The Phone Co-op is a different proposition to most other mobile providers. It is run as a member-owned, consumer co-operative, with an ethical approach to supply chain, investment and the environment. Members get a democratic voice in how the company is run, and also receive dividends.
The Phone Co-op was founded as SETCO (or the tongue-twisting, Social Economy Telecommunications Co-operative) in 1998. Initally targeting organisations and businesses, it licensed the Co-operative brand name in 2012, later teaming up with the Co-operative Group to offer mobile phone deals. In 2014 it became the sole UK stockist of Fairphone, the world's first 'ethical smartphone'.
The Phone Co-op doesn't have its own network infrastructure, being an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator). However, whereas most MVNOs use just one network, with the Phone Co-op you can choose whether you want to use EE, O2 or Vodafone for your service.
The Phone Co-op offers pay-monthly plans that come in a range of offers using the Vodafone, O2 or EE networks. Its plans come with the usual variety of minutes and texts, from 200 minutes, unlimited texts and 500MB of data, through to unlimited minutes and texts and 30GB of data.
However, when comparing the same plan across all of The Phone Co-op's operators, there doesn't seem to be a price difference between using O2, Vodafone or EE. This means the best way to decide would be by checking the coverage for each network in the regions where you will use your phone most.
The Phone Co-op's SIM-only plans come in two varieties. It offers contracts lasting 30 days, meaning you can cancel your plan anytime, or 12 months at a very slight discount, but they are marginally more expensive than the competition. Similar plans available directly from EE, O2 and Vodafone are quite a bit cheaper for 12-month contracts, and similarly priced, or even cheaper for rolling 30-day contracts.
Pay-as-you-go bundles are also available from The Phone Co-op, which are pretty similar in price compared to other providers (apart from giffgaff and a couple of others). In addition to this The Phone Co-op also has a low-usage plan called Pay as You Use, with a similar calls tariff to it's PAYG offer, but with the bonus of pretty cheap data bundles. There is a small monthly fee to get this package, but this could be a good deal for people on a budget, who rarely phone or text, but want to be connected to social media or maps on the move.
It's also worth mentioning that The Phone Co-op has now caught up with other providers in offering 4G, having been previously known for its limitation to 3G.
If you are looking for the latest iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy S9 then you will be disappointed with The Phone Co-op's range as it only offers budget and slightly older handsets. The only iPhone available is the iPhone 6s, but it does stock the Samsung Galaxy S8.
In addition to more well-known products, The Phone Co-op has teamed up with Fairphone, which uniquely styles itself as an ethical phone manufacturer. In practice, this means Fairphone keeps an eye on its supply chain to avoid exploitative or particularly unethical practices.
Fairphone also uses a modular component system, allowing users to replace broken parts easily. So if your screen breaks, you simply order a new one and snap it into place. The same applies for other parts such as the headphone jack and camera. In theory, this helps the phone last longer, causing less waste. However, the handset is bulky, with a fairly dated set of components and limited battery life, so there is a down side to enjoying a clear conscience.
Other than the Fairphone, the following handset manufacturers can be found at The Phone Co-op: iPhone, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Experia and basic, old-school, pre-smartphone Doro handsets for fans of the simple life.
When dealing with a Co-operative enterprise whose unique selling point is its ethics, value for money can take a very different shape. After all, what is the cost of improving the life of someone elsewhere in the world, or having less impact on the environment? Your decision on the value of The Phone Co-op's deals will therefore come down to how highly you value these enterprises.
In simple money terms, it will be slightly more expensive to use Phone Co-op in most cases. However if helping others and making a positive impact on the world is your bag, then it will be worth it.
When it comes to network coverage, it depends on which provider you select when signing up to The Phone Co-op. O2, EE and Vodafone are well-established networks, with EE claiming the best 4G coverage in the UK, and O2 claiming the best overall coverage. If you intend to join The Phone Co-op, it would be wise to check the coverage offered by each of its three networks in your local area before choosing. Just click one of these logos.
According to industry regulator Ofcom, O2 has the best coverage, followed by EE then Vodafone. All three boast between 95% and 96% coverage for users at home, with somewhat lower figures around the 80% mark for users who are out and about. This figure rises to 99% for all three providers when visiting other premises away from home.
It is still important to check local coverage as the figures don't tell the full story. A large percentage of the population lives in towns and cities, which generally have great network coverage, but if you live in a rural area, you may not be covered.
The Phone Co-op in a unique position when it comes to the ethically-minded consumer. It's a highly laudable approach to put concerns about ethics and the environment at the centre of its business model. Being part of a co-operative, means you get something back in the form of dividends, though for most users this is unlikely to offset the higher-than-average prices. Having a vote on the direction of the company could also be a positive for the more democratically-minded, but could equally feel like a nagging responsibility to others.
If you want your money to do more than enrich shareholders, then The Phone Co-op is the one for you. On the other hand, if you are on a budget and simply want the best value for money, then it's probably better to look elsewhere.