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What The Networks Have To Offer: giffgaff

This is going to be the first in a series of articles that are going to look at what are the best deals from any given network. So to clarify a few things, these are going to be written “as is” so no doubt the second they are published the network will change something and make it out of date. Although major changes are reasonably rare so hopefully it should give you a good idea of what you can expect from the big names and some not so big names, names you may not be so familiar with. Whilst it may seem odd, not buying direct from the network delivering your service can actually save you money. So, let’s get on with it shall we?

In the UK we just have the 4, soon to be 3 actual network operators we are going to include some of the “MVNO’s” which stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operators. What this means is they don’t own their own masts. Instead they go to a company like O2 and buy millions of minutes, billions of texts and terabytes of data that they then repackage them and sell on to consumers directly. The MVNO deals with all your billing and whatnot so it is they you interact with. In the UK these are pretty popular and they all tend to focused in some way or another on niche consumer groups. Sometimes it’s just about brand utilisation, Asda and Sainsbury’s only have MVNO operations I’m sure because Tesco do.

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So then, giffgaff. Oh and by the way giffgaff officially is all lower casing. I don’t really know why but that’s how they like it, even if I want to capitalise both G’s. If you haven’t heard of them, or have seen the name but that’s it, ill fill you in a little. They are an MVNO that runs off the back of O2’s network. In fact it’s a little bit of an oddity as its 100% owned by O2. So it’s basically O2 then right? Wrong. They are different and I personally have been with them for years. You see they are cheaper than O2, not by as much as they used to be but still pretty good value. However the big differentiator as far I am concerned is that they have no call centres. No customer support line for you ring, oh no you might be thinking. What they do however instead is have a website. That website is populated by other giffgaff users and if you have a problem, you ask there. Giffgaff then reward helpful members by a system called payback. Essentially they pay those who have helped others. (giffgaff is supposedly some “scots” word meaning mutual giving.)

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N.B. Personal rant time. This bares no relevance to the network but is a bit of a bugbear of mine.

Quite what giffgaff characterise as “ancient scots” I don’t know as there really is no such thing as ancient scots, linguistically what you would refer to as Scots is largely Angle based, half of what is southern “Scotland” including Edinburgh formed the Kingdom of Bernicia, later Northumbria and linguistically is the root of “scots” as a close cousin to English. Presumably they mean something from Gaelic which an old form of would have been in use by the Scoti which were northern Irish and moved to occupy Dalriada which is mostly the western isles and the west coastal areas. They later merged with the Pictish kingdom of what is the eastern highlands, the Grampians and Aberdeenshire. This language was never spoken is most of what is todays “Scotland.” There is no more an “ancient Scot’s” as there is “ancient Belgian” or “ancient Canadian.” End rant.

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The benefits of this unusual system are twofold. First of all it saves a bunch of money, humans are expensive things to keep on hand to answer one thing at a time. This means that giffgaff can therefore pass along some of this cost saving to the end user. The second is that the service is better than any call centre. I don’t want to bash all call centre staff. But…….. let’s face it, most of them don’t want to be there. They don’t care about their job particularly and they don’t likely have any interest in mobile tech. The sad fact is many don’t know much of anything beyond their scripts and they don’t care to know much more either. With the forums though, well it’s all full of those who do care. They love this stuff and they do know exactly how everything works. What’s more is that you get responses so insanely fast. It’s quicker to ask a question on their forum than to get through the automated call things everyone else uses.

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The one down side though, if something does go wrong, seriously wrong, and it’s something that you really do need an actual staff member to help you with, you won’t get real time responses. They have been fairly timely when I’ve used them but it’s just how it is. If you therefore cannot ever even think of the possibility that if something goes horribly wrong, being phoneless for a day then well, it’s up to you. I’ve had negligible issues in the years I’ve been with them. It has happened, like being data less for a couple days. Horrifying but I survived.

N.B. They have the best error page though, ever

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Getting on to their “plans” well, again they like to do things a little differently. They do not offer any contracts, period. They have two basic methods of use, straight up PAYG where you put money on your account and pay only for what you use as you use it. Calls to normal UK number are 10p per min. texts are 6p each. Data is 20p for your first 20MB then if you go over that it’s charged at 20p per MB. All of which seem reasonably good value if you are a low user.

The main method of use though for giffgaff is their “goodybags.” These are essentially bundles you buy and then provide you with a bunch of bits for the next 30 days. Ranging from the £5, 100 UK min, 300 UK texts and 100MB of data to the biggest bag at £20 which offers unlimited minutes, texts and data. Note that only the first 6GB of the unlimited data is full speed. After 6gb you will be speed caped at 256kbit. If you don’t know, that’s basically EDGE speeds so messaging and things will work fine but YouTube will be painful to try to use.

If you are only interested in data, not just handset data but dongle data. Be it for a MiFi, dongle or built in laptop card they also offer “gigabags” which offer 500MB for £5 or 1GB for £7.50

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What’s more you get free giffgaff to giffgaff calls for 3 months after every top up. So if you shift friends and family to them too you can make some serious savings. Also handy if say the offspring and you are on giffgaff, they might have no credit left to make calls but they can still ring you as it’s free.

In terms of value, head to head giffgaff is exceedingly good compared with the big 4 and what’s more it’s all prepaid so you can never get an unexpected bill. Should you become unhappy with them at most you’ve paid for 29 days of service you may not want to use. No contracts, even many sim only deals elsewhere like to lock you in for 12 month period to get the best rates. With giffgaff if you aren’t a happy customer you can leave them at the drop of a hat. If only all networks were like that by law, they might treat customers a bit less like cash cows there to be milked.

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Coverage

This is maybe the most important issue, if you get no signal nothing else matters.

Being a completely owned company giffgaff use O2’s network. You can check up their coverage map but they are all generated and thus are only loosely related to reality. I have always found O2’s 2G network to have great coverage, their 3G coverage, errr not so much. In urban areas its fine, they make use of lots of 900MHz 3G so building penetration is usually good. However you leave built up areas and you’re back on 2G. Its 4 G coverage is limited but rapidly growing. In fact O2 bought the 4G licence that has coverage demands so it’s 4G will likely soon be better than its 3g. Curiously its 4G coverage is all at 800MHz. This means it’s good for building penetration, good for outdoor coverage but it’ll be poor for data capacity once its network gets busy. Also, note than not all 4G handsets support band 20 LTE (800MHz 4G) most famously the 4G Iphone 5. It will never work on O2’s network, so if you have one, no 4G for you.

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Performance

In my use O2’s network for 3G was highly variable. In the quiet times of day, early mornings especially, data was super zippy. In the evenings though it would really slow down to the 1 – 2 mbit range. Of course it goes without saying that these things vary dependant on your location, if people near you are hammering the mast the mast must share its bandwidth around, this is especially noticeable if say you’re on the Royal Mile surrounded by 20’000 tourists all trying to upload photos and streaming google maps. In normal situations however I’ve found that O2 is generally quite snappy.

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Handsets

Originally, giffgaff did not sell handsets at all. They gently suggested that O2 PAYG handsets would all work perfectly with giffgaff. That made sense to many consumers who really didn’t know what a sim free phone meant. However due to some demand giffgaff will sell you a phone. They still don’t tie you to their network though. What they do is use a basic hire purchase agreement that is between you and peer-to-peer lending service called RateSetter. Your loan agreement for the handset is not tied to taking a giffgaff bundle nor to staying with them full stop if you don’t want to.

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Best Value Deals

For me I feel the best value offerings they have are at either end of the range. The £7.50 “goodybag” which has 250 minutes, unlimited texts, 500MB of data and the standard free giffgaff to giffgaff calls. Sure, 500MB isn’t a lot but for light users, just for instant messaging etc should do fine and it’s a very low entry point cash wise. £7.50 a month makes it only £1.88 a week. The other deal I like is the big one, £20 for unlimited minutes, texts and data. For sure only the first 6GB is high speed data but being reduced to 256kbit/s is enough to make Whatsapp and email function fine, even Google maps will work if rather slowly. Trust me slow data is a million times better than no data at all!

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Summary

In short giffgaff is O2 but with no staff. Instead it has a forum and it’s cheap, really cheap. If you are happy with that it’s well worth a look. For those who are relatively tech savvy it’s a great option to get cheap plans and reasonable data offerings without having to deal with call centre staff, which I take to be an enormous boon. Its forums are superb if you have a question, ask count to 10 and you’ll have people falling over themselves to assist. It’s easily the best customer support I’ve ever had from any mobile network. That it’s also cheap, well that’s just gravy frankly. I’ve long been a big fan of how giffgaff operates and how it feels like they are trying to work with its customers rather than fleece them. A great big thumbs up from here.

About Mark Ramos

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