High-speed phone-company services are challenging entrenched cable providers. You can access the Internet in more ways than ever. Lower-cost alternatives let you make phone calls without a traditional telephone company and watch your favorite TV shows without a traditional TV provider.
That surely sounds like a buyer's market for consumers shopping for telecommunication services, doesn't it?
But if customers are newly crowned as telecom kings, they're paying a king's ransom for the privilege. It's still all too easy to pay $150 or more a month for TV, Internet, and home-phone service.
Providers insist, with some justification, that many of us get more for our money than we did even last year, notably in TV service. Channel counts continue to climb, and there are more high-definition programs and on-demand offerings. But we're paying for those enhancements. Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics says telecom rates were flat overall in 2010, our reporting shows that some TV rates have climbed by 3 to 9 percent this year.
There's little indication that satisfaction with service has risen. In a survey of about 70,000 readers by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, most major providers scored about the same in satisfaction as in recent years—ho-hum compared with many other services we rate. Once again, the most satisfying telecom providers were a few small, regional cable companies, and Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse, the high-speed phone-company offerings.
Trouble is, most consumers have limited choice. All but a few markets are served by only one cable provider. Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse are available in only one-third of the U.S., and almost nowhere are they both available. Though almost all homes can receive satellite TV, satellite companies—unlike the other types of providers—don't offer their own Internet and phone service.
But there are bright spots. Some newer alternatives received favorable marks in our survey, including the Ooma phone box (see A new phone option), which offers free calling, and streaming Internet video services such as Netflix.
Given today's fast-changing marketplace, it's worth giving your telecom services a periodic checkup. This report helps you review the options, provides Ratings of the best and worst providers, and offers cost-saving tips. The easiest, and sometimes best, solution is to bundle services with one provider. Get the full story on bundling.