Internet service in the United States is a mess.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nearly 24% of Americans can’t connect to the Internet at broadband speed (25 megabits per second or better).
And we’re paying through the nose for this lousy service. Americans spend an average of $65.73 per month for a 60-megabits-per-second (Mbps) connection compared to $43.16 in Britain, $25.78 in Mexico, and only $6.48 in Russia, according to cost-of-living database Numbeo.
You can’t do much to fix America’s Internet system, but you can at least reduce the price you pay to connect to it.
Ways to Save Money on High-Speed Internet
Plenty of strategies can get your Internet bill down to a reasonable rate — or at least one that’s closer to reasonable. Stop overpaying for Internet access and try one or more of these tactics.
1. Check for Subsidies
There are many subsidies available to help low-income households pay for Internet service. The U.S. government, Internet service providers (ISPs), and various nonprofits all offer programs of this type.
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. Eligible customers get up to $9.25 per month to put toward their bill.
You qualify for the program if your household earns no more than 135% of the federal poverty guideline or you participate in other government aid programs, like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps). You can find participating companies in your area through the Lifeline website.
Emergency Broadband Benefit
In May 2021, the FCC introduced the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) to help families and households struggling to pay for Internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides a discount of up to $50 per month on broadband Internet service for eligible households or up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands.
This program has other perks too. Eligible households can get a one-time discount of up to $100 on a laptop, desktop, or tablet computer from participating providers. They must contribute at least $10 toward the cost of the device but no more than $50.
The EBB took effect on May 12, 2021. Eligible families either have an income at or below 135% of the poverty guideline or receive government benefits such as Lifeline, Medicaid, or food aid. You can also qualify if you suffered a substantial income loss during the pandemic.
You can apply through one of the program’s approved broadband service providers or at GetEmergencyBroadband.org.
Comcast Internet Essentials
The Comcast Internet Essentials program provides 50Mbps service to low-income customers for $9.95 per month. The program also offers cheap home computers for $150.
To qualify, you must live within Comcast’s service area but not have been a customer within the last 90 days. You must also be eligible for certain federal aid programs, such as SNAP or the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Visit the website to learn more and apply online.
Spectrum Internet Assist
Families who receive certain types of government aid can get 30Mbps service at a discounted rate through the Internet Assist program. Spectrum doesn’t disclose the exact monthly cost upfront.
To apply, you must be enrolled in either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or the NSLP and can’t be a current Spectrum customer. Visit the website to see if the program is available in your area.
AT&T offers its Access program to families who either participate in SNAP or receive SSI in California. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has expanded the program to cover families who participate in the NSLP or Head Start and those with incomes below a certain level. You can find income cutoffs for families of different sizes on the AT&T website.
Most of the time, Access provides Internet service at speeds of up to 3Mbps for $5 per month or between 3Mbps and 5Mbps for $10 per month. However, families can get speeds up to 25Mbps for $10 per month for a limited time. Installation and in-home wireless are free. You can apply through the website.
The Connect2Compete program from Cox offers affordable home Internet with Wi-Fi for low-income families with school-age children. Its purpose is to help U.S. students connect to the Internet for schoolwork. The program provides broadband Internet with download speeds of at least 25Mbps for $9.95 per month.
Eligible families must live in Cox’s service area but not be current or recent subscribers (within the past 90 days). They must also have a child in a K-12 school and participate in at least one of these government programs:
- The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
- Head Start
- Public housing
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
If you’re eligible, you can sign up quickly and easily through the Cox website. You may need to provide proof of your child’s school enrollment and your family’s participation in government programs.
New and existing Verizon Fios customers who have Lifeline can get an additional discount on their Internet service through Fios Forward. Customers must first enroll in the Lifeline program, then sign up for a qualifying Fios mix-and-match Internet plan. They have three options to choose from:
- 200Mbps Internet for $19.99 per month
- 400Mbps Internet for $44.99 per month
- Gigabit (Gbps) Internet for $69.99 per month
These are the final prices after Fios figures in the Lifeline discount. Fios Forward customers can also get deals on Verizon Unlimited Wireless.
EveryoneOn is a national nonprofit that helps families connect to the Internet. Through its website, you can find service providers in your area that offer special rates to various groups, including low-income families, public housing residents, veterans, and TANF participants. To see if you qualify for any of these programs, visit the site and click the Find Offers button.
2. Negotiate With Your Provider
If you don’t qualify for any subsidies, contact your internet service provider and ask for a discount. Shopping for Internet service isn’t like going to a store, where the price on the tag 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. Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, says it’s the reason he pays $47 per month for the same broadband plan that costs his neighbor $86. Go into the conversation armed with plenty of information about what kinds of deals other companies are offering. Then, use your best negotiating skills to get the deal you want.
Your ISP is more likely to drop its prices if it fears losing your business to a cheaper company. 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.
Most Americans these days have at least two broadband Internet providers to choose from. According to the FCC report, 100% of all census blocks in the country have a choice of providers for fixed broadband service at speeds up to 25Mbps.
However, according to a 2020 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the FCC’s figures are off. It claims that over 83 Americans only have access to broadband Internet through a single provider. While some of these Americans have access to a competing DSL (digital subscriber line) service, the institute argues that isn’t true of broadband because it’s too slow and unreliable.
Still, 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 shows the providers available in your general vicinity.
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 ensure you know the total cost. The website or print ad often leaves out hidden costs like taxes or compulsory line fees.
Many promotional deals allow you to lock in a price for the first one or two years. Your rate is guaranteed not to go up during that time, but you can’t get out of your contract if you find a better deal. Still, it’s in your best interest to lock in a price if you can. Rates are more likely to go up than down, Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, tells smart media and research company Government Technology.
Also, know what the price will be after the promotional period ends. ISPs often offer a deal like a phone, Internet, and TV bundle that costs only $80 per month for two years, but they don’t mention that the price jumps to $125 per month when those two years are up. Sometimes, even the fine print doesn’t provide that information, so you have to call the ISP and ask for it.
Threaten to Switch or Play Up Your Loyalty
Once you’ve learned all you can about deals from your ISP and its competitors and found the best one for you, call your ISP. 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.” It’s the job of folks in this department to hold 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 how many customers they talk into keeping their service. That makes them a pain to deal with if you want to cancel, but it comes in handy when you’re trying to squeeze your ISP for a better deal.
Threatening to switch companies is most effective when you’re 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 ask if you can get 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’re 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 are typically less willing to deal with you.
Of course, being polite isn’t the same as being a pushover. Alexandra Dickinson, an expert negotiator and founder of Ask For It, a negotiation training company, 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.” That sets a tone that’s both direct and respectful. And if the first rep you get refuses to work with you, ask politely for a transfer to their supervisor.
Call Back Regularly
Unfortunately, following these rules doesn’t guarantee your ISP will 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, politely asked if I could get a similar deal, and asked to speak to a supervisor when the original rep couldn’t help me. No dice.
But here’s where I made my mistake: I assumed their answer was final. I should have called back a few days later to talk to someone else.
For one thing, the promotions ISPs offer change frequently. When you call back, there might be a new promotion that wasn’t available the first time you called. Also, some reps are just more cooperative than others, especially others who are having a bad day.
Even if you get a deal, don’t consider the subject closed. Often, an ISP gives 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 when the promotion ends. 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 that happens. 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 record the 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.
It’s also a good idea to check your Internet speed periodically and see if it lives up to your ISP’s promises. You can do this by going to either Speedtest or Fast. In about a minute or less, either site can show you your Internet response (or “ping”) time, download speed, and upload speed.
If you find you’re regularly getting significantly slower speeds than you’re paying for, call your ISP. Ask them to either bring your speed up to scratch or lower your bill.
Record the Call
ISPs don’t have the best track record for customer service. Often, an ISP’s sales department offers 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 says it has no record of the offer, and you’re 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 iPhone. Tell the rep upfront you’re 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 the company agreed to it.
Hire a Negotiator
If all this sounds like too much work for you or 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 the companies you deal with, including cellphone companies and ISPs, and bargain with them on your behalf.
All you have to do is send the company your monthly bills and let it deal with the phone menus, hold music, and evasive customer service reps. If it can’t save you any money on your bills, it doesn’t charge you anything for its service, so it costs you nothing to try.
However, if the company gets you a discount, it bills you for up to half of the amount you save over the first year. So before you use one of these services, it’s worth considering how much you could save on your own.
BillCutterz says it “may save you $5 or $200 per month on only one bill.” However, if it lowers a bill by $30 per month and then takes $15 per month as its cut, you only save $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.
But you also need to consider the value of your time. To get that savings of $20 per month, you might have to spend as much as four hours comparing prices, waiting on hold, and talking with customer service reps.
If you hand the job over to a service, 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.
3. 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 to negotiate a price on a basic 25Mbps 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 100Mbps Internet.
To be prepared for this ploy, decide ahead which services you need and want. Then, refuse to pay for anything else.
Get the Right Speed
Many ISPs now offer connections at speeds of 100Mbps or greater. A few even offer lightning-fast 1Gbps connections. That kind of speed sounds like it should be worth paying more for, but chances are it won’t do you any good.
How much speed you need depends on what you’re doing online. And experts recommend different speeds for different applications. For example:
- General Surfing. According to AT&T, a speed of 0.5Mbps is good enough for checking email, while 1Mbps 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 kilobits per second is sufficient. That’s just an eighth of a speed of 1Mbps. AT&T is a little more conservative, recommending a speed of at least 0.5Mbps for music streaming.
- Online Gaming. Each gaming system has its own requirements for download speed, upload speed, and ping rate. However, HighSpeedInternet.com, says 3Mbps for download, 1Mbps for upload, and a ping rate of 150 milliseconds are fast enough for most online games. Once again, AT&T recommends a slightly higher speed of at least 4Mbps.
- Streaming Video. According to Consumer Reports, you need a minimum of 1Mbps to stream video in standard definition, 8Mbps for high-definition (HD) quality, and 18Mbps for ultra-HD quality (also known as 4K). AT&T recommends 1.5Mbps for standard-definition and 4Mbps for HD.
- Videoconferencing. Running online virtual conferences for work can use just as much bandwidth as HD streaming. AT&T says you should have a speed of at least 4Mbps 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, one playing Fortnite, and a third surfing the Web, you need a total of around 12Mbps to handle it all. According to the FCC Household Broadband Guide, a medium service with 12Mbps to 25Mbps speed should cover two devices with high use and up to four with light use at once.
The top-of-of-the-line 200Mbps and 1Gbps connections many providers now offer are overkill for most households. But too much speed is better than too little, so don’t automatically opt for the cheapest, lowest-speed connection. Look at what you do online, figure out how much speed you need, and then buy the cheapest package that meets your needs.
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 200Mbps Internet for $90 per month for the first two years. You also get a free upgrade to 1Gbps service for the first year. Gigabit Internet service by itself costs $80 per month, so choosing this bundle is like getting your TV and phone service added on for only $10 more.
But bundling 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 200Mbps for only $35 per month. So if all you need is Internet service and 200Mbps is enough speed for you, you’re not saving money with the bundle. You’re paying $55 per month more than you need to.
Even if you currently have all three services, it’s possible you don’t need them all. With so many available streaming media services, such as Hulu, Disney+, and Netflix, it’s easier than ever to stay entertained without cable TV. Similarly, if you use your cellphone for all your calls, you don’t need landline phone service. So focus on the services you use.
That said, in some cases, buying a service you don’t need can save you money. 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. That was $5 less than it would have cost us to buy phone and Internet service separately.
Even though we didn’t need or want cable TV, the bundle was the best deal for us. However, when the promotional period ended, the price for all three services jumped to $130. At that point, it was cheaper for us to drop the TV service and keep the phone and Internet.
So when you sign up for a bundle, 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 purchase 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.
It’s Not Always Possible
If you connect to the Internet using DSL or fiber service, you can’t use a cable modem. Those 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. That costs more and is harder to find than models without one, so it’s easier to rent it from the ISP.
It’s Not Always Cheaper
Sometimes, you don’t save anything by installing your own equipment. Some ISPs throw in a free modem when you buy bundled service, so using your own doesn’t reduce your bill.
Even if it’s a separate charge, some cable providers won’t allow you to remove it. When I called ours to ask if we could eliminate the modem fee by supplying our own, they said no.
You Need a Compatible Model
You can’t buy any modem-and-router combo and expect it to work with your Internet service. You have to choose a service-compatible model. Most ISPs list compatible modems and routers on their website. If yours doesn’t, call customer service to ask.
You Need the Right Speed
Your modem has to be 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 up to gigabit speed.
But only some providers offer gigabit plans over DOCSIS 3.0. Others require a newer modem that supports DOCSIS 3.1. This newer standard can handle speeds as high as 10Gbps. It’s also backward compatible with DOCSIS 3.0, so you can use a DOCSIS 3.1 modem even if your ISP doesn’t use the new standard.
You Must Install It Yourself
If you buy your own modem and router, you have to hook them up yourself. Fortunately, that usually isn’t too complicated. 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, the ISP is responsible for replacing them if they stop working or become obsolete. If you own your equipment, you have to replace it as needed.
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 to buy a new router and hook it up than wait for the ISP to do so.
You Need to Cancel the Rental
If you install your own modem and router, your ISP doesn’t automatically take the rental charge off your bill. You have to call the company, let them know you’ve replaced the equipment, and drive to the nearest facility to turn in the rented equipment. Afterward, check your bill to ensure the rental fee is gone.
4. Be Prepared to Switch
Most places have at least two providers for connections of 25Mbps or less. 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. It’s worth considering all providers on the list, not just the big brands like Comcast and Spectrum. According to BroadbandNow, small companies like 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. These small companies sometimes offer higher speeds and better customer service than their larger competitors.
Switching Internet providers can be a hassle. But there are ways to avoid many of the problems you’re likely to encounter.
If you’re locked into a contract with your current ISP, you could pay a hefty fee for canceling before the term is up. According to Move.org, this fee is typically $10 to $20 for each month remaining on your contract. Thus, ending your contract a year early could cost as much as $240.
Fortunately, some providers, such as Spectrum, pay these fees for you when you switch to their service. If your new provider doesn’t, wait for your contract to expire.
If you cancel before setting up new service, you could face a delay of anywhere from a few days to six weeks before your Internet comes back online. So schedule the new service installation for the same day or a few days before your old service is canceled.
That’s easier 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 wires. Paying for a few days of service from two providers is better than going without Internet.
If you use an email address tied to your ISP, such as “email@example.com,” you’ll lose it when you switch. So set up a new email account with a free service like Gmail or Yahoo. Check out Top Ten Reviews to compare free email service features.
Notify everyone about the change and forward important messages to your new address. If you ever decide to switch again, you can take your new portable email address with you.
If you rent your modem and router from your ISP, return them promptly to avoid a fee. Get all the details about when, where, and how when you cancel.
If you’re planning to buy your own modem and router for use with your new service, look for equipment that’s compatible with all the ISPs available in your area. That will make the process simpler next time.
5. Go Mobile-Only
You can also drop your fixed-line broadband altogether. If you connect to the Internet primarily 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. Companies like Mint Mobile have wireless plans starting at just $15/month.
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 for the process, called “tethering,” for iOS and Android devices at PCMag. But note that tethering isn’t possible with all mobile service plans. Also, it runs down the battery life on your phone. If you do it often, you may need to carry a portable charger.
If you want to connect several devices at once, investing in a separate mobile hotspot could be worth it. 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 $40 to $400, there’s a steep fee for data. According to PCMag, 4G plans for most mobile hotspots cost a lot more per byte than fixed-line broadband connections. Expect to pay at least $50 per month for 100 gigabytes (GB) of data.
That may sound like a lot of data, but when it’s your only source of home Internet access, it doesn’t go that far. According to Xfinity, the average household uses 346GB per month. Videoconferencing and streaming video are the biggest culprits when it comes to gobbling up data.
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. But if you need a separate Internet connection for your private office or coworking space, buying a mobile hotspot could be cheaper than a fixed Internet connection.
There’s 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.