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20/03/2013 16:15 | By Jon Bentley, MSN Tech

Mobile phone contracts need to be capped

Kids can often run up huge mobile bills by going over their network's allowance. Jon Bentley argues that there should be measures in place to stop this...


Kids phone contracts (© Getty)

If there’s one thing teenagers never seem to learn it’s keeping within their monthly phone contract. My children’s friends’ parents are always having a moan to me about their normally well-behaved little darlings who have engaged in a bout of conversation with their chums, or gone over their data allowance, and suddenly racked up a bill for tens or hundreds of pounds. Depending on the family circumstances this is either very irritating or a budgetary disaster, just as traumatic as an unexpected major car repair or a serious pet ailment.  

I’m not talking international roaming here. Most parents have the good sense to guard against that frightening scenario at the outset and take the necessary precautions, avoiding the potentially even more dizzying charges. It’s just the simple business of going over your contracted minutes and into out of bundle charges. 

The natural suspicion is that networks don’t want to give up on all that lovely revenue.

My answer is usually simple. Get the kids onto Tesco Mobile. They’re the only UK network actively offering to put a cap on all their contracts. It’s simple. You can’t go over your allotted minutes, texts or mobile data. If you need to you can just top up like on a pay as you go phone and there are no nasty surprises. So why doesn’t every other mobile company offer this lifesaver so that parents can sleep easy, teenagers can talk to their heart’s content, and everyone’s happy.

The natural suspicion is that networks don’t want to give up on all that lovely revenue.  Out of bundle charges are way higher than in-bundle ones so that’s a nice little earner, thank you.  But one can’t help thinking that profiting from people’s mistakes, especially youngsters who still have lots to learn, is a pretty shabby business model.

One company told me that Pay as You Go is the answer. But is it, really? It’s spectacularly more expensive. A ten pound top up is often only enough for 30 minutes or so of mobile to mobile calls. A typical ten pound a month SIM-only contract can give you 500 minutes, as well as plenty of texts and mobile data. Pay as You Go means paying through the nose, and in a country where we need more business-savvy youngsters offering them such hopeless propositions hardly seems like the answer.

I have heard suggestions that there are technical obstacles too. I didn’t think there could be any with O2 as it is the network Tesco uses. O2 confirmed this. It said that it was technically feasible to offer caps but it preferred to send people texts to say they were approaching their limits instead.

I think there’s more at stake for mobile companies than they realise.

The other company that readily offers some sort of capped contract is T-Mobile. I had one of their You Fix contracts for one of my children for a while. But, unlike Tesco, these contracts are poorer value than their non-capped deals and if you try to improve the terms they just offer you a non-capped contract instead.  Tesco say capped contracts are working well for them, though, and that they’re listening to customers. In their own surveys plenty of customers say they want capped contracts.  

I think there’s more at stake for mobile companies than they realise. Everyone’s always banging on about how in the future we’ll pay for everything with our mobile phones. But it never happens.

Could it be that we don’t really trust our mobile operators? And could this lack of trust start early with a huge teenage phone bill, perhaps?  One way phone networks could start building that relationship is by offering fair, up-front caps on contracts for people who want them.

Come on, sort it!

Jon is MSN Tech’s very own gadget inspector. A Gadget Show regular over the years, you’ll find JB on the Tech video channel comparing the latest and greatest devices and you’ll also be able to read his words of wisdom in his regular features and opinion pieces. You can keep up with Jon's tweets by following @jonbentley90

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