Catch me on my mobile

Mobile phones allow you to be in when you are out, and for most business people this is a real boon. Phones are now so cheap that they have lost the the 1980s yuppie image and are now everyday items.

But the clichC of time being money cuts both ways. A phone may be cheap to buy, it will also be expensive to run.

The electronics in a mobile phone cost about u150 to produce, assemble and test. With normal trade and retail margins that would lead to a retail price of around u400. The reason phones can be bought for under u100 is that they are subsidised by the airtime contract.

The dealer who sells the phone will be rewarded with a bonus of around u300 for each contract signed. If you lose the phone or it is stolen you are still bound by the contract and a replacement phone is likely to cost around u400.

Mobile phone theft is a huge problem – around 15,000 phones are stolen in the UK every month. Stolen phones are attractive to dishonest retailers who can change the chip in them to give the phones a new identity and then earn the connection bonus.

The risk of theft makes insurance a sensible precaution. Some household policies will cover mobile phones, even out of the house, but many won't if the phone is classed as a business device or will impose a limit on the value which is much less than a replacement phone. Most mobile phone companies offer insurance as part as of the monthly tariff.

It is the monthly bill which allows the phone companies to subsidise the phones so heavily. Steve Rowley, Cellnet's general manager, talks of "bill shock", the feeling a customer suffers after having paid u50 for a phone then receiving a first monthly bill for u150. You can avoid this if you shop wisely.

There are six mobile phone networks in the UK. Cellnet and Vodafone offer analogue and digital systems providing the four main networks. Orange and Mercury offer smaller networks with Orange covering 70 per cent of the UK population and Mercury just in the London and Birmingham areas. The Orange and Mercury networks are also digital.

The wider the area of coverage the more you pay. The Vodafone and Cellnet analogue networks cover most of the UK. The big companies' digital networks use the GSM system which also works in most major European cities but not in the US or Japan. You will need to check with a local dealer to see if the Orange and Mercury networks cover the areas you are interested in.

In general GSM systems are the most expensive to use and the smaller networks are the cheapest.

The complexities of billing mean that using and owning a phone are different things. The more you pay as a monthly charge – up to about u30 a month – the less you pay to make a call.

For a heavy user, someone who spends over 200 minutes a month on the phone, this might be economic, but for most light users there are tariffs where it only costs u15 a month to be connected and the call charges are higher. This suits people who only want to receive incoming calls.

For a moderate user the best value is probably an Orange phone. This costs more than most to buy but for u25 a month you get 60 minutes of free calls a month thrown in.

Anyone in the legal profession should think hard before being tempted to buy an analogue phone. Calls can be picked up on a u200 scanner and any conversation you have on one is potentially as public as using a CB radio. You should also be aware of this if you are talking to clients who are on a mobile phone.

Digital phones on the other hand are more secure than a conventional land line. They turn voice into data and encrypt the call using powerful chips. There is no commercially available equipment which can intercept digital calls.

As if deciding which of the 30 phones and 186 tariffs available is not hard enough you also have to consider whether you want a phone. Some lawyers don't like the idea at all.

"I refused to have a mobile phone." says Dave Farmbrough of EDC Lord & Co. "If you have one you can never be in a meeting or engaged, your client can call you when you are in the car, on the beach etc. In my last firm every fee earner was supposed to have a pager. Again, I refused. I don't want to be bleeped when I'm in the toilet or with a client. You have to be able to be incommunicado sometimes or you'd never get any work done. I can well imagine the situation would be different if I attended court or outside conferences more frequently."

Even the most staunchly anti-mobile user has the occasional need for a phone. "I have borrowed them when out of the office," says Farmbrough, "but only on occasion. I have never worried about client confidentiality since the majority of work I do is conveyancing and anyone listening in with a scanner is unlikely to hear anything they can make capital of. I only talk to other lawyers on ordinary telephone land lines at their offices, never when they are on their mobile," he says.

Ultimately, the decision to have a mobile phone is one which has to be made with caution and the contract must be checked carefully.

It might be worth explaining to the salesman what you do for a living before signing up as some companies allow their salesmen to remove the more restrictive aspects of their contracts, but you will only find out if you ask.

Simon Rockman is editor of What Mobile and cellphone magazine.