Orange is now selling the iPhone, and O2 is no longer the UK's exclusive iPhone network. But it puts you, dearest consumer, in quite the pickle: not only are the two models offered identical, but so are the prices (almost). So how on Earth do you decide which network to choose?
We're here to help. First, we'll examine the tariffs offered by the two companies.
Both Orange and O2 offer 18- and 24-month contracts, and each network's inclusive messages and minutes are extremely similar -- identical in some cases. Take a look at our handy chart below.
*Note that we have rounded down to the nearest pound for ease of understanding. The actual differences in price between O2 and Orange's plans are less than 3p (Orange: £29.36, £34.26, £44.04, £73.40. O2: £29.38, £34.26, £44.05, £73.41).
Regardless of contract length -- 18- or 24-month -- the inclusive minutes and texts you get are identical. Orange definitely offers the best deal on its £29-a-month plan though, giving you twice the number of minutes and texts O2 does. But all other plans are identical, so there's nothing to gain by choosing one network over the other here.
The price of the phones themselves is complicated, but the difference is almost negligible, as Orange and O2's prices are damn near identical as well. More on that later, but let's look at data and Wi-Fi prices first, as this is where the networks really differ.
'Unlimited' Internet explained
Orange and O2 both claim to offer 'unlimited' Internet on their iPhone plans. Orange, however, imposes a 'fair-use policy' limit of 750MB. Yeah, weird. So we pretended to be a customer, called Orange's salespeople, and grilled them on the matter. "It's not unlimited then, is it?" we said.
"Well, it is and it's not," laughed the admittedly friendly salesbloke. "It's got a limit on there, but your average user would use between about 50 and 70 [MB] a month... you could be on there 24 hours a day and you're not going to hit that, y'know?"
Yes, we know. But we don't believe that justifies calling it 'unlimited'. He had an answer for us. Here it is, verbatim: "Because of the sort of average use, erm, we've been allowed to call it an unlimited package."
Great! Winning on a technicality, perhaps? We weren't satisfied, so we called them again to speak to someone else. They said, "You're not charged for anything over that, we would just monitor it... We would just tell you and maybe advise to have an extra bundle added on."
That would cost money. So, to summarise, if you go for Orange's unlimited iPhone data plan, you won't be charged for going over the limit, but you might be asked to pay for a bundle that gives you more data. That, ladies and gents, is what we call a total fail.
Orange's salespeople were adamant that fair-use policies on so-called unlimited plans are commonplace on all networks, and they're absolutely right. There's no illegal practice going on at all. But we wanted to see what O2's stance was. So, donning our monicker of 'Nicholas Jones' -- our make-believe iPhone customer -- we called O2's saleschaps to ask about their unlimited data plan.
We were highly surprised to hear the friendly gentleman tell us O2 also enforced a fair-use policy on its unlimited iPhone data plan, but that it was 8GB -- over 10 times what Orange offers. This in itself is brand-new information, as we believed O2's definition of fair usage to be about 200MB. We were wrong.
To make absolutely sure this new 8GB figure was correct (there's no mention of any data limit in its terms and conditions pages), we called O2's public-relations department. A spokesperson told us there's absolutely no figure in its fair-use policy -- 8GB or otherwise -- at which iPhone customers might face problems with O2.
Seems like the left hand isn't talking to the right. But either way, whether there's an 8GB limit or absolutely no limit whatsoever, it's a hell of a lot better than what Orange is offering. And for this reason, we're compelled to recommend you choose O2 if 3G data is your concern.
Or are we?
3G coverage compared
You see, there's one massive problem: 3G coverage. According to Ofcom, Orange's 3G network coverage is far better in the UK than O2's is. And we've got charts to highlight the difference for you.
Here's O2's data coverage, according to Ofcom earlier this year:
And now, here's Orange's 3G coverage:
Quite a difference. So while you might get a significantly better deal on your data allowance with O2, service in your area might be weaker than what Orange provides. We can't help you with this much more than to look at where you are on the maps above and see if you appear to be well covered. Or, better still, get an unlocked phone, an Orange SIM card, an O2 SIM card, and see which is better for 3G data.
Handset cost compared
Finally, we'll look at the cost of handsets. There's barely anything in it. In all cases, there's less than £1 difference between any given model of iPhone on O2 and Orange. Here's our handy diagram comparing the 8GB iPhone 3G on all tariffs, for all contract lengths, on both networks.
For the iPhone 3GS it's more confusing, thanks to there being a 16GB model and a 32GB model offered on both networks. We've tried to make this as simple as possible, but there's only so far that's possible.
With almost identical prices from phone to contract, and practically identical inclusive minutes and texts across all offerings from both networks, choosing will be difficult. If you're worried, however, about using way more than 750MB of data each month on your iPhone, we suggest O2. It also offers unlimited use of Wi-Fi with The Cloud, whereas Orange also imposes a fair-use limit of 750MB of data on its inclusive Wi-Fi offerings via BT OpenZone hotspots. Pfft.
If you struggle to get 3G in your area already though, and want more of a chance of staying within range of a 3G connection, Orange might be your best bet. Just be prepared to be asked to pay for a better data package if you keep going over the limit on your unlimited data.
One final thing: if you'd like a one-month contract on an iPhone, don't miss our extremely popular guide to getting just that.