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New year resolution: Shop around for the best deal on your utility bills
Go back just a few years and the markets for energy and telecoms were dominated by incumbent operators, a situation which long-term expats bemoan for its lack of choice and tear-inducing customer service. But the good news is that times are changing, so it’s worth shopping around for the best prices.
Thanks to European Union regulation, the energy market, once the preserve of Electrabel, has been liberalised. Enter competition with all operators having to seriously raise their game, offering more attractive pricing structures and efficient and friendly customer service. This is a distinct departure from the days when solving any problems felt at best like a sitcom moment.
When it comes to choosing a provider, your first port of call should be the energy regulators’ websites, which have limited information available in English. As energy in Belgium is organised on a regional level, there is a regulator for each region. Not all operators offer services in every region, so it’s only worth asking locally for recommendations.
The regulators offer online tools to determine the best package for your needs. To get the best result, it might be useful to ask your landlord for a copy of a bill from a previous tenant; otherwise, you’ll have to estimate your consumption.
While this might seem like a lengthy exercise, relying on recommendations from friends could cost you money. “We stuck with the former state-owned company for a very long time,” says Anne Revell, a British mother of three living in Overijse. “Often when you move abroad you take what you are given. There’s also an inertia that sets in.”
How it works
You should review your contract on a regular basis, as switching for more competitive prices has become much easier. It’s not uncommon for those in the know to switch several times and, by law, this is possible with only a month’s notice. To switch supplier, you need only contact the new company and they will take care of cancelling the contract with the previous supplier.
The regulators’ websites also give details about how green the different providers are. Greenpeace Belgium energy expert Jan Vandeputte cautions that you must really look at where they invest, as there is a large element of greenwashing, with providers who produce only dirty energy buying green certificates from providers whose energy in reality never reaches their network. “You can easily pay several thousand every year to your supplier, who can do either a lot of good with the money or a lot of bad with it,” he says.
Producing your own green electricity with solar panels is also an increasingly attractive proposition. There was a boom and then a bust as governments scaled back generous subsidies. “But you don’t need subsidies for it to be competitive,” says Vandeputte. “If you have money, the interest rate is low to invest. It’s not going to be like the bonanza from before, but it’s a good investment now.”
If you’re renting, there’s good news for wannabe green investors living in Flanders, as the region is about to launch collective photovoltaic systems. And there is still much to do from an energy-efficiency point of view when buying new appliances. “For a four-person household, you could cut your bill enough so it’s cheaper than paying for your internet,” says Vandeputte.
Finding cheap internet, telephone and TV (usually offered as a package) is getting easier these days though it’s fair to say that market liberalisation has not yet done what it could. Last November, consumer association Test Achats published an international comparison of telecom packages. “Alas, the study confirmed what we already knew,” it reported. “Belgium is the most expensive compared to its neighbours.”
Expect to pay about 12% more than in the UK and an incredible 102% more than in France. This is because the market is still dominated by a few players and it has only recently become easy to switch. Customer service, says Test Achats, is still lacking, while internet speeds are often, in reality, much lower than advertised. As with energy, the regulator’s website offers an online comparison tool, with information in English as well.
However, for expats who want extras like English-language channels, the choice can be slim. Examining the packages by different providers, there are some very cheap options, but by the time you pay the extras they are often much of a muchness. Your provider might also be dictated by your employer, as it’s common for work to pay for your home internet connection. This can be bought separately to television and a fixed-line phone, but it’s often more beneficial to take it as a package deal.
Similarly, packages can include your mobile phone connection. While customer service in the telecoms industry may still be lamentable, regulation that took effect in January to make switching easier should give providers a push. And while there are dozens of expats willing to berate the services of these companies at any given opportunity, there are nevertheless plenty of people willing to share with happy stories.
Ann Jolley, a British mother of four living in Bertem, says: “I’ve just had a very positive experience with Proximus. We had a technical difficulty with our line, so had no phone or internet. They sent out a very friendly helpful man who identified the problem and reconnected us. Unfortunately, this didn’t sort out our internet. After a phone call with a very patient man, who talked me through nearly an hour of instructions, on a very necessary, basic level, we are now back online.”
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Newcomer, autumn 2016