Soldiers can be deployed to Afghanistan for up to six months but are banned from using their own mobile phones there for security reasons. They are allowed to use army satellite phones to call home for up to thirty minutes a week, so many soldiers look to suspend their own mobile contracts to save money.
But forces sweetheart and patron of the British Forces Foundation, Katherine Jenkins, has investigated the issue for Watchdog and found that some operators aren't doing enough to help soldiers on the front line.
Katherine met one woman whose partner had to carry on paying while he was away on service.
Beth Simmons' partner, who is in the Household Cavalry, flew out to Afghanistan in September last year. He called O2 to suspend his Â£45 a month phone contract before he left and was told he'd need a signed letter on headed paper from his commanding officer. His commanding officer didn't have time to write the letter so Beth and her partner had to carry on paying every month.
"It was just something that shouldn't have been an issue, it just wasn't fair," Beth told Katherine.
Watchdog researchers posing as partners of serving soldiers tested nine of the UK's biggest mobile phone companies to investigate which would allow soldiers to suspend their contracts.
Orange came out top, allowing contracts to be suspended without condition or penalty. T Mobile demanded a Â£3 a month retention fee, while Vodafone and 3 said they would only suspend contracts if soldiers sent in a letter from their commanding officer.
Four of the nine companies told our researchers there would be no way they could suspend contracts. They were: Virgin Mobile; BT Mobile; Tesco Mobile; and Talk Mobile.
O2, however, demanded more. In the majority of Watchdog's calls their call centre staff asked for soldiers to send them confidential deployment papers giving dates and locations of deployment. This could be a security risk, especially if the papers fell into the wrong hands.
Katherine gathered together a group of women whose partners are in the armed forces and asked them to make the same calls. They found almost the same thing.
They were particularly shocked when they heard about O2 asking Watchdog's undercover researchers for deployment papers.
"If they were to send in information like that, they would be in serious trouble," said Anisha Lusi whose partner serves in the Royal Engineers.
So shouldn't mobile phone companies be doing more to make life easier for soldiers serving oversees? Col Stuart Tootal, former commander of 3 Para thinks so. He told Watchdog:
"Given the risk that they're taking in the service of their country it seems only reasonable that they shouldn't be penalised by a contract that they've taken out."
"O2 customers leaving the UK on a tour of duty to a Theatre of War or an Operational Deployment can suspend their contract for the period they are out of the country.
Previously, we have asked customers to provide written proof of their deployment, such as an official MoD letter stating the person's details and the period that they will be away. The policy was initially applied to ensure that only genuine requests to suspend a contract were accepted. We have now lifted the requirement to provide proof of service for requests to suspend contracts for a period up to six months.
"Mr Pearce advised us on 21 September that he was leaving the UK on 23 September, returning April 2010. We have arranged a credit for the time he was away and this will appear on his next bill."
"BT fully supports the excellent work undertaken by Army personnel. We appreciate that fixed contracts can sometimes be too inflexible for Army staff who may need to move abroad at short notice or to places like Afghanistan, where there are security restrictions. We would be happy to consider these individual cases affecting particular Army families on their merits.
"This has been our approach since the issue was highlighted in the press more than a year ago, so we are sorry that a few of our advisors gave researchers the wrong information. We will be reminding our advisors of our policy in such cases."
"We understand the flexibility our military customers need which is why they can temporarily disconnect their mobile phone for six months without incurring any charges and without having to produce any documentation. This can be arranged by calling the Orange customer services team on 07973 100150."
"I can confirm that T-Mobile has an 'Armed Forces Personnel Scheme' which allows customers who work for the Armed Forces - and are working overseas - to suspend their contracts with us, subject to meeting certain criteria.*
"I can also confirm that to further support our Armed Forces and the work they do for us all, we have reviewed the Scheme and have decided to waive the Â£3.00 monthly fee payable during the period of contract suspension.
"With regard to the inconsistency of information provided to your researchers on our Policy, I would like to apologise and thank you for bringing it to our attention. The matter has been raised with the Customer Services Director and appropriate action is being taken to ensure that it is addressed and rectified immediately."
"To date, Talkmobile has only received a small number of requests on this matter and until now we did not have a policy in place relating to this subject. However, we want to support those in the armed forces who wish to have their mobile phone accounts suspended (when serving overseas) and we can now confirm that it will be possible to suspend mobile phone accounts of military personnel who have received formal notification regarding serving overseas. Customers are asked to call Talkmobile providing details of their pay monthly account, send a copy of their military identification and a letter from the commanding officer detailing the start and end dates of their overseas deployment. Talkmobile's address is: Talkmobile, Military Suspension, PO box 347 Unit 19 Southampton SO30 2PZ. The account will be suspended during this period and reactivated upon the customer's return."
"Tesco Mobile has recently launched into the contract handset market and we want to do our bit to help our servicemen and women on deployment. For those embarking on a tour of duty where they are not allowed to use UK mobile phones, we will refund them for the time they are away if they notify us first of those dates. We won't extend the contract length so customers won't be tied in to the contract for longer than they expected. We hope this will help armed forces personnel in the future."
"Three has a comprehensive policy of offering help and support to members of the Armed Forces. All members of the Armed Forces who are deployed abroad on a tour of duty have the option to suspend their Pay Monthly contracts (phone, dongle or laptop deals) for a period of up to 12-months free of charge. Armed Services personnel can also transfer ownership of contracts if they would prefer. We do not charge Armed Forces personnel any fees for these services."
"Virgin Media is always willing to help customers manage periods of hardship or to suspend accounts when a customer may not be able to use their services due to illness or service abroad. This is done on a case by case basis to ensure we can address the specific needs of each customer.
As we have recently seen a rise in requests for help from military personnel, we are looking at formalising a policy to make this process easier for these customers that have to go abroad for service for extended periods during their contract."
"Vodafone is happy to suspend serving soldiers' contracts on production of confirmation of their overseas posting. This system is fair and works so we have no reason to change it."
interesting one this, signed a 12 -, 18 or 24 month contract with said suppliers and the go on tour which means you cant use the phone.
who is to blame, I dont blame the phone companies to be honest. Who has got a car on finance whilst on tour or a mortgage your paying whilst on tour. Would you ask for money back etc? Dont think so.....