Telecom Service Buying Guide

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

Over the past few years, though, one thing has changed dramatically: Consumers now have many choices for TV service, where they once had very few.

That’s largely the result of newer streaming services, such as AT&T TV, FuboTV, Hulu + Live TV, Sling TV, and YouTube TV, that attempt to replicate the type of TV service you get from a traditional pay-TV package, including live local stations and cable channels. Each year more people “cut the cord” on their traditional TV package and look to a streaming service—or services—as a replacement.

Unfortunately, there’s still far less choice when it comes to broadband internet service. Many areas of the country have only one or two providers, especially for high-speed broadband. 

We have information on internet, TV, and phone providers in our telecom ratings, based on surveys of our CR members, and available to members.

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 prices of the other services go 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 ones such as HBO and Showtime.

You Might Not Like the Price
In a Consumer Reports survey of members who have home telecom plans, most companies received low ratings for value across all services. In a few instances, even providers that were highly rated for customer service got middling or lower ratings for value. (Learn how to lower your cable bill here.) The lone exceptions were Google Fiber and Sonic for internet service. Both companies earned positive marks for value, as well as for other attributes, such as speed, reliability, and customer support. MetroNet also did well overall for internet service, though not as well as the other two companies for value.

But It Is Possible to Bargain
One bright note: Many members we surveyed were successful when negotiating with their telecom bundle providers. In our latest survey, 70 percent of those who did try to haggle were able to get a deal. While there are signs that many providers are cracking down on serial negotiators, our advice is that when your telecom company gets tough, don’t be afraid to bargain. Even if you can’t get a lower price, you may be able to negotiate for additional services, such as adding a premium channel free of charge or getting faster broadband.

Types of Service

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

A couple watching TV.

Television

TV service can be purchased from cable companies, satellite providers such as DirecTV (owned by AT&T) and Dish, or telco companies such as AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS. TV packages from all three types of providers are similar. Broadcast basic channel packages can start at less than $20 per month, and high-end bundles that include premium channels such as HBO, Showtime, and Starz can approach $150 per month or more. Sports channels often constitute a large portion of many cable bills; some providers now offer less expensive sports-free packages.

If you subscribe to a pay-TV service, expect to pay a variety of taxes and fees, along with equipment costs, every month, which often aren’t disclosed in the service’s advertised price. You may also have to pay a one-time installation or setup charge.

TVs Ratings
A woman on the phone looking at a tablet.

Internet

Consumers increasingly prize their broadband internet connection, calling it the most important service they receive. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more of us are relying on our internet service at home for work, remote learning, and telehealth appointments.

The speed of broadband packages from internet service providers varies widely by provider and technology. The FCC’s definition of broadband service is a connection of least 25 Mbps, or megabits per second. (A bit is a tiny piece of data; a megabit is about 1 million of them.) But there are calls for the FCC to update that definition to a higher speed, given Americans’ increased internet needs. You can check your connection speed here.

Wireless Routers Ratings
An older woman talking on the phone and smiling.

Home Telephone

Home telephone service is available from traditional local telephone providers, cable or fiber providers, or 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. A few VoIP providers in our telephone ratings received high marks for value.

However, each year more of us abandon traditional landline phone service and instead choose to use our cell phones for both home and mobile communications.

Smartphones Ratings

Cable-Style Streaming Services

The days of have having limited TV service options are now at an end. While traditional pay-TV services have been losing customers for a few years now, new cablelike alternatives—sometimes called “OTT,” or “over the top,” services—are gaining subscribers.

These new cable-replacement services are delivered via the internet rather than through traditional cable lines or satellite transmissions. These new services include AT&T TV, FuboTV, Hulu + Live TV, Sling TV, and YouTube TV. (Check out our comprehensive “Guide to Streaming Video Services” for more formation about these and other streaming choices.)

All these cable-replacement services combine local channels—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—with an assortment of cable channels, such as AMC, CNN, HGTV, and TBS. However, live local broadcasts, and some cable networks, aren’t available in all markets on every service, so you should check to see which channels are available in your area. Most of the services now come with a cloud DVR that lets you record and save shows and movies.

You can expect to pay as little as $20 per month for the most pared-down programming packages or up to $85 per month for a real cablelike package with dozens of channels. (Note that some services put limits on the number of people who can use the service at the same time.) Most will also let you subscribe to a premium channel, such as HBO Max or Showtime, for an additional monthly fee.

If you decide to use one of these services, you’ll need to make sure your broadband service—and home WiFi—can handle the extra traffic because streaming video requires decent speeds to ensure the best picture quality.

Major Broadband Technologies in the U.S.

Cable
Cable companies offer multiple tiers of broadband service. Starter plans often offer speeds between 10 Mbps and 15 Mbps for $15 to $25 per month. Higher-priced plans can provide download speeds from 50 Mbps to well over 100 Mbps, typically for $50 per month or more. Gigabit plans are also available, though they tend to be fairly pricey.

Fiber
Fiber-optic broadband technology has the capability of delivering very high download speeds. Google, Verizon, and a few other providers offer gigabit fiber service in several U.S. cities. Basic fiber-based broadband plans typically deliver between 100 and 300 Mbps, and generally cost between $30 and $50 per month. Gigabit plans start around $75 per month. As with other services, you pay more as speeds increase.

DSL
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 runs from about 3 to 15 Mbps, and costs about $25 to $30 per month. Improvements in technology have boosted speeds for some providers to 25- to 50-Mbps speeds, although that also boosts the price. DSL connections usually require a modem and filters to keep the digital signal from interfering with landline phones in the house. Like with cable- and telco-delivered internet service, qualified low-income households can received discounted DSL service rates through the federal government’s Lifeline program.

Satellite
Satellite broadband is the only broadband option in some rural areas. It can offer download speeds ranging from 5 to 30 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. However, a newer type of satellite service, which uses low Earth-orbiting satellites, is being rolled out by companies such as SpaceX’s Starlink. This service promises faster speeds in excess of 100 Mbps, though you may have to buy the satellite dish for about $500 and pay a monthly fee of just under $100.

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 for TV, prices continue to rise for both traditional TV service and streaming alternatives. However, there’s less choice for internet service. In our most recent survey, almost a quarter of the responding CR members said they had only a single provider. But 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; others 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 limits on monthly broadband usage. Depending on your provider or plan, caps can be as low as 50 gigabytes per month, though many have raised their caps to as high as 1 terabyte or more. If you’re a heavy downloader, you could be charged overage fees, be throttled (have your internet speed reduced), or simply be cut off. Check the details on each provider’s website, or call and ask whether they have caps.

Eliminate Sports Channels
Many providers levy a sports surcharge on channel packages that include ESPN, Fox Sports, or regional sports networks. If you don’t watch sports, find out whether your provider offers a sports-free “economy” package. There are also some lower-priced streaming services that don’t include live TV or sports channels. Philo, for example, offers about 60 channels for $25 per month.

Get a Bare-Bones Plan
If you don’t care about premium channels, ask for the most basic TV package your provider offers. You may have to ask a customer service rep a few times for the cheapest plan available, or look through the company’s website for all its offers, because these lowest-cost plans might not be advertised or mentioned during your initial phone call. Also, if a two-year contract is required, make sure the price of the plan doesn’t jump dramatically in the second year.

Don’t Buy Unnecessary Gear
Each set-top box, modem or router, and DVR can cost money each month, so see if you can buy your own wireless router or modem rather than renting one from the company. Sometimes you can use an app rather than a set-top box for certain services. You should also see whether you can use an over-the-air antenna to get free broadcast signals from the major networks. You can supplement this programming with online services, such as Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix, that offer TV shows and movies for a low monthly fee. You can get these services using a smart TV or a streaming media player, such as the Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Roku. Many cable-replacement streaming services include a free cloud DVR for recording shows.

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