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The Small Print Behind Free Mobile Offers

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 13 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Mobile Phone Free Contract Terms And

‘Free’ is a term that is frequently bandied about by mobile phone companies, but is there really anything free in the world of the mobile?

The ‘Free’ Mobile Phone

So-called ‘free’ mobile phones have been available for years, as a way for companies to entice consumers into signing up for their phone contract. But of course, like with anything supposedly free, there’s always a catch. In this case you may not pay for the mobile outright but the provider recoups its value indirectly by charging higher call costs and contract fees.

Back in 2004, the cosmetics firm Avon famously offered a voucher for a ‘free’ mobile phone from Orange to customers who spent £15 or more on skincare products. The company was forced to renege on the promotion when they found themselves unable to cope with unprecedented demand. Reports at the time claimed that around 750,000 people had applied for only 60,000 phones. The get out terms and conditions clause of ‘subject to availability’ didn’t prevent Avon getting in hot water with the Advertising Standards Agency after the watchdog was flooded with complaints.

‘Nothing is free’ they say, and nowhere is that tried and trusted maxim more apt than in the world of the mobile phone. There usually seems to be some kind of trade off, as the case with ‘free’ contract phones and Avon’s giveaway mobiles demonstrate.

The Inevitable Trade Off

One start-up company, Blyk, launched a service in 2007 that made the trade off an explicit part of their service, rather than hiding it within in the terms and conditions. Their premise is that mobile users can get free texts and calls in exchange for accepting mobile advertisements.

Although for many mobile users the nuisance of being bombarded with adverts and special offers might not be worth all the texts and calls in the world, the system is aimed at a 16-24 year-old audience who have been reared on advert-supported internet services like MySpace and Bebo. This demographic is much more willing to accept a trade-off between enduring intrusive marketing in exchange for freebies. It’s a clever concept because it also considers the parents. As they are often the ones to pay for the phone credit, they would be more likely to accept a scheme that would cut down their spending.

Free in the Future?

In the future there is still hope for free mobile use without any kind of a trade off. The Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service known as Skype, introduced the concept of the free telephone call a few years ago. It may be a little awkward to use, as it requires microphone, headphones and a computer, and the quality may not be as good as a regular phone line, but more importantly it works and it is free without condition.

With 60 million people worldwide regularly using Skype to make free calls – an estimated 7% of all international call traffic - clearly there is huge potential for web calling. And as the mobile starts to tune in effectively to the Internet, then it seems inevitable that it will follow suit, and the free telephone call will become available to the mobile phone user.

The Skype Phone

Skype already offer a downloadable version of their software for the mobile, but actually getting it work effectively is a problem and the call quality is still fairly poor. However, 3 - the UK’s newest network - has been collaborating with Skype on a new phone that is specifically designed to run the Skype software as efficiently and easy as possible.

If mobile phoning across the web proves successful then we may see mobile companies and their questionably free offers resigned to history.

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