Do business plans offer any benefits for small businesses? We compare mobile plans from major providers.
Have you ever wondered how ‘business’ mobile plans differ from ‘personal’ plans?
Well, quite often for small businesses, the only significant difference is the name, according to our research.
We compared a number of business plans with equivalent consumer plans, and found some curious anomalies. In a couple of cases, for example, the fine print for ‘business’ mobile plans indicated they could only be used for personal use.
At Optus, its $40 consumer plan provides unlimited standard national calls, unlimited SMS and MMS within Australia and to certain countries, and up to 300 voice minutes to those selected countries. Plus 7GB of data.
And the $40 business plan? As far as we can see, the inclusions and terms are pretty much the same. The consumer plan rules out ‘non-ordinary’ or ‘commercial purpose use’ but bizarrely the critical information summary for the business plan makes the same exclusion.
So we turned to the Optus Fair Go policy for clarification.
“If you are a residential customer our services are for your personal use only,” the policy said.
“If you are a business customer, including a small to medium business customer, our services are for your use in the ordinary course of business.
“You may not use the service in a manner which is ‘unreasonable’ or ‘unacceptable’.”
That seems to mean that you aren't allowed to make or take business calls on a personal plan, or personal calls (“should I buy some milk on the way home?”) on a business plan.
An Optus spokesperson explained: “Our consumer plans are designed for personal use while our business plans are for use in the ordinary course of business plus some personal use where needed.
“We understand there will be certain circumstances where a customer needs to use their service outside its primary intended purpose. In these cases, we offer a level of flexibility for customers to make a judgement on what is reasonable and acceptable use of their service based on their contract.”
So the good news is that the way most of us use one plan for business and personal purposes is acceptable, providing the selected plan reflects the main use.
It might not be obvious from the everyday use of the terms, but Optus (and probably other carriers) distinguishes between ‘business’ and ‘commercial’ use. The company confirmed that ‘commercial use' refers to levels of voice or data use normally seen only in call centres, or to mobile data used to access enterprise-style services rather than those associated with micro to medium businesses.
And although the inclusions and price may be the same for consumer and business plans, “Our SMB plans offer a number of benefits for business customers including billing made out to your registered ABN for tax purposes, access to business specialists in over 120 of our retail stores, premium support from our dedicated SMB team when you bundle two or more services, and invitations to exclusive business events,” said the Optus spokesperson.
The Optus Fair Go policy does goes on to give several examples of unreasonable use, most of which seem quite reasonable, such as not allowing automatic diallers, resale and bulk messaging. But the prohibition on using a ‘mobile voice’ SIM card in a non ‘mobile voice’ device seems odd. What difference does it make to the carrier whether you tether a tablet to the phone or temporarily move the SIM from a phone to a tablet?
The reason, according to the Optus spokesperson, is that requiring separate SIMs “allows us to optimise their service for the device, the network and billing purposes”. Optus does allow data pooling between plans, but you’re up for at least $10 a month per additional device, though that does include 1GB of shareable data.
Over at Vodafone, it’s pretty much the same situation when it comes to distinctions between personal and business customers.
The $60 personal plan provides unlimited standard national calls, unlimited standard national and overseas SMSes, 120 standard international minutes to selected countries and 6GB of data (a special offer running at the time of writing boosts that to 12GB).
The $60 business plan has the same inclusions.
But the personal plan is for “personal use by approved customers only” while the business plan is for “personal use by approved customers with an ABN/ACN only”.
We asked Vodafone to explain how a business plan can be for personal use only, but received no reply more than a week later. The only interpretations we can suggest are either that it essentially the same as Optus's business/commercial dichotomy but using different words, or that you can’t use that plan on a phone that’s used by more than one person (for example, the phone carried by whichever member of a team is on call over a particular weekend).
Telstra's personal and business plans are slightly different. For example, $50 a month gets personal customers ‘$1000 worth of calls’, unlimited SMS and 2.5GB of data, while business customers pay $55 for ‘$1200 worth of calls’, unlimited SMS and 5GB of data.
Bear in mind Telstra’s call values are calculated on what we consider to be an inflated tariff of $1 per minute. By comparison, even a $19 Virgin Mobile prepaid recharge can have a rate as low as 15c per minute.
A Telstra spokesperson* said that customers must have an ACN or ABN to qualify for a business plan, but business customers can opt for consumer plans if they consider the price and inclusions are a better fit.
"For example, we provide our small business customers with more voice value, because we know they make calls more frequently than our consumer customers," the spokesperson said, adding that the business plans also allow for free calls between mobiles on the same account.
Other benefits of the Go Business Mobile plans include a free data SIM for use with a tablet or dongle, with both devices sharing the same pot of data, and the ability to put cloud services such as Office 365, Symantec Endpoint Protection and Deputy rostering and workforce management onto the same bill.
Data sharing across multiple services is available on Telstra's consumer and business plans.
Mobile virtual network operators – the companies that provide mobile services based on third-party networks such as Telstra, Optus or Vodafone – generally make a clear distinction between personal and business usage.
For example, the conditions for amaysim's Unlimited plans flatly state they are “available to individual customers only (not companies or businesses), who use their mobile phone for personal use only. If we determine that you are using Unlimited 3GB other than for personal use or if we determine that you are using the Plan in a way that does or may, in our opinion, adversely affect the network, we reserve the right (at our option) to transfer you to the amaysim As You Go Plan, or to immediately suspend or cancel your access to the Service”.
We asked amaysim what it considers ‘personal use’ to be, and its compliance and service operations manager Chad Heininger responded: “We see personal use as individuals using their amaysim service primarily for private use in a way not connected with carrying out a business activity. As per our Fair Go Policy, our customers are unable to use our service for ‘business purposes’ as this falls outside of personal use. We aren’t specific about what constitutes as business use, because we trust our customers to use their judgment and play by the rules. For example, we would not expect our customers to use our service to support a large business or organisation as this clearly would be for ‘business purposes’. We also expect our customers to use our service in a reasonable and acceptable manner.”
It sounds to us that there's a certain amount of wriggle room – if your small-business ‘business use’ is similar to that of a personal customer in terms of the number of calls and texts, how would Amaysim tell the difference, and why would it be bothered? That said, we're not encouraging anyone to breach the T&Cs.
While large organisations can receive volume pricing, the benefits of business plans for small businesses are hard to quantify. In fact, the differences between many personal and business plans in terms of inclusions and costs are so insignificant that we can’t help feeling that the distinction is mostly arbitrary.
However, that also means there’s rarely any downside to opting for a business plan rather than the corresponding personal version.
So if a phone is going to be used primarily for business purposes, you might as well opt for a business plan and be fully compliant with the plan’s terms and conditions. It’s likely to cost much the same – and it reduces the admittedly slight risk that your service will be terminated because you went outside the T&Cs.
* Note: This article was updated on 21 April 2016 due to Telstra responding to our request for more information after the article's publication.