Can you (net)work it out?
Tim Hunt visits mobile phone networks to tease out the intricacies of a complex market.
We explain some of the ins and outs of the mobile phone networks' market, from the phenomenon known as piggybacking to the potential threat to civil liberties posed by mobile phone technology. See also our related buyers' guide to mobile phone handsets.
Mobile phone networks
There are two different categories of mobile phone network; network providers and resellers (or virtual network providers). There are only five network providers: T-mobile, Orange, Vodafone, 3 and O2. These companies own and run the infrastructure needed for mobile communications such as masts and base stations. Resellers include ASDA, Tesco, Virgin the Phone Co-op and Talk Mobile. These companies buy minutes from the network providers, either directly or through intermediaries, and then resell the minutes to consumers (a situation known as piggybacking). See table below for who piggybacks on whom.
Ensuring that these two distinct types of suppliers are scored consistently is a difficult task. On the scoretable, the final Ethiscore (out of 20) for network providers is calculated as normal. For resellers, the Ethiscore is calculated by ranking the mobile phone product 50/50 with the network provider that they purchase minutes from.
This partnering affects the scoring on the table. For example the Phone Co-op picks up a boycott mark because 3 currently has a boycott call against it (see Company Profiles for more information). It also picks up marks from 3 and Orange in the climate change, pollutions and toxics, human rights, workers rights and animal testing categories.
Network providers and resellers have seen much less campaign work seeking to address ethical issues than handset manufacturers. However campaigning around networks does exist and is primarily targeted around masts in relation to energy usage and health risks.
Last year the Green Party called for network providers to share infrastructure to cut down on energy consumption. In the case of Vodafone, 84 per cent of its energy use is consumed by its network operations. In the case of Orange it is 69% of total energy use. The Green Party claims that by sharing masts and base stations, 300Gwh of electricity could be saved per year – enough to power 70,000 homes.(1) This is already the case in France where the state requires networks to share certain infrastructure.
In relation to human health, concerns centre on the effects of the radiation emitted from masts. Mobile phones and the antennas mounted on base stations (the masts) are two-way radios that produce radio-frequency (RF) emissions. However there are international guidelines in place to limit public exposure to radio waves from base stations and to date, most of the evidence from research indicates mobile phone technology does not pose a health risk.(4) There is still a debate over this issue especially concerning 3G masts which use higher frequencies than traditional mobiles.(5)
The actual erecting of masts is also the subject of much debate within local communities. Complaints range from health risks to spoiling views. There is a government website (maintained by OFCOM) which maps out the location of masts. They update the site every three months (or so) but it relies on the providers themselves voluntarily forwarding the relevant information.
Some campaign groups have also attacked the role of mobile network companies in conflict zones. For example, Vodafone was criticized for providing a mobile phone network service to the British army during the Iraq war.(3)
More generally, civil liberties groups have voiced concerns over issues of privacy and the ‘big brother’ state due to the potential for misuse of technology to track and monitor citizens.(2)
This can be done in a number of ways including:
• intercepting data – listening in to phone conversations
• communications data – logs of who called who, where and when.
• Triangulation tracking – signals produced by mobile handsets are used to measure the phone’s distance from three receivers. This technique is used by shopping centres to monitor customer movements and shopping habits.(7)
The information collected could then be stored by governments and companies in databases. Home Office officials have admitted that it has been discussed,(8) while telecommunications workers admitted that they have been in discussion with mobile phone operators about how to implement such a database.(9) Statistical analysis techniques could also be carried out on the data held. In China the government already has unlimited access to the phone records of its 300 million phone users.(10)
Questionable business practices
There have also been criticism from regulators and consumers around what could be termed ‘anti-social financial practices’, including mis-selling, high prices and price fixing. The industry itself hs identified some other key issues including content standards (e.g. protecting children) and access to phones for people with disabilities.
• Information on the location of masts and base stations.
• Information on masts and radiation
• A campaign for the sensible siting of masts
Lebara, Vectone, Lycamobile and GiffGaff are all new players in the market and still relatively small. Lycamobile and Lebara focus on the proportion of the UK population who want to make cheap calls abroad. The O2 subsidiary GiffGaff has a new type of business model that gives free minutes and other incentives to customers who market the product (for example by making a youtube video about the company) or use the company’s online forums to answer people’s questions.
ASDA picks up a boycott mark from the Feeling Blue Seeing Red campaign for parent company Wal-Mart’s “transgressions of local, state and US laws, anti-union activities, support of overseas sweat shops, and adjusting its retail philosophy to accord with social conservative priorities.”(12)
Tesco picks up a boycott mark from CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) due to its escalating use of Radio Frequency identification. These are tiny computer chips embedded in products or packaging allowing monitoring of items which consumers normally consider private, like clothing, wallets and backpacks.(13) Care for the Wild International have also called a boycott in response to the sale of live turtles, tortoises and frogs in Tesco’s Chinese stores.(14)
3 are currently subject to a boycott call from Ethical Consumer for its parent company’s involvement in tar sands projects. Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd owns Husky Energy whose assets include oil pipe-lines, oil fields and power stations including a 90-megawatt power generation facility at Rainbow Lake, Alberta, Canada.(11)
1 Ends report. Greens call for shared mobile phone network. May 2009 last seen 22/03/10
2 www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/oct/13/humanrights.mobilephones last seen 22/03/10
3 Corporate Watch Corporate Carve Up: The role of UK companies in Iraq since 2003
4 www.mobilemastinfo.com/information/radiowaves_and_health/radiowaves.htm last seen 22/03/10
5 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3157676.stm and www.powerwatch.org.uk/rf/masts.asp last seen 22/03/10
6 www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/oct/13/humanrights.mobilephones last seen 22/03/10
7 http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article3945496.ece last seen 22/03/10
8 www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/20/central_government_database_proposed/ last seen 22/03/10
9 http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ipm/2008/07/communications_data_bill_cause.shtml last seen 22/03/10
10 http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/vp01.cfm?outfit=gdr&folder=32&paper=186 last seen 22/03/10
11 www.hutchison-whampoa.com last seen 12/11/07
12 www.feelingblueseeingred.org/boycotts.php last seen 22/03/10
13 www.boycotttesco.com/spychips.html last seen 22/03/10
14 www.careforthewild.com/default_detail.asp?detail=true&I_ID=494§ion=Home last seen 22/03/10