The Mobile Phone Wars: A Consumer Perspective

by albertopolintan

Okay, maybe war is too strong but it’s clear that as the Australian phone companies vie for profitability and market share, the choices they provide to consumers in the pursuit of territory is forcing some strong compromises.

So, here’s my situation. I was among the crazy to sign up at the crack of dawn when iPhone 3G came to Australia in July 2008. At that time, I paid $39 a month (plus an extra $15 for the handset) for 500MB and a handful of calls. iPhone was the best smart phone player in the market, largely because of the cohesive blend of aesthetic design, intuitive functionality and a supporting network of applications. It was a pioneer in the usability and aspiration stakes – and the mobile phone operators need only focus on a single brand and a single model(ish).

Two years later, I’m looking at upgrading. While there has been sentiment that phones these days are more like computers, they are certainly less enduring. My phone has pressure cracks on the back, the screen is scratched and is a frustratingly laggy machine with a non-functional GPS. In any case, the choices are greater and the offerings aren’t as straightforward from each of the carriers.

First, I’m certainly not getting the iPhone4. As the market has evolved, I’m interested in greater geekery. While I’ve dabbled with the idea of jailbreaking, I’d rather have a phone that lets me do this out of the box. For this, I’m opting for Android. Besides, I’m stuffed full of Apple and really want something new.

So, where to begin? Do I choose a phone or stick to my carrier (Optus)? Therein lies the first problem – where to begin? Each carrier more or less has an ‘exclusive’ phone, meaning that you’d better be happy with what they’re offering (contract or handset) because you can’t get it anywhere else.

The case with Optus is a little dire, especially when it comes to Android phones. First, they don’t have much other than the Galaxy S. While I have nothing against Samsung, this device feels really plasticky in the hand and doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor for me. After that, there’s the HTC Aria and that is too small and has poor resolution (especially after an iPhone). The score for Optus is zippo due to lack of handsets. One off the list, despite being my carrier of choice forever.

My next port was good old Telstra. While they too had the Galaxy S, that unit was clearly off the list and I was looking for something else. The beauty here is the HTC Desire – a wondrously pretty phone with its amazing screen (although I’m not sure they’ve got AMOLED anymore). The problem here was the weirdly inconsistent plans – first $59 for 500MB, then $79 for 200MB, then… who knows. If I sign on, I don’t know if I’ll be envious of a newer plan, not knowing how the boffins at TLS are trying to make money or satisfy customers. The score for Telstra is a half – great phone, best coverage but oddly inconsistent pricing just scares me.

Then comes the fashionable Vodafone. They clearly have the best phones out and have them exclusively – the HTC Desire HD and for the stylish, the HTC Legend. Their recent plans are incredibly decent starting from $49 a month that includes 1GB of data! Handset, check. Plans, check. Network quality, not so much. The carrier with the best plan and handset combo has the worst network of the three. As a colleague mentioned to me, would I be satisfied with the phone in my hand but forever be cursing the network that it’s on? Vodafone should get a half a point but that network problem is gnawing at me. They probably deserve a zero, too.

So, which to choose? They all have negatives that outweigh the positives. Optus has no phones to speak of. Telstra has fickle pricing. Vodafone has a bad, bad network.

My final conclusion: these telcos are trying to gouge out a space for themselves by forcing consumers to compromise. Exclusive phones mean that consumers can’t really compare – if you want a phone, you automatically pick a carrier. Unless something new comes along, I’m going to buy my own unlocked phone and pick the best network, signing up to the shortest contract possible with the most data. In the end, the telcos just can’t help and I need to create my own plan.