|All tangled up: complex pricing of bundles|
As providers throw cashback deals and retention offers to increase their market share, what things do you need to be aware of to ensure that your deal doesn't turn sour?
1. Line rental
You've got a super deal. But during your contract period, providers may increase your line rental. For example, a516digital has seen emails being sent sent to some Plusnet customers with details of an increase to nearly £17 this autumn. Like other utility companies, other providers will invariably follow with further above inflation increases and may reduce the savings you've achieved by signing up for other services, such as TV. Also note what's included with line rental: whereas five years ago providers often used to include evening and weekend calls, now just weekend or even no calls are included, with certain features now costing extra.
2. Non-inclusive extras
Call packages are also subject to increases during contract period. Also services that may have been included in your tariff may suddenly cost extra. For example, BT started charging its customers for 1571 in early 2014. In the world of pay TV, you may get certain channels for free, but remember the extra charges that could apply if you want to watch them in HD.
3. Line Rental Saver and the 18 month contract
Originally a good way of reducing the cost of your landline, especially if you mostly use your phone for broadband. But the major telecoms providers are increasingly increasing the cost of this saver, dramatically cutting the savings achieved.
And if you've signed up to an 18 month broadband contract, you face the dilemma whether to renew your line rental saver after 12 months, which will take you six months beyond your broadband contract, or to ditch line rental saver and pay more for the last six months, in order to be able to leave a provider without wasting money.
When prices are increased, you may be able to leave your provider without penalty. But the terms and conditions of line rental saver means you won't get a refund. Also, since Ofcom changed its rules about mid-contract price rises, providers will often insert clauses in the contract allowing them to increase prices and stopping you leaving without penalty.
4. Better deals... long contracts
Some providers will offer you good deals to stay with them. But they often come with a sting in the tail. Last summer, Sky offered customers two year's free broadband in conjunction with the launch of Sky Sports 5. Now that Sky no longer shows Champions League football, viewers who took up the free broadband offer last year aren't able to switch to BT Broadband and BT TV without penalty to make use of BT's new European sports channel, which will have full coverage from August 2015.
5. Retention downgrades
You ring up for a better deal, you get a good deal. But is it really as good as it seems? If you're a Plusnet fibre customer with the upto 38Mbps service, beware you're not downgraded. Plusnet have recently cut the upload speed for that product, from nearly 20Mbps to just 2Mbps. You'll stay on the old product if you don't make any changes to your service, such as move house or want to make use of a retention deal (or "re-contract") based on this new (slower) version of the 38 Mbps product.
While everyone talks about download speeds, almost no-one looks for the upload speeds, and you won't find upload speeds prominently mentioned in advertising. Upload speeds are important if you regularly send emails with large attachments, use cloud computing to create and share documents (e.g. Office 365 and One Drive), upload pictures and video, e.g. to YouTube, or play video games - especially if you are in a household with multiple users.
With other providers, similar scenarios may catch you: retention deals may be based on newer versions of the product you are on, which may not be identical in specfication to the one you are on now. You may be offered a better price or some extras, but think in advance which aspects of the service are important to you and which extras aren't really worth it.
Providers increasingly want you to take up multiple services with them. When broadband, landline, mobile and TV are offered by the same company, this is called 'quad-play'. Once you've bundled different services together, often with different terms and conditions and possibly different contractual periods for each service, it becomes more of a big deal to opt-out of one or two of the services. You may actually find it hard to locate savings, for example, you may get one service at a discount, because you've taken up another service. It also becomes a bigger hassle if you do want to change, as everything may have to change at the same time. As a result customers feel no choice but to continue with their existing provider and bear the price rises.
Unless you need to have the latest features, including UHD or getting every pay TV channel going, where you will have to pay for the privilege, you may find it easier to strip back your packages and start from scratch. With the increase in the number of people using Smart TVs or smart boxes/dongles such as Roku and Chromecast, it is getting easy to select the TV you want.
Start with Freeview, or Freesat if you live in an area where the Freeview signal doesn't carry all TV channels. Then just concentrate at getting a good phone and broadband deal. Providers will tempt you with add-ons here and there, but remember the traps listed above. Once you have an ideally unlimited broadband connection (i.e. no data cap) and at least 2.5 Mbps download speed (more is better), you are free to add extra TV services as and when you please without being stuck in a contract. If your broadband goes up, that's fine, move at the end of your contract without affecting your TV package.
You get the choice to be flexible, and importantly, you have a better chance of only paying extra for the content you actually watch and don't have to subscribe to umpteen other things just to get the TV package.
You can add Netflix or Amazon Prime Video and their vast libraries for a low monthly fee, or opt to take Sky's Now TV service. Now TV currently starts at £6.99 a month and includes the main Sky channels - live and via catch-up, including Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts, plus other channels including Discovery, MTV and Disney Channel. From August you can add sport for £31.99 a month. This may seem a lot, but it enables your household to benefit from the main Sky channels, plus Sky Sports for less than it would cost on satellite. Note that you won't receive as many entertainment channels, but this is where you need to consider which channels you actually watch.
TVPlayer will be soon launching a premium add-on service, allowing users to stream channels including British Eurosport, History, National Geographic and Sony Entertainment Channel. Prices will start from £4.99 a month.
Importantly both Now TV and the new TVPlayer Plus service don't have contracts, you can keep the service as long as you want to, and have the freedom to move, change, cancel or just temporarily drop a service, e.g. if you're on holiday abroad for a few weeks - why pay for a service you're not using? You can add Sky Movies on Now TV for Christmas and New Year, and then drop the service after a month when all the January bills come in. Sky Movies currently costs £9.99 a month via Now TV.
Before you start, it's useful research which services are available on different Smart TVs, boxes and dongles. Now TV is generally widespread on many devices: see the Now TV website for the full list.
Other services will vary. Check their websites for details first. It will take some short-term effort, but the flexibility you get and the potential to cut costs as you reduce your service to just what you're interested in is worth it.