Auditing

Billshock!

Bill shock - the shock of receiving a massive and unexpected bill - is becoming increasingly common with mobiles phones, leading in many cases to severe financial hardship and even bankruptcy.

Here we look at some ways you can avoid big blowouts. Various financial counselling services have reported that mobile phone bills are the number one cause of people - especially young people - seeking bankruptcy guidance.

It seems that many people simply don’t understand how their mobile plans work, what their phones can do, and how much certain services cost. Ignorance is no longer bliss, if indeed it ever was. It’s also no excuse for phone companies, who expect to be paid no matter how bewildered you might feel.

So how can bill-shock be avoided? The two most vital things you can do are to know the products, and to be honest with yourself. Here are some general tips:

PREPAID IS ALWAYS THE SAFEST
With pre-pay, what you pay for is what you get, making it very easy to control your expenditure each month. This is an excellent option for people who aren’t sure where they’ll be in the future, and those with a bad credit rating. Even if your prepay credit is used up, you can still call emergency numbers.

CHOOSE YOUR CAP CAREFULLY
If you’re on a Cap plan, make sure it is big enough, and be careful not to exceed your limit. Cap plans are great value so long as you stay within your cap. However, call rates on Cap plans are truly terrible, and costs can really add up if you use up your available credit.

BE CAREFUL WITH SMS
SMS may seem cheap - only 20- 25c per text - but they can really add up. Many young people send hundreds of SMS per month, significantly adding to monthly costs. Premium SMS services - including reality show voting - generally cost at least twice the normal SMS rate, and usually aren’t included under cap limits.

UNDERSTAND YOUR PLAN
Different carriers calculate things in different ways, and are not above deliberately confusing customers with complicated terminology and details, as various cases before the ACCC attest. For a fun exercise, try a direct comparison between an Optus and a 3 Mobile bill. There is a huge proliferation of choice in the mobile phone market, but choice is only a good thing when you understand all the options. Otherwise, it becomes disempowering, leading to confusion, frustration and potential hardship.

OWN YOUR PHONE OUTRIGHT
You can buy a functional handset for under $60. Owning a mobile outright is always safer than paying one off on a 24-month contract. Depending on the carrier, the cost of paying out the handset if you break your contract might be bigger than you realise.

BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR HANDSET FEATURES
Phone companies aim to make spending money effortless. They provide handsets that can access expensive premium features very easily, sometimes by accident. These costs add up very quickly.

TAKE CARE WITH MOBILE DATA
Browsing the internet costs a lot more than making phone calls. Most Australian mobile data plans are smaller than you might realise, and it is very easy to exceed them, leading to very large bills. Additionally, if you have a smartphone, make sure you keep track of what your handset is doing in the background. Various data options are often defaulted to ‘on’.

BE VERY REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR NEEDS
Be honest about why you actually need a mobile. Basic calling functionality is generally the most anyone would ever truly need a phone for. Anything beyond that is a luxury, and luxuries are rarely free.

Our advice? If in any doubt, buy a handset outright, and go prepaid. You can always go on a plan later, once you better understand your needs usages patterns and choices.

Telstra Business Fleet Connect and You

As I've mentioned before, Telstra is about to release its new range of mobile fleet plans: Business Fleet Connect (BFC). From November 26 this product will replace the existing Business Mobile Advantage (BMA) plans for all new connections. What does this mean for your business?

The first thing to know is that from November 26 it will no longer be possible to sign a new mobile connection onto BMA. All new connections will be placed on BFC. As I said in our review of the new plans, this will mean an increase in costs and a decrease in inclusions. More on this below.

However, it is also important to know that all mobiles already on BMA will continue as they are now - they won't be changed to the new pricing. BMA is the plan schedule you were contracted to, and you will continue on that pricing until the agreement expires. Also rest assured that BMA and BFC can co-exist on the same account, and that mobiles on either plan will share their fleet allowances - calls, data - between them. 

Given that Telstra's fleet plans are contracted at service level - don't get me started - this means that it is supremely unlikely that all of your mobiles will switch over to the new pricing at the same time. So don't worry that your costs will suddenly shoot up from November 26!

But they will go up. As mentioned in our review, nearly everything about the new plans is more expensive and less generous. Our modelling suggests that mobile costs will increase by about 10%, although this will of course vary according to the configuration of your mobile services, and the habits of your staff. 

Dog and Bone can quickly and accurately benchmark precisely what impact the new BFC plans will have on your telco costs, so we urge you to get in touch with us if you are at all concerned.

For now, forewarned is forearmed.

 

The Advantages of Account Consolidation

Does your company have a ton of different telco bills? Consolidating them into just a few accounts often has profound benefits.

When Dog and Bone initially engages with a new client, one of the first things we do is obtain all the pertinent information we possibly can about their services, which includes all relevant telecommunications accounts. It’s amazing what we sometimes find. Organisations can literally have dozens of accounts for fixed lines and mobiles.

I’d have to ask around the office, but my personal record for a single client is 47 separate accounts, just for fixed lines and mobiles, across four different providers. I’m sure there are examples of companies with even more.

Of course, no organisation sets out to do this. The process by which accounts proliferate is usually far more haphazard, or, as we generously term it these days, ‘organic’.  Businesses expand, and in doing so sometimes absorb similar business, and take over their legacy systems and accounts. Sometimes staff act unilaterally, and start up new accounts without checking to see if it is necessary. We have encountered examples where a company didn’t realise that different departments or sub-entities can co-exist on the one account, yet have their expenses listed separately via the establishment of ‘Cost Centres’. The point is, it happens. The problem is, it’s never a good thing.

Put simply, when you have lots and lots of different accounts, potentially across multiple carriers, it is very hard to know what you have. When you don’t know what you have, you generally won’t know what you need. There’s also a very good chance you’ll be paying more than you should be, often for stuff you didn’t even realise you had.

Now, it won't always be possible to combine all your accounts - sometimes different service types just have to have their own accounts - but it always pays to try. Consolidating your disparate accounts yields tangible benefits. The most prominent of these include:

  1. Increased spending power. As an organisation’s telco spend increases, it becomes eligible for increasingly competitive tiers of pricing. Rather than have several accounts on mediocre rates, combine the spend and get the best rates you can, thus leading to significant savings. Any telco will be far more interested in a bigger account, and far more likely to throw sweeteners your way.
  2. Fleet calls. By combining as many services as possible on the one account, you ensure that more of your services can take advantage of fleet provisions, and can thereby call each other for free. Some carriers even allow this between mobiles and fixed lines on the same account.
  3. Reduced administrative costs and time. Keeping track of multiple bills is always more work than keeping track of just a few. There comes a point when keeping track of everything is simply impossible, details slip through the cracks, and businesses end up paying for things they no longer use or need.
  4. Contractual certainty. Multiple accounts mean multiple contracts, and it is exceedingly unlikely that these are all going to expire at the same time. Generally this ensures your services remain perpetually in contract, making it far more difficult to make necessary changes.
  5. Planning for the Future. As mentioned above, it’s very hard to plan for what you need if you don’t know what you have. We’ve found that the act of consolidating accounts, especially in conjunction with implementation of an Asset Register and a clear Procurement Policy, enables organisations to make the best decisions for their telecommunications futures.

How Do We Use Our Phones?

Do not-for-profit clients use their phones differently from corporate users?

The Dog and Bone Analyser – the proprietary software program that forms the core of our analysis services – has been up and running for almost as long Dog and Bone itself, although it is a very different program now than it was at the start.

At its heart, Analyser works by breaking down a phone bill to its most granular level, providing us with data than can then be interrogated or combined in a number of ways. I won’t go into these methods here, though I can reveal that Analyser is not above either bullying or seducing data as the need arises, and one occasion did remove the data to a remote location in regional Poland. Analyser can also be instructed – if one asks nicely, in a patient but non-patronising tone – to provide all kinds of summaries. We can find out all kinds of interesting things, assuming that your interests are even tangentially related to telecommunications usage data. For the sake of this article, let’s assume they are.

With the proper prodding, I got Analyser to tell me some of the differences between not-for-profit usage (including charities) and corporate usage. Many of you are probably aware that Dog and Bone is heavily involved in the NFP sector, although we do also have a very broad range of corporate clients of all sizes. I ran about approximately one million anonymous call records for each type of company through the software, and achieved the following results, along with a stern lecture on interrupting Analyser when it was busy. This is what it came out with.

Table 1. looks at fixed lines, and features the average proportional call volume across various call types. This shows us the volume of a certain call type as compared to all calls made. (For example, the figure 41.53% means that of the million or so NFP calls looked at, 41.53% of them were Local Calls.)

 

It is immediately apparent that not-for-profit companies make a greater volume of Local Calls (41.53% compared to 23.92%), and far more local calls between sites. This largely reflects the local focus of many charities, even those that are multinational in their reach. Corporate users, on the other hand, make a far great proportion of Calls to Mobiles (43.15% to 22.20%). This could be due to several reasons, such as the fact that the corporate sector has been much quicker in adopting new technologies, with the greater emphasis on mobility.

Table 2. shows these proportions again, but instead of call volume, it looks at the length of each call type. 

 

We can immediately see that although Corporate users make more total calls to mobiles, they actually spend less time on those calls. Basically, they make a lot of short calls. The exception is calls to company mobiles. Despite making only a third as many calls to company mobiles as to other mobiles, they actually spend more time talking to their colleagues. This is suggests that Whole of Business rates are very valuable for Corporate clients.

Table 3. shows the Average Call Length across all outbound call types. This should bear out the above suppositions. The figures measure minutes (as a decimal, thus 1.5 minutes equates to 1 minute 30 seconds.)

 

This table shows that although Corporate users makes far more calls to mobile than any other type, the average call length of these calls is only 0.46 minutes, which is about 27 seconds. Meanwhile the average length of a call to a company mobile is 1.85 minutes, or 111 seconds. NFP users on the other hand actually make shorter calls to their colleagues on mobile than to non-clients. I confess I'm not entirely sure why that might be.

As well as making far more Local Calls, NFP clients also spend almost half a minute on average longer on each Local Call. Again this probably reflects the local focus of their affairs, and the type of work they’re engaged in. Meanwhile, the corporate clients used in this sample spend more time making calls to their sites in other states (or beyond local call range).

Bear in mind that these results are only for outbound Fixed Lines. I’ll be back soon to look at the differences in Mobile usage.

The 4 Biggest Causes of Business Bill Shock

It isn’t just single consumers with post-paid plans that suffer Bill Shock. It’s also businesses.

New research has just been released by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) demonstrating that 34 per cent of post-paid phone users in Australia have suffered ‘Bill Shock’ recently, and that the average additional charge was $169. Of these, 320 of 2286 surveyed users admitted that they had trouble paying the additional charge.

These are troubling figures, and reaffirm why the newly introduced Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) code has been put in place, and why the federal government has only this week expanded the ACMA’s powers of enforcement.

Here at Dog and Bone we predominantly deal with ‘business’ customers, rather than single users, although ‘business’ in this sense includes a vast range of charities and non-profit entities in addition to more traditional corporate customers. Our experience demonstrates that it isn’t only single users that experience Bill Shock. Businesses both large and small are frequently slugged with huge extra charges, for a number of reasons.

We find that these additional charges are invariably the result of several possible factors:

1. Incorrect rates. 

This is fairly self-explanatory, but it basically means that you are not enjoying the correct rates as laid out in your contract. This problem generally occurs at the beginning of a contract, and is the result of an improper implementation on the part of your provider. It therefore follows that the most important time to check your rates is immediately after a new contract is entered into. (Bear in mind that it generally takes a week or two after the contract is signed for new rates to come into effect.)

Having said that, it will occasionally happen that the rates go haywire during the course of your contract. While we’d like to believe that this is an honest mistake on the part of your provider, it’s interesting that the error mostly works out in their favour. Sometimes a provider will simply alter your existing contract to suit their needs, and point to fine print provisions that enable them to do so. We’ve seen this happen, which rather called into question the use of having a contract in the first place.

Dog and Bone has found that billing errors of this type generated overcharges of approximately $173,000 in the last twelve months for our clients (we also recouped this money on their behalf). However, it should be borne in mind that our data comes from a very wide range of business types and sizes, and therefore cannot usefully be compared to the figures for single users.

2. Incorrect Plans. 

As with incorrect rates, a provider will often implement the wrong plan types with the new contract. This will usually produce far more serious cost spikes than incorrect rates, yet is in fact a far easier mistake to make. Making sure your business is on the correct plans is therefore of vital importance. You should also select plans with some flexibility, because staff usage patterns will change over time.

These changing patterns are a primary cause of mid-contract blow-outs. Constant vigilance is therefore important in order to catch changes as they occur, and to perhaps adjust plans accordingly.

3. Incompatible Plans. 

The average user may not know this, but often it is the case that two plans from a single provider are incompatible with each other. It is understandable that users don’t know this, since often the provider is unaware as well. Sometimes the customer will request a plan change, and the provider will implement it in good faith, which will cause all kinds of things to go wrong, most of which end up costing a lot of money.

For example, one of our clients requested that a number of their mobile data plans be changed to a shared data plan. The provider fulfilled this request, but hadn’t realised that shared data plans cannot exist on the same account as unshared mobile plans. This resulted in none of the plans working, and all mobile data being charged at PAYG (Pay As You Go) rates. The result was a $23,000 mobile bill, which was rather higher than the $1,500 they were used to paying each month.

4. User Error. 

Now unfortunately, the fact is that most instances of bill shock are due to misuse by the customer. Some of these might be honest mistakes, and some may well be due to being misled by providers, such that users were not fully aware of what they were entering into. But here at Dog and Bone we see a huge array of cases that could have been prevented, such as enormous international roaming data charges, or domestic data, or users accessing services that could have no possible legitimate business use.

It is very important that you staff members are aware of exactly what constitutes legitimate usage, and that they are aware of the potential pitfalls of misuse. Here at Dog and Bone we have found that a prominently available Calls Policy can prove useful in alerting staff to permissible phone usage.

Dog and Bone also provides further means of addressing these issues. These include our SMS Reporting service, which alerts users of their monthly spend, and has proved highly effective by empowering staff members to police their own usage. Dog and Bone also offers a fully Independent Telecommunications Support Service, which among other things virtually negates many of the problems mentioned here, by having us constantly monitoring your telecommunications activity, and always looking for ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Feel free to contact us about any of this information, and for ways to ensure your business doesn’t suffer Bill Shock in the future.

The Value of Free Fleet Calls

How much are free calls between your staff members really worth?

It is no secret that phone call rates are confusing. They are designed to be that way, and the newly revised industry customer code currently being reviewed by ACMA is in part intended to address this. One of the great tricks that telcos use to make their offers more attractive is the provision of free calls between either the mobiles in your company fleet (for your mobile agreement) or free calls between your offices (on fixed line contracts). You often see the latter point heavily touted when VoIP solutions are put forward - just think of the savings you'll generate from being able to make free calls between your offices, anywhere in the country! There are also plans that combine the best of both of these, such as enabling your office phones to call your company mobiles, or vice versa.

It all sounds great on paper, and to be perfectly honest, it can prove very effective. However, it's important to realise that free calls in one area are generally offset by higher call rates elsewhere, or in higher access charges, or less included data. There a lot of levers carriers can adjust when putting together a mobile offer. But the offer will invariably end up where the carrier wants it.

Our extensive experience from working with organisations across the public and private sector, from small outfits to enterprise class multinationals, is that all too often the gains achieved by free fleet calls are more than offset by higher costs elsewhere. Primarily, this is because most companies appear to call themselves less often than they think. In the case of fixed line calls between sites, a free intra-site option is really only saving you the cost of either an untimed local call, or an STD call (which is generally the cheapest kind of timed call to make).

For example, before they came to us, one of our clients had been sold an integrated VoIP solution on the strength of free calls between all their sites, notwithstanding that all of their offices are in the inner Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, and are thus only ever a local call away from each other. Fortunately VoIP provides many other benefits, but still . . .

Now, by no means are we saying that free fleet calls cannot work. Some of our clients get tremendous mileage out of such provisions. To take one example, we have one client whose staff call each other on their mobiles more than they call anyone else. We have another client who for organisational reasons must constantly text each other. A free fleet rate that includes SMS has proved enormously beneficial for them. In both cases - indeed in all cases - Dog and Bone conducted careful analysis of the client's spend patterns to work out what was best for them.

What we are really saying is that the carrot of free fleet calls should only be considered in the awareness that there is often a stick waiting elsewhere, and armed with the full knowledge of how much value it will really provide for your company.

Phreaked Out

As with most forms of cyber-crime, PABX hacking or ‘phreaking’ goes largely unreported, with many businesses unwilling to risk any damage to their reputation by admitting compromised security.

The Australian Federal Police estimate that phreaking afflicts hundreds of businesses annually, with a cost in the tens of millions of dollars. In the vast majority of cases, security failures are preventable at the user end. Here are ten simple measures you can implement to help prevent your PABX getting hacked.

1. DISABLE UNUSED FEATURES
If a feature is providing no benefit to your business, then it may as well provide no benefit to would-be hackers. Also, be sure to remove unused voicemail-boxes when staff leave.

2. SECURE DIRECT INWARD SERVICE ACCESS (DISA) NUMBERS
Only those staff that require DISA should have knowledge of those numbers. This feature can be disabled if unneeded.

3. CHANGE CODES FREQUENTLY
Change the authorisation and access codes and passwords as often as is practical (monthly is a good timeframe).

4. AVOID OBVIOUS PASSWORDS
Where possible choose longer alpha- numeric passwords and pins. Don’t use birthdays or terms related to your business. Never, ever retain default passwords (a great many hacked systems have retained default passwords).

5. KEEP SECURITY INFORMATION SECURE
Do not post security codes and login details in plain view, or in predictable hiding spots (i.e. under keyboards).

6. DISPOSE OF DOCUMENTATION THOUGHTFULLY
Make sure any documentation listing access or configuration information is shredded or otherwise safely destroyed.

7. MONITOR CALL TRAFFIC
The more familiar you are with your business’s standard calling patterns, the more quickly you will be able to spot anomalous call traffic.

8. BLOCK SPECIFIC NUMBERS AND CALL TYPES
It is possible to block, say, all international calls from your PABX. Most systems have the capacity to block particular countries, a useful feature if your staff only call particular countries. Many phreaking crimes are based around obtaining free international calls.

9. PERIODIC AUDITING
There are companies that provide the service of testing the security of your phone system, essentially by trying to hack into it. Once the holes in your system are revealed, it is much easier to block them.

10. USE CERTIFIED TECHNICIANS
Always source certified, experienced installers, who can answer all your questions. Dog and Bone is happy to assist with this.

Remember that the responsibility for your system ultimately rests with you, the user. Telecommunications providers may show some leniency in pursuing the colossal bills accrued by a phreaked account, but they still generally expect the bills to be honoured. It pays to know your own phone system.

What's In A Minute?

A few weeks ago, Dog and Bone demonstrated the differences that increasing the billing increments can make. The article can be found here. The upshot was that increasing the billing increment by 30 seconds increases call charges by about 12%, while increasing it to 'per-minute' results in an increase of around 24-5%. There is some variation according to call types, but these are the basic figures. Given that many people generally aren't aware of their billing increment, this can be said to constitute something of a 'hidden' charge.

That being said, when it comes to tinkering with your call charges there are many knobs for the carriers to adjust. The billing increment is only one. Flagfalls - sometimes called a 'call connection fee' - are another one, one that most users are more or less aware of. A fun one that users may not be aware of is the 'minimum call charge'. This occurs when the carrier defines a minimum amount that will be charged for each call, regardless of the billing increment. 

For example, a 1 minute minimum clause - the most common type - means that each call will be charged as though it lasted at least a minute, even if it didn't. Thus a 20 second call will be charged for a full minute. Meanwhile, a call that lasts, say, 80 seconds will be charged for 80 seconds. Consequently, this type of charge will always penalise calling patterns in which calls predominantly last less than a minute. This is typically the case for Fixed to Mobile (F2M) calls, where our experience shows that users tend to keep calls short, perhaps as a legacy from when call rates to mobiles were truly stratospheric. STD calls, on the other hand, tend to last longer, and thus tend to be less penalised by minimum charges. Phone carriers are of course aware of this, and certainly did not stumble upon the concept of the minimum charge by accident.

So what difference does adding a 1 minute minimum make to a standard fixed line call spend, with 3 different call rates selected (x axis)?

STD


F2M (Fixed to Mobiles)


Dog and Bone's analysis demonstrates that adding a 1 minute minimum increases STD call spend by about 13.3%, and F2M call spend by about 19.3%. These differences remain constant regardless of call rate. This was run over a sample size of about 33,500 call records total (approx. 10,500 STD and 23,000 F2M). 

Interestingly, the average call length for both call types was about 1.8 minutes, yet applying the same 1 minute minimum produced noticeably different results. What this tells us is that regardless of the average call length, the proportion of F2M calls lasting under a minute was higher than in the case of STD. Subtleties such as this demonstrate why analysis based around things as simple as average call length are inherently flawed when unusual billing rates are in play.

Know Your Bills

Here at Dog and Bone, we look at a lot of phone bills. One of our more popular services is Telecommunications Account Auditing, whereby we identify those areas where our clients can do things a bit differently.

Time and again we encounter easily avoidable problems, from poor usage practices, to expensive and redundant services and equipment, to incorrect call rates. At the risk of losing ourselves potential business, we’d like to highlight some of the issues you can look for on your own phone bills, potentially saving thousands of dollars.

INCORRECT CALL RATES
You’d be surprised just how often your carrier charges the wrong call rate, and how rarely they detect it if left to their own devices. (Actually, they seem to detect undercharging pretty promptly.) It pays to be aware of your contracted call rates, and to check regularly that they are being applied correctly.

UNUSED AND UNNEEDED SERVICES 
An unused and unneeded fixed line is just a money-drain, pure and simple. If you don’t need it, you may as well get rid of it. Sometimes lines aren’t even connected. If a phone number is showing up on your bill and you’re not sure where or whose it is, call it. However, don’t cancel lines that are used for things like alarm systems.

Regarding ISDN services, many businesses are over-serviced, and are paying for many more lines than they need. As a general guideline, the ratio of lines to staff should be about 1:4.

Unused mobiles that are paying access fees are also usually worth cancelling. If you’re on a plan with no minimum monthly fee, you can generally retain the mobile service, and give it to a new staff member when required. However, be aware that certain mobile plans - such as Telstra Fleet Select and most aggregated business plans - require a minimum number of services in order to be eligible.

NAUGHTY CALLS
Mostly, staff do the right thing. Occasionally, they forget themselves, and access content - especially on mobiles - that lies beyond the scope of normal business activities. Sometimes, people simply don’t know better. For example, rather than using the prohibitively expensive Sensis service, the same information is usually readily available via a simple Google search or by calling the operator (1223), both of which are free. Creating a call policy can prove enormously useful, alerting staff to precisely which calls are OK, and which aren’t.

Another thing to be mindful of is very high volumes of SMS. Work out how many texts you feel staff can legitimately send in a month, and be aware of usage volumes that consistently exceed that amount.

MONITOR YOUR CAPS
Mobile cap plans are great, until you exceed your cap. Then you’re in for a world of cost. If you find your cap being exceeded, your mobile carrier will always allow you to go onto a higher one (surprise, surprise!). However, if you find that you’re consistently well under your cap limit, it can pay to go onto a lower cap.

Billshock!

Bill shock - the shock of receiving a massive and unexpected bill - is becoming increasingly common with mobiles phones, leading in many cases to severe financial hardship and even bankruptcy.

Here we look at some ways you can avoid big blowouts. Various financial counselling services have reported that mobile phone bills are the number one cause of people - especially young people - seeking bankruptcy guidance.

It seems that many people simply don’t understand how their mobile plans work, what their phones can do, and how much certain services cost. Ignorance is no longer bliss, if indeed it ever was. It’s also no excuse for phone companies, who expect to be paid no matter how bewildered you might feel.

So how can bill-shock be avoided? The two most vital things you can do are to know the products, and to be honest with yourself. Here are some general tips:

PREPAID IS ALWAYS THE SAFEST
With pre-pay, what you pay for is what you get, making it very easy to control your expenditure each month. This is an excellent option for people who aren’t sure where they’ll be in the future, and those with a bad credit rating. Even if your prepay credit is used up, you can still call emergency numbers.

CHOOSE YOUR CAP CAREFULLY
If you’re on a Cap plan, make sure it is big enough, and be careful not to exceed your limit. Cap plans are great value so long as you stay within your cap. However, call rates on Cap plans are truly terrible, and costs can really add up if you use up your available credit.

BE CAREFUL WITH SMS
SMS may seem cheap - only 20- 25c per text - but they can really add up. Many young people send hundreds of SMS per month, significantly adding to monthly costs. Premium SMS services - including reality show voting - generally cost at least twice the normal SMS rate, and usually aren’t included under cap limits.

UNDERSTAND YOUR PLAN
Different carriers calculate things in different ways, and are not above deliberately confusing customers with complicated terminology and details, as various cases before the ACCC attest. For a fun exercise, try a direct comparison between an Optus and a 3 Mobile bill. There is a huge proliferation of choice in the mobile phone market, but choice is only a good thing when you understand all the options. Otherwise, it becomes disempowering, leading to confusion, frustration and potential hardship.

OWN YOUR PHONE OUTRIGHT
You can buy a functional handset for under $60. Owning a mobile outright is always safer than paying one off on a 24-month contract. Depending on the carrier, the cost of paying out the handset if you break your contract might be bigger than you realise.

BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR HANDSET FEATURES
Phone companies aim to make spending money effortless. They provide handsets that can access expensive premium features very easily, sometimes by accident. These costs add up very quickly.

TAKE CARE WITH MOBILE DATA
Browsing the internet costs a lot more than making phone calls. Most Australian mobile data plans are smaller than you might realise, and it is very easy to exceed them, leading to very large bills. Additionally, if you have a smartphone, make sure you keep track of what your handset is doing in the background. Various data options are often defaulted to ‘on’.

BE VERY REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR NEEDS
Be honest about why you actually need a mobile. Basic calling functionality is generally the most anyone would ever truly need a phone for. Anything beyond that is a luxury, and luxuries are rarely free.

Our advice? If in any doubt, buy a handset outright, and go prepaid. You can always go on a plan later, once you better understand your needs usages patterns and choices.