can also use your phone overseas and have a wider range of top up options.Extra - If you top up at least £15 per month then you can choose this tariff which has the benefit of call charges to UK mobile or 'geographic'* landlines of 10p per minute and texts at 5p each. There is, however, no discount for favourites on this tariff. As you would expect, you have all the other facilities of the Standard tariff.
So which is the best tariff? Well it depends… If you regularly use over £15 per month then it would make sense to use the Extra tariff, in fact there is no reason not to do so (unless you were thinking of moving to a post-pay account). For less frequent users the decision is a little less clear. You need to look at how your call charges add up. If the majority of your calls are to three or less numbers then the Standard tariff would probably be best. If, however, you call a wide range of numbers, the Value tariff would make more sense. Only you can decide. If you want to use you phone overseas, of course, the Value tariff is not an option.*UK geographic means numbers with normal STD codes and excludes 'national' (0870 etc), 'lo-call' (0845 etc) or premium (09***) rate numbers.
Looking at some of the other options, WAP (not over GPRS) costs 10p per minute, WAP over GPRS costs £4 per Mb and MMS picture messages cost 25p each. Note that Value customers can't access GPRS or MMS services.On the downside, voicemail access costs 10p per minute, which is a bit of a pain after enjoying free access for years with One2One/T-Mobile.
A fair range of handsets (from under £20 to around £190 at the time of writing) is available at the usual prepay prices, which is to say more costly than contract. Note that the handsets are network-locked to Tesco Mobile and will need an unlocking code if you want to use a SIM from another network (including O2). If you have used at least £30 credit on the phone then the code will be supplied free of charge - the terms don't actually say what happens if you have not used the qualifying amount.Another option is to take a SIM-only pack. This is useful if you have an existing handset and don't want the cost of upgrading. Make sure that your existing handset is not network locked or get the unlocking code.
Handsets (or SIMs) can be purchased in most Tesco stores (Tesco Express stock only SIM packs). They may also be purchased online from tesco.com.You can keep your existing mobile number if you wish. Remember that you must keep your existing account active until the number porting is complete or you will lose the number. Similarly, if or when, you decide to part company with Tesco they will facilitate porting of the number to a new network.
How convenient is it to…?
Credits do not have an expiry date so long as you use the phone at least once every six months. One word of caution, don't carry too large a balance on your phone as getting funds back is impossible and (by all accounts) transferring to another phone is difficult. If you are wondering why this is important then think what happens if you lose your phone (or have it stolen).Can I take it on holiday?
Keeping in touch when outside the country is a lot easier if you have a mobile. Unfortunately it can also be pretty expensive. Prepay is a lot less flexible overseas than contract, for a number of technical and commercial reasons. You will find that if you have a contract phone it will work virtually anywhere a compatible GSM network exists. For prepay customers (including Tesco) the picture is less consistent. Tesco list around 65 countries where you can use your phone, if you are travelling overseas it would be worth checking before you go (the list is available on tescomobile.com). Remember that Value customers can't use their phones overseas.Most holiday destinations are covered but outside these it is a lot less predictable. Russia is available but no other republics of the former Soviet Union - this includes Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who are EU members. US Virgin Islands are on the list, British Virgin Islands aren't. And so it goes on.
Costs are actually not too bad (in mobile terms!) and they have fallen in recent years. To call from available countries costs between 40p and £1.49 per minute depending on where you are and which country you are calling. Remember that if you take your phone you probably don't want to leave it switched on - it costs you up to £1.49 per minute to receive a call while outside the UK. You could easily use all your credit while chatting to your mate who didn't even know you were away! CallingCalling internationally from home once again has similar charges; between 40p and £1.49 per minute.
Any small print?
Tesco Mobile is marketed as a consumer service and they exclude liability for loses resulting from business use. If you are using this service for your business then you may want to take this into consideration. To be honest, however, I think that the terms of business for all operators would make it virtually impossible to successfully pursue business loses resulting from network failure.So…?
Remember that the suitability of any particular deal depends on your needs and pattern of call usage. If you have an existing mobile look carefully at how many calls you make, the times of day and the numbers. Prepay can be particularly suitable for low volume users or those who have difficulty in obtaining the credit rating required for a post-pay (contract) account.I have found Tesco Mobile offer a good deal and straightforward range of tariffs. Using a SIM only pack was a very low cost way to transfer and porting (one of) my existing numbers was easy. My only concerns are in regard to network quality, an area where I feel O2 are being rather too lazy. Check carefully if you are considering using the phones overseas.
One last bonus, all top ups for Standard and Extra customers attract Clubcard points (up to 2 points per £1 depending on method). Value customers can collect points when topping up online or in-store.
####FootnoteO2 Network Problems
MmO2 (formerly Cellnet) have had a pretty torrid time in recent years. From having a very strong position when GSM was introduced to the UK, in the views of many in the industry, they have managed to squander this to slip to third place behind Vodafone and Orange. They seem to have lost the ability either to retain their existing customers or attract new subscribers. Symptomatic of this overall failure is their apparently poor network maintenance.As a former cellular network engineer I have some insight into the nature and causes of problems. Let me give a couple of examples. I have experienced numerous instances of dropped calls while stationary in good signal areas and outside of peak periods. These result from equipment faults that should have been picked up and dealt with - but have remained consistent for months. I have also experienced bad handovers where the call was switched from a transmitter with good signal strength to one with a poorer signal. This is a consequence of poor network optimisation and is a simple matter of reprogramming neighbour lists - another indicator of poor attention to detail.
These notes were first written in 2004 and quality issues are still of concern. Some things really don't change.
© Paul Morris 2005, 2007Information is believed to be accurate at the time of writing. Readers should always check with the supplier of goods or services to confirm current prices and specifications.
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