Mobile phone customers signing up to Orange's new Speakeasy pre-pay tariff can get themselves £2.50 worth of overdraft facility to keep them connected when their credit runs out, though they'll have to pay £1 to sign up for it.
The overdraft facility, branded "Reserve Tank", is part of the new tariff which also includes three "Magic Numbers" that are only charged at 15p an hour, and a flat 15p a minute rate for calling anyone else.
Pre-pay systems already put the mobile phone operators in danger of becoming banks. It's OK in principle for a company to take pre-payment for one product - phone calls or books, for example. But mobile phone credit is used for all sorts of things including buying ringtones and games, downloading music, and entering dodgy TV quizzes.
This makes the mobile phone companies look suspiciously like banks - they store your money for you and allow convenient access to buy things. The only thing they don't do is pay interest.
If the mobile networks became banks they'd have to sign up to the banking code of practice and open their accounts to a lot more scrutiny. The UK's financial services regulator has been very cautious about imposing more regulation on such a dynamic industry. But if companies are offering overdrafts, this will draw attention to the fact that they are operating as banks in all but name.
Perhaps if they were banks they could start paying interest. ®