Telecom services

Telecom Service Buying Guide
Telecom Service Buying Guide
All Bundled Up

Home telephone, cable television, and internet started as separate services, but have evolved over the past two decades into a "triple play" of technologies that are often bundled together by providers. That evolution has also blurred the distinction between providers that historically were telephone-only or cable-only companies, and forced overlap among the functions of the services.

One thing that hasn’t changed: choice (or lack thereof). In many markets, consumers still have only one or two providers, especially when it comes to high-speed broadband. So if you don't want to spend a bundle on your bundle, check out our telecom ratings and shopping tips.


Understand What You're Getting

It Can Be a Package Deal
Getting the best services can be confusing. Telecom companies use package pricing to encourage consumers to buy bundles of all three services. Remove one element of the triple play, and you might find the price of the other services goes up. Likewise, TV channels are bundled into channel packages that can range from low-cost basic cable, which combines local broadcast channels with a few select cable channels, to pricey packages with hundreds of channels, including premium networks such as HBO and Showtime.

You May Not Like the Price
Consumers we surveyed gave low satisfaction rankings when it came to cost. In a survey of home telecom subscribers by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, respondents gave almost universally low ratings for value across all services, especially TV and internet. Even providers that rated high in customer service satisfaction got middling or lower ratings for value. (Learn how to understand your cable bill here.)

But It Is Possible to Bargain
One bright note is that our survey respondents tell us they’re often successful when negotiating with their telecom providers. While there are signs that many providers are cracking down on serial negotiators, our advice is that when your telecom company gets tough, bargain harder. Even if you can’t get a lower price, you may be able to negotiate for additional services, such as adding a premium channel for free or getting faster broadband.


Types of Service

These three services are often bundled together by providers, blurring the lines between phone and cable TV companies. Here's how they stack up.

A couple watching TV.

Television Service

Television service can be purchased from cable companies, satellite providers such as DirecTV and Dish, or telco companies such as Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse, which offer fiber-optic connections. (Bear in mind that AT&T now owns DirecTV and is phasing out the U-verse brand.) TV packages from all three types of providers are similar. Broadcast basic channel packages can start for less than $20 per month, while high-end bundles that include premium channels such as HBO, Showtime, and Starz can approach $150 per month. Sports channels often constitute a large portion of many cable bills, and some TV providers now offer sports-free economy packages that let users avoid that cost.

If you do subscribe to a pay TV service, expect to pay a variety of taxes and fees, along with equipment costs, every month. You may also have to pay one-time installation or setup charge.

Consumers do have some new cable-like alternatives – sometimes called "skinny TV" packages, delivered via the internet. Examples include Dish's Sling TV service, and Sony's PlayStation Vue. Depending on the package and add-ons, they cost between $20 to $70 a month.

A woman on the phone looking at a tablet.

Broadband Internet Service

Consumers increasingly prize their broadband internet connection, calling it the most important service they receive. The speed of broadband packages from internet service providers varies widely by provider and technology. The FCC recently changed its definition of broadband service to at least 25Mbps or megabits per second. (A bit is a tiny piece of data; a megabit is about one million of them.) You can check your connection speed here.

See below for our list of the four major broadband providers in the U.S.  

For More, See Our Telecom Services Ratings
An older woman talking on the phone and smiling.

Home Telephone Service

Home telephone service is available from traditional local telephone providers, cable, or fiber providers, or from third-party over-the-internet services such as Ooma and Vonage. Cable, fiber, and internet-based phone service providers use a technology known as voice over internet protocol, or VoIP. Our survey respondents gave several VoIP providers high marks for value. That said, more telecom bundle customers said they were considering dropping phone service from their triple-play package than internet or TV. 


Major Broadband Technologies in the U.S.

Digital subscriber lines use the existing copper wires of local telephone companies. DSL has traditionally been one of the slowest, but also least expensive, broadband connections available. Basic DSL service typically tops out at about 1 Mbps and costs about $20 a month (plus the cost of home phone service). Improvements in technology have boosted speeds for some providers up to 15 Mbps, although that also boosts the price. Lower-speed DSL is sufficient for e-mail and casual web surfing, but can make streaming HD video painful. DSL connections typically require a modem and filters to keep the digital signal from interfering with the existing landline phones in the house. For qualified low-income households, ATT offers the Access plan, which includes 3, 5, or 10 Mbps for $5 to $10 per month.

Satellite broadband is sometimes the only broadband option in rural areas. It can offer download speeds ranging from 5 Mbps to 15 Mbps, depending on the plan you choose. For those types of speeds, satellite can be pretty expensive (ranging from about $50 to more than $100 per month). Satellite broadband can also be subject to latency issues, meaning that there could be a lag between requests and downloads.

Cable companies offer multiple tiers of broadband service. Starter plans typically offer speeds between 2 Mbps and 15 Mbps for $15 to $50 per month. Higher-priced "boost" plans can increase download speeds from 50 Mbps to more than 100 Mbps. A newer initiative, called DOCSIS 3.1 (data over cable service interface specification) is enabling cable to get to ever greater gigabit speeds.

Fiber-optic broadband technology has the capability of delivering very high download speeds. Google is rolling out a gigabit fiber service in several U.S. cities, and Verizon FiOS offers a top-tier broadband package in some areas that promises up to 500 Mbps. But most starter fiber broadband plans deliver between 3 Mbps and 25 Mbps and cost between $30 and $50 a month.


Get the Best Deal

Shopping for telecom service can be a complicated business. Cable and fiber providers are regional, and many won't give you information on pricing until you enter an address within their service area. Although competition has increased over the past two decades, prices have continued to rise, and many consumers don't have access to more than one provider. But wait—there is some good news: There's no downside to negotiating. You can get big discounts, or maybe get a few freebies thrown in. Here are some smart ways to save.

Do Your Research
If you have multiple telecom providers in your region, check for available promotions then shop them against each other. You can use their online calculators, or better yet, call and request a quote in writing or via an online chat that you can print out. Make sure it includes all taxes and fees, including equipment fees, because those "extras" can boost the package price. Present that to the competition and see if they'll beat it.

Play the Promotions
Many of the best deals are promotional rates that expire after six to 24 months. Some require a contract, some don't. Some of these temporary promos involve free premium channels or equipment. Pay attention to the post-contract price, and if you take advantage of any of these promotions, mark the expiration date on your calendar as a reminder to cancel or renegotiate. 

Watch for Data Caps
Some internet service providers have started to limit monthly broadband usage. Depending on your provider or plan, caps can be as low as 50 gigabytes per month, or as high as 1 terabyte. If you're a heavy downloader, you can either be charged overage fees, throttled (have your internet speed reduced), or simply cut off. Check the details on each provider's website, or call and ask if they have caps.

Eliminate Sports Channels
Many providers levy a sports surcharge on channel packages that include ESPN or regional sports networks. If you don't watch sports, check if your provider offers a sports-free "economy" package.

Get a Bare-Bones Plan
If you don't care about premium channels, ask for the most basic TV package your provider offers. Our recent analysis of two similar bills showed a difference of almost $50 per month between mid-tier and basic packages.

Don't Buy Unnecessary Gear
Each set-top box and DVR costs money, so consider using an over-the-air antenna to get free broadcast signals from most major networks if you are within range. You may supplement this programming with online services, such as Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix, that offer TV shows and movies for a low monthly fee. You can get these service using a smart TV or a streaming media player, such as Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Roku.