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22 March 20120 Comments by Jon M

Does the mobile phone industry in the UK need a top-down shakeup?: Part 2

Welcome to the second part of our new series on the UK mobile phone industry. Today we’re looking at terminating bad contracts and unlocking handsets. As ever, please let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below 🙂 And also, do have a look at all the articles in the series:

What happens if it all goes wrong?

Sometimes when you buy a new handset on PAYG or take out a contract with a handset it can go wrong. If you have a TV or any other electrical appliance which develops a fault, they send it away for repair. If they can’t repair it or it’s beyond economical repair, they will replace it like for like with a brand new appliance or one of a similar specification.

With mobile phones this is not always the case. The phone will be sent in for repair and networks will not supply you with a loan handset unless you have some sort of insurance, or you’ve paid a deposit. If they can’t repair it (I’ve heard tales of repair centres charging to send the phone back unrepaired) then they will replace the handset with – wait for it – not a brand new one but a refurbished one. But my problem is – and it’s a big problem – as you’ve been supplied with a refurbished handset, (of course they don’t tell you it’s a refurbished one), really you should have the right to reject the handset or at least ask the network provider to reduce the your tariff as you no longer have the same handset you started your contract with. Most networks do refurbished handsets on contracts for a lot less than their brand new counterparts. It could actually be claimed that breach of their stated terms and you should have the right to terminate your contract unless they supply you with a brand new unopened handset.

Terminating your contract early

It is actually possible to terminate your contract if you believe the network has breached their Terms and Conditions. We have heard that people have managed to do this on a number of occasions with contracts. A contract is a two-way street; they have to keep their end of the bargain just as much as you have to pay the monthly fee. This means they have to make sure the infrastructure is maintained and you can make and receive calls, send and receive texts and be able to use the internet services. If they breach it in any way you are entitled to compensation for the loss of your services. This usually means free line rental for the days you’ve been without your services. If you are on a contract and a service you subscribe to gets discontinued during your contract in some instances you may be able to cancel your contract. Another example may be that the price of your monthly plan goes up by a certain level which is to your detriment. This can also be a reason to leave your contract early without having to pay a penalty or termination fee.

Locked and branded handsets

This is a major bone of contention. Most networks lock their handsets to their home network regardless of whether the handset is on contract or PAYG. Not only do they lock their handsets they also fill the handset with bloatware which can’t be deleted and slows down the phone. Bloatware is network branding within the phone and trial software such as as demo games you can play a few times before being forced to buy it. To say it can’t be deleted isn’t strictly true – with some phones it is possible if you know how but this usually involved complicated procedures such as flashing the handset with a generic version of the firmware which takes out all the demo stuff and gets rid of the network’s splash screens when the handset is switched on. Some handsets only have a limited amount of internal memory and the bloatware takes most of it up. Of course not every handset can have their bloatware removed. We firmly believe that bloatware is unnecessary and should be easily removable.

And don’t even get us started on network-locked handsets. Again, it’s unnecessary to lock handsets to their home networks. Consumer rights dictate that you should be able to put any SIM card in any handset. As long as you’re paying for your contract does it really matter what SIM card you use in what phone? You pay a considerable amount for the phone on PAYG or even SIM free which the latter is unlocked and unbranded. This is known in the industry as a vanilla handset.

Another problem with bloatware is that it can stop the handset functioning correctly. What happens is; when a network takes a handset onto their network, the handset is sent from the factory to the network’s handset development team who then lock the handset to the network and put their network bloatware onto the handset. Also the handset may have some features disabled, for example the :2g:/3G toggle. What this means is the handset can only receive a 3G signal. If it can’t find a strong enough signal, and it attempts (and fails) to perform a network search to find a signal, the handset will crash or freeze. In essence the software in the handset is unstable.

Getting a handset unlocked

This can be another expensive unnecessary rip-off. If networks didn’t lock their handsets in the first place we wouldn’t have to fork out anything from £15 upwards. The networks are too greedy and there’s plenty of that in the mobile phone industry. Unlocking handsets is a very lucrative cash cow, cashing in on customers who bought a phone on their network at vastly inflated prices who may have a loyalty to that network. Yes, that’s how the network repay you for your loyalty. Even if you pay to get an unlock code the chances are you will have to wait up to a week to receive the code. All of this is totally unnecessary. In some countries (such as Singapore and Israel) it’s actually illegal for the networks to lock their handsets.

You can, of course, get your handset unlocked more cheaply if you go to a market stall or use download special software. Of course not all handsets can be unlocked; it depends if they have access to the codes, and how new the handset is. For example if the handset has just been released, the likelihood of the person on the market stall getting an unlock code is extremely remote, unless he or she knows somebody who works for the manufacturer.

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