Unkindest cut ... your plan offers less data.
Australia's three biggest mobile contractors have slashed the amount of data offered in their plans, with some cutting their offerings by up to 40 per cent on what they provided last year.
"This is really a sleight-of-hand price increase," said Elise Davidson, a spokeswoman for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, the peak body that represents consumers on communications issues. "In most cases, plans are staying at the same price point but you get less included, especially in terms of data."
The worst offender is Optus. All of its plans now offer less data and credit, and this is more pronounced on higher value offerings. Customers on the $80 cap get 2GB of data and $850 of credit, which is half the data and $50 less than was being offered in last year's $79 cap.
The value disparity on Optus's $99 Timeless consumer plan is wider, with only 3GB of data included compared to 5GB last year.
Optus said the reductions were consistent with its customers' usage patterns.
"We recently conducted a survey amongst our customers which showed the average amount of data being used per month is less than 500MB," Optus's managing director of marketing, Michael Smith, said. "With this in mind, we've refreshed our range of post-paid plans to reflect current customer trends."
Ms Davidson found Optus's response surprising. "That would seem a very low figure to us. We're using more data, not less. It's clear that across the board, customers are falling foul of excess data charges, and are using more than what is included in some of these plans."
In the past year, Ms Davidson said, complaints about unexpectedly high phone bills had doubled, and complaints to the ombudsman about disputed internet charges – mainly in relation to smartphones – had risen by 150 per cent.
In Australia, data downloaded via mobile handsets grew by 32 per cent in the second quarter of this year, compared to the fourth quarter of 2011, a Bureau of Statistics survey found.
Vodafone said its new plans allowed customers to choose which one best suited their needs, with the option to buy extra data packs as required. But customers are being charged the same for less credit and data.
The "bonus" data that Vodafone adds to its $50 and higher plans is not actually a bonus when compared to plans from last year. The $50 plan comes with 750MB of data and a 500MB "bonus" for the first 12 months of the two-year contract. Last year, the $49 plan included 1.5GB for the full 24 months.
Vodafone has also slashed the amount of data included in its bolt-on data packs.
Earlier this year, when Vodafone re-launched its mobile data packs, it was offering 750MB for $5, 2GB for $10, 4GB for $15 and 8GB for $25. Now, $5 buys just 500MB, $10 1GB, $15 1.5GB and $20 2GB.
"Food manufacturers do this all the time," Ms Davidson said. "They know they can't put their price up, say, on a box of cereal, because they know exactly what price point their customers will pay. So they decrease the amount in the box, thereby increasing their profit, and hope their customers won't notice."
Telstra's mobile plans have the smallest reduction in data, with 500MB less in the $60, $80 and $100 plans, and the same 3Gb of data in its $129 plan. However, it is the only carrier to have increased call costs this year, from 90¢ a minute and a 35¢ connection fee to 99¢ a minute and a 40¢ connection fee.
A Telstra representative said its new plans reflected "an appropriate level of investment" in the network, with more than $1.2 billion being invested over the next 12 months.
Ms Davidson said the network investment was only part of the reason. "All of the networks, to some extent, have been caught up by the demand for data. There is so much demand for it that it's become more valuable. Lowering the included data that's available on plans is a good way to reduce congestion while they're scrambling out with these upgrades to the networks."