Let’s get this out of the way right upfront: Internet service in the U.S. is a mess.
According to the latest Internet Access Services Report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), over 30% of Americans can’t connect to the Internet at broadband speed (25 Mbps or better). About 3.1 million households — 2.8% of all those with a fixed Internet connection — can’t even connect at 3 Mbps, which Netflix considers the minimum speed needed to stream video at standard quality.
To add insult to injury, we’re paying through the nose for this lousy service. According to data from Numbeo, Americans pay an average of $65.04 per month for a 60-Mbps connection. Compare that to a monthly rate of $38.29 in Britain, $20.72 in Mexico, and only $6.33 in Russia.
There’s not much you as a consumer can do to fix America’s Internet system, but you can at least reduce the price you pay to connect to it. A wide variety of strategies, from cutting out extras to negotiating a lower price, can get your Internet bill down to a reasonable rate — or, at least, one that’s closer to reasonable.
Check for Subsidies
The U.S. government, Internet service providers (ISPs), and various nonprofits offer subsidies to help low-income households pay for Internet service. Examples include:
- Lifeline. Through the FCC’s Lifeline program, low-income customers can get a discount on either phone or Internet service with a company in their area. You qualify for the program if your household earns no more than 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or if you participate in other government aid programs like Medicaid or SNAP (food stamps). Eligible customers get up to $9.25 per month to put toward their bill. You can find participating companies in your area through the Lifeline website.
- Comcast Internet Essentials. The Comcast Internet Essentials program provides 25-Mbps service to low-income customers for $9.95 a month. And as part of the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, new customers who sign up before April 30, 2020 can get their first two months of service free. The program also offers cheap home computers for $150. To qualify, you must live within Comcast’s service area but not be an existing customer, and you must be eligible for federal aid programs such as SNAP. Visit the website to learn more and apply online.
- Spectrum Internet Assist. Families who receive certain types of government aid can get 30-Mbps service at a discounted rate through the Internet Assist program. Spectrum does not disclose the exact monthly cost upfront. To apply, you must be enrolled in either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Visit the website to see if the program is available in your area.
- AT&T Access. AT&T offers its Access program to families who either participate in SNAP or receive SSI in California. It provides Internet service at speeds of up to 3 Mbps for $5 per month, or between 3 and 5 Mbps for $10 per month. Like Comcast, AT&T is offering two free months of service to new customers who sign up by the end of April 2020. You can apply through the website.
- EveryoneOn. EveryoneOn is a national nonprofit that helps families connect to the Internet. Through its website, you can find ISPs in your area that offer special rates to various groups, including low-income families, public housing residents, veterans, and participants in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). To see if you qualify for any of these programs, visit the site and click on “Find Offers.”
Negotiate With Your Provider
If you don’t qualify for any subsidies, the best way to get a better deal on Internet service is to contact your ISP and ask for it. Shopping for Internet service isn’t like buying groceries at the store, where the price you see on the shelf is the price you pay. ISPs hate to lose customers, and they’re often willing to knock something off your monthly bill if that’s what it takes to keep your business.
Negotiating can make a big difference in the size of your bill. An anonymous writer at BroadbandNow says it’s the reason he pays $47 per month for the same Internet service plan that costs his neighbor $86. Go into the conversation armed with plenty of information about what you pay and what kinds of deals other companies are offering. Then, use your best negotiating skills to get the deal you want.
Your ISP is much more likely to drop its prices if it fears losing your business to a cheaper ISP. Your best opening move in the negotiation is to tell the customer service rep you found a better deal somewhere else and ask if they can beat it.
Unfortunately, this trick doesn’t work everywhere, because some places only have one broadband Internet provider. According to the FCC report, 5% of all census blocks in the country have only one provider for broadband service. Even for slower services of 10 to 25 Mbps, roughly 2% of all blocks have only one available provider.
The problem may be even worse than the FCC estimates. It measures whether there’s broadband service available anywhere in a census block, but as CityLab reports, there’s quite a lot of variation within blocks. So even if your neighbors have a choice of Internet providers, that doesn’t necessarily mean you do.
However, if you’re one of the lucky Americans with two or more providers to choose from, you can make them compete for your business. To find out what options you have for Internet service in your area, use the online comparison tool at BroadbandNow. Just type in your zip code, and it will show the providers available in your general area.
Next, check out each provider’s website to see what plans it offers at your address and what they cost. Many ISPs offer special deals for new customers, so the prices you see could be significantly lower than what you’re paying now. Make a note of the best price you can find from another provider and use that information to squeeze a better deal out of your current ISP.
Take Advantage of Promotions
While you’re comparing prices, it’s worth taking a moment to check out any deals your ISP is offering. ISPs sometimes offer special promotions that give you a temporary break on the price for six months or even a year, but you can only get these deals if you ask for them.
Check out the terms of each promotion carefully and make sure you know the full cost. Often, the price you see splashed across a website or print ad leaves out hidden costs like taxes or non-optional “line fees.”
Many promotional deals allow you to “lock in” a price for the first one or two years. That means your rate is guaranteed not to go up during that time, but it also means you can’t get out of your contract during that time without paying a fee. So if you find a better deal one year into your two-year contract, you won’t be able to take advantage of it. Still, experts interviewed by MarketWatch generally agree it’s in your best interest to lock in a price if you can since rates are more likely to go up than down.
Another thing to check is what the price will be after the promotional period ends. ISPs often make a big deal about offering a special price, such as $80 per month for the first two years on a bundle that includes Internet, phone, and TV service. But they fail to mention that the price for the bundle will jump to $125 per month when those two years are up. Sometimes, even when you read the fine print, this price is impossible to find, so the only way to know what you’re in for is to call the ISP and ask.
Threaten to Switch
Once you’ve learned all you can about deals from your ISP and its competitors and found the best one for you, call up your ISP and tell the rep you want the same deal — and if you don’t get it, you’ll switch providers. When you call, ask for the “retention department” or “customer resolutions department.” Folks in this department are tasked with holding onto customers at all costs, so they have the power to offer discounts or special deals.
Retention department reps are desperate to keep your business because their salaries depend on it. As Slate explains, they’re paid a low base rate, plus a bonus that depends on the percentage of customers they’re able to talk into keeping their service. That makes them a real pain to deal with if you actually want to cancel, but it comes in handy when you’re trying to squeeze your ISP for the best deal you can get.
However, MarketWatch warns this strategy can backfire if you use it too often. If you call your ISP once a year threatening to leave but never actually do it, they’ll stop taking your threats seriously, and you’re likely to walk away with nothing.
Ideally, you should only threaten to switch companies when you’re actually prepared to follow through if your ISP doesn’t give you a deal. If you know you want to keep your existing ISP, take the opposite tack and play up your loyalty to the company. Stress how long you’ve been with them and how much you like them, and ask them if they can give you a special deal for being such a devoted, long-term customer.
Be Polite But Firm
Whichever approach you take when dealing with your ISP, always be polite to the person on the other end of the line. If you get angry while you’re trying to negotiate — even if you have a legitimate cause for your anger, such as long wait times or problems with your service — reps will be less willing to deal with you.
Of course, being polite isn’t the same as being a pushover. A primer by BroadbandNow on negotiating with your ISP says the two most important rules are “be polite” and “be insistent.” Keep reiterating what you want, but do so calmly and courteously. If the first rep you get refuses to work with you, ask politely for a transfer to their supervisor.
Alexandra Dickinson, an expert negotiator, tells CNBC the best approach in any negotiation is to avoid being either “a bully or a doormat.” Be firm but not combative. Dickinson recommends starting your requests with the phrase “I would like” as opposed to “I want,” “I need,” or “I deserve.” This sets a tone that’s both direct and respectful.
Call Back Regularly
Unfortunately, following these rules doesn’t guarantee your ISP will be willing to give you a deal. That’s what happened to me back in 2010 when I tried to negotiate a lower price with my ISP. I told them about a competing offer from another company that was $30 lower, politely asked if they could offer me a similar deal, and asked to speak to a supervisor when the original rep couldn’t help me. No dice. They weren’t willing to cut their prices, no matter what I said.
But here’s where I made my mistake: I assumed their answer was final. What I should have done instead, according to MarketWatch and the team at BroadbandNow, was to call back a few days later and talk to someone else. Different customer service reps might have access to different deals, so repeatedly calling over the course of a few days can sometimes get you a better deal. The promotions ISPs offer also change frequently, so by the time you call back, there might be a new promotion that wasn’t available the first time you called.
Even if your ISP does make a deal with you, don’t let that be the last word on the subject. Often, an ISP will give you a promotional rate that’s only good for six months or so, hoping you won’t remember when it expires. To avoid letting that happen, put a note on your calendar to call the ISP again in six months or whenever the promotional period is up. You can then go through the same process to negotiate your rate all over again.
Complain When There’s a Problem
Another time to call your ISP is when you’ve been having any problems with your service. Every ISP has slowdowns and service outages now and again, and it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for a credit on your statement when this happens. After all, why should you pay for a full month of Internet service when you were only able to get online for 28 of those days?
Keep a log of all the problems you have with your Internet service. Every time your Internet goes down or slows to a crawl, make a note of the date and time, then check throughout the day and note at what time your service returns to normal. At the end of the month, call the ISP and ask them to give you credit for these lost hours of service.
BroadbandNow also recommends checking your Internet speed periodically to see if it lives up to your ISP’s promises. You can do this by going to speedtest.net and clicking the “Go” button. In about a minute, the site will show you your Internet response (or “ping”) time, your download speed, and your upload speed. If you find you’re regularly getting significantly slower speeds than you’re paying for, call your ISP and ask them to either bring your speed up to scratch or lower your bill.
Record the Call
ISPs as a whole don’t have the best track record for customer service. Often, an ISP’s sales department will offer you a deal over the phone, but when you get your bill, you discover your promised savings have vanished. If you call back to complain, the billing department will say it has no record of the offer, and you’ll be right back where you started.
To avoid this problem, when you call your ISP to negotiate prices, record the phone call. Digital Trends has guides explaining how to record a call on an Android phone and an iPhone. Make sure to tell the rep upfront that you’ll be recording the call, as it’s illegal in some states to record a phone call without the consent of all parties on the line.
After hanging up the phone, save a copy of the recording on your phone or computer. As an alternative, you can conduct your negotiation with the ISP via webchat and keep a transcript of the conversation. Either way, if your ISP tries to weasel out of the deal you negotiated, you can produce your recording or transcript as proof that the company agreed to it.
Hire a Negotiator
If all this sounds like too much work for you, or if you’re not confident in your negotiating skills, you can bring in a third-party service to do the haggling. Companies like BillCutterz and Truebill call up the companies you deal with, including cellphone companies and ISPs, and bargain with them on your behalf. All you have to do is send them your monthly bills and let them deal with the phone menus, hold music, and evasive customer service reps.
If the company doesn’t succeed in saving you any money on your bills, it doesn’t charge you anything for its service, so it costs you nothing to try. However, if it manages to get you a discount, the company bills you for half of the amount you save over the first year. So before you use one of these services, ask yourself:
- How Much Could You Save On Your Own? BillCutterz claims it “may save you $5 or $200 per month on only one bill.” However, if your savings is $30 per month and the company takes $15 per month as its cut, it reduces your actual gain to $15. So if you think you could manage to talk your ISP down on your bill by $20 per month without help, you’ll save more that way than you would with the service.
- How Much Is Your Time Worth to You? To get that savings of $20 per month, you might have to spend as many as four hours comparing prices, waiting on hold, and talking with customer service reps. If you hand the job over to a service, on the other hand, you could save $15 per month with little to no work. So you’d be paying the difference ($5 per month, or $60 per year) to avoid putting in those four hours of work. If you think it’s worth $15 an hour to have someone else take care of this task for you, it’s a good deal.
Of course, if you’ve already tried negotiating your Internet bill on your own and had no luck, then you have nothing to lose by trying a service. They might succeed in saving you some money, and if they don’t, it costs you nothing.
Only Buy What You Need
When you talk to your ISP, be prepared for them to try to “upsell” you on your service. If you call in to negotiate a price on a basic, 25-Mbps Internet connection with no extras, a clever rep could convince you it’s a much better value to pay twice as much for a bundle that includes cable, phone, and 100-Mbps Internet. Be prepared for this ploy by knowing which services you really need and want and refusing to pay for anything else.
Get the Right Speed
Many ISPs now offer connections at speeds of 100 Mbps or greater. A few even offer lightning-fast gigabit connections with a speed of 1 Gbps. This kind of speed sounds like it should be worth paying more for, but chances are, it won’t actually do you any good.
How much speed you need depends on what you’re doing online. Here are the speeds experts recommend for different applications:
- General Surfing. According to AT&T, a speed of 0.5 Mbps is good enough for checking email, while 1 Mbps is enough for browsing the Web.
- Streaming Music. Streaming standard-quality audio doesn’t require much bandwidth, according to Consumer Reports — a speed of 128 Kbps is sufficient. AT&T is a little more conservative, recommending a speed of at least 0.5 Mbps for music streaming.
- Online Gaming. Each gaming system has its own requirements for download speed, upload speed, and ping rate. However, according to HighSpeedInternet, speeds of at least 3 Mbps for download and 1 Mbps for upload, with a ping rate no higher than 150 milliseconds, should be good enough for most online games. Once again, AT&T recommends a slightly higher speed of at least 4 Mbps.
- Streaming Video. According to Netflix, you need a minimum of 3 Mbps to stream video in standard definition, 5 Mbps for high-definition (HD) quality, and 25 Mbps for Ultra-HD quality (also known as 4K). Consumer Reports gives different estimates: 1 Mbps for standard video, 8 Mbps for HD, and 18 Mbps for 4K. AT&T recommends 1.5 Mbps for standard definition and 4 Mbps for HD.
- Videoconferencing. Running online virtual conferences for work can use just as much bandwidth. AT&T says you should have a speed of at least 4 Mbps for Web conferencing through apps like Zoom or GoToMeeting.
These are the speeds required for just one connection. If you have one person streaming HD video in the living room, one playing “League of Legends” in the bedroom, and a third surfing the Web in the kitchen, you’ll need a total of around 12 Mbps to handle it all. According to Tom’s Guide, a package with a 20 Mbps download speed and 5 Mbps upload speed is good enough for most families.
The top-of-of-the-line 200-Mbps and gigabit connections many providers are now offering are overkill for most households. However, too much speed is better than too little, so you shouldn’t automatically opt for the cheapest, lowest-speed connection, either. Your best approach is to look at what you do online, figure out how much speed you really need, and then buy the cheapest package that meets your needs.
If you’re a light user who mainly uses the Internet for email, social media, and streaming the occasional video in standard definition, try asking your ISP if it offers an “economy tier” service. These plans have speeds of around 3 Mbps and can cost $15 to $25 less per month than a standard plan, according to BroadbandNow. If you find this isn’t enough speed for you, you can always call back in a month and ask to switch back to the standard service.
Consider Bundled and Unbundled Services
ISPs are always eager to sell “bundled” plans if they can. Typical bundles include “double plays” with TV and Internet on one bill and “triple plays” that include TV, Internet, and phone service. ISPs make more money selling you two or three services instead of one, so they’re willing to sell you the bundle for less than you’d pay for each service separately.
For instance, Xfinity’s current triple-play deal for customers in central New Jersey includes TV, phone, and 200-Mbps Internet service, all at $90 per month for the first two years — with a free upgrade to gigabit service for the first year. Gigabit Internet service by itself costs around $80 per month, so choosing this bundle is like getting your TV and phone service added on for only $10 more.
However, a bundle isn’t a bargain if you’re paying extra for services you don’t need. For instance, Xfinity also offers a standalone Internet plan of up to 200 Mbps for only $40 per month, with streaming video thrown in for free. So if all you really need is Internet service, and 200 Mbps is enough speed for you, you’re not saving money with the bundle — you’re paying $50 a month more than you need to.
Even if you currently have all three services, it’s possible you don’t need all of them. With so many different streaming media devices and services (Hulu, Disney+, Netflix, etc.) out there these days, it’s easier than ever to cut the cord and enjoy cheaper entertainment without cable TV. Similarly, if you use your cellphone for all your calls, you can probably drop your landline phone service. So consider not only which services you have right now, but also which ones you actually use.
In some cases, it can be worth buying a service you don’t need if the bundle is cheaper than buying the services you need separately. For instance, when my husband and I first signed up for phone and Internet service at our house, we were offered a triple-play package with phone, Internet, and cable TV for $85 — $5 less than it would have cost us to buy phone and Internet service separately. So even though we didn’t need or want cable TV, the bundle was a better deal for us.
However, when the promotional period ended, the price for all three services jumped to $130, making it cheaper for us to drop the TV service and keep the phone and Internet. It goes to show when you sign up for a bundle, you need to make sure you read (or ask to hear) all the fine print. Find out how long the special bundled rate is good for and how much the price will be when the promotion ends. Also, ask what the “early termination” fee will be if you decide to cancel or drop one of your services during the lock-in period.
Use Your Own Modem and Router
Take a careful look at your Internet bill, and you’ll probably see a charge of around $10 for the rental of your modem, router, or both. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider you can buy a combination modem and router for as little as $100 on Amazon. If you buy your own equipment instead of renting your ISP’s, it could pay for itself in less than a year.
However, this money-saving tip doesn’t work for everyone. Buying your own modem and router has several drawbacks that can make it more hassle than it’s worth. For example:
- It’s Not Always Possible. If you connect to the Internet using DSL or fiber optics, you can’t use a cable modem. These types of connections require special equipment you can only get from your ISP. Also, according to PCMag, if you have your home phone and Internet service bundled, you need a special modem with a phone port, which costs more and is harder to find than models without one.
- It’s Not Always Cheaper. Sometimes, you don’t save anything by installing your own equipment. Some ISPs throw in the cost of the modem for free when you buy bundled service, so using your own modem won’t take anything off the bill. Even if the modem rental is listed as a separate charge, some cable providers won’t allow you to remove it. When I called ours to ask if we could eliminate the $5 modem fee on our bill by supplying our own modem, they said no — even if we replaced the modem, we’d still have to pay the fee.
- You Need a Compatible Model. You can’t go out and buy any old modem-and-router combo and expect it to work with your Internet service. You have to choose one that’s compatible with your service. Most ISPs have a list of compatible modems and routers somewhere on their website. If yours doesn’t, call up customer service and ask for a list of models you can use.
- You Need the Right Speed. You also need to make sure the modem you choose is capable of supporting the Internet speed you have. As PCMag explains, the current standard is DOCSIS 3.0 (short for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification), which can handle anything below gigabit speed. If you have gigabit Internet, or you expect to have it in the near future, you’ll need to shell out more for a model that supports DOCSIS 3.1 and has a gigabit Ethernet port.
- You Must Install It Yourself. If you buy your own modem and router, you’ll need to hook them up yourself. Fortunately, this usually isn’t too complicated. Many cable providers have instructions on their websites explaining how to configure a cable modem to fit their systems. PCMag offers a guide to setting up and optimizing a wireless router, and you can also find instructions for setting up specific models on YouTube.
- You Might Have to Replace It. If you rent your modem and router from your ISP, the ISP is responsible for replacing them if they ever stop working or become obsolete. If you own your equipment, you’re the one who must replace it as needed. Of course, with some ISPs, that could be a good thing. If your provider is slow when it comes to scheduling service appointments, it could be faster for you to go out, buy a new router, and hook it up yourself than to wait for the ISP to take care of it.
- You Need to Cancel the Rental. If you install your own modem and router, your ISP won’t automatically take the rental charge off your bill. You have to call up the company, let them know you’ve replaced the equipment, and drive to the nearest facility to turn in the rented equipment. After you’ve done this, it’s a good idea to check your bill to make sure the company has really removed the rental fee. According to Consumerist, it’s not unheard of for companies to “accidentally” charge customers for modems they no longer have.
Be Prepared to Switch
As noted above, many Americans don’t have several providers to choose from, but most places have at least two providers for connections of 10 Mbps or higher. So if you’ve tried everything you can think of and your ISP refuses to reduce your bill, your best bet is to try to get a better deal from another provider.
Start by checking BroadbandNow to see which companies offer service in your area, if you haven’t done this already. It’s worth considering all providers on the list, not just the big brands like Comcast and Spectrum. According to BroadbandNow, small companies, such as Ting and Starry, can often provide high-speed connections at a lower cost than the big ISPs. Even when a small ISP isn’t the cheapest option, it could offer the best value, with higher speed and better customer service than its larger competitors.
Avoiding Problems When Switching
Switching Internet providers can be a hassle. Here are a few problems you might face and some ways to avoid them:
- Termination Fees. If you’re locked into a contract with your current ISP, you could pay a hefty fee for canceling before the term is up. In some cases, you could even end up paying the same amount you would if you hadn’t canceled your service at all. Fortunately, some providers, such as Spectrum, are willing to pay these fees for you when you switch over to their service. If your new provider doesn’t offer this kind of deal, try to hold out until your contract with your old ISP is up before switching.
- A Lapse in Service. If you cancel your current Internet service before setting up your new one, you could face a delay of anywhere from a few days to six weeks before your Internet comes back online. To avoid this problem, try to schedule the installation of your new service for the same date your old service is canceled or even a few days before. That’s easier to do if you’re switching from one type of connection to another — say, from DSL to cable — because the two providers don’t have to work with the same set of wires. Having to pay for a few days of service from two providers at once is better than having a few days with no Internet connection at all.
- Losing Your Email Address. If you use an email address tied to your ISP, such as “email@example.com,” you’ll lose this address when you switch over to a new provider. To get around this problem, set up a new email account with a free service like Gmail or Yahoo. You can check out TopTenReviews to compare the features of different email services. Notify everyone in your address book about the change and forward all your important messages to your new address before you cancel your old account. As a bonus, if you ever get fed up with your new ISP and decide to switch again, you’ll be able to take your new, portable email address with you.
- Switching Equipment. If you rent your modem and router from your ISP, you’ll need to return them promptly to avoid a fee. When you call to cancel your service, make sure to get all the details about when, where, and how to turn in your old equipment. If you’re planning to buy your own modem and router for use with your new service, buy them and hook them up before you disconnect the old ones. Remember to make sure the new modem and router you choose are compatible with your new service. If you think you might want to switch ISPs again in the future, look for equipment that’s compatible with all the ISPs available in your area so the process will be simpler next time.
Another option is to drop your fixed-line broadband altogether. If you connect to the Internet mostly through a smartphone or tablet, you might not need a physical line to bring Internet service into your home. In that case, your best option is to look for a cheaper cellphone plan that can provide enough data for all your Internet needs.
Relying on your mobile plan for Internet access doesn’t mean you have to connect only through your phone. It’s possible to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing you to connect your laptop or tablet to the Internet through the phone. You can find instructions on how to do this for iOS and Android devices at PCMag.
One downside of this approach is that connecting multiple devices through your phone gobbles up battery life, as well as data. If you want to connect several devices at once, it could be worth investing in a separate mobile hotspot. These devices come with their own mobile plans, so they don’t use up your phone’s data. They can connect more devices to the Internet at once than your phone can, and they can connect to better antennas than most phones have available.
However, mobile hotspots have their drawbacks too. In addition to the cost of the device itself, which can be anywhere from $100 to $650, there’s a steep fee for data. According to PCMag, 4G plans for most mobile hotspots typically cost a lot more per byte than fixed-line broadband connections. Expect to pay between $20 and $25 per month for 2GB of data, $40 to $50 for 5GB, and $50 to $90 for 10GB.
That may sound like plenty of data, but when it’s your main source of Internet access, it doesn’t go that far. According to IGR Research, the average U.S. household used 190GB of Internet access in 2016, with more than 95% of that used for streaming video. So if you try to use a mobile hotspot for all your Internet activities, including streaming, you’ll probably end up paying even more per month than you do now. However, if you need a separate Internet connection for your private office or coworking space, buying a mobile hotspot could be cheaper than hooking up to a fixed Internet connection.
Experts offer one final tip for getting a good deal on your Internet service: Be a good customer. Don’t hesitate to complain if there’s a problem, but be polite in dealing with the customer service reps and always pay your bill on time. ISPs are much more eager to hold onto a customer who’s been with them for a long time and always pays promptly than a newcomer with a sketchy payment history. The more your ISP likes you, the more willing it will be to cut a deal with you to keep your business.
How much do you pay for Internet service? Do you know any good tips for keeping the cost down?