Cord Cutting: How to Get High-Speed Internet Service Without Cable

Xconomy National — 

[Updated,  4/27/15. See below] Last fall I wrote a column called Please, Keep Paying $80 a Month for Cable So I Can Enjoy Cheap TV. The article was addressed to folks who complain about the exorbitant fees they’re paying to Comcast or AT&T for premium cable bundles. Adopting a cheeky, sarcastic tone—which is unusual for me, but I was making a point—I argued that their pain is mostly self-inflicted, since it’s possible to watch Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and most popular cable-network shows at much lower cost by ditching your cable subscription and getting all your TV over the Internet.

The piece struck a nerve and generated scores of angry comments and e-mails. One group of comments went roughly like this, but a little less polite: “Your cord-cutting is all well and good, but don’t you still have to pay the cable company for your Internet service? And if you buy a lot of shows à la carte, do you really end up saving money?”

Those are good questions that deserve answers. Then this week I got an interesting note from a woman named Candace, whose husband had literally cut the Comcast cable while futzing around in their back yard. Like me, Candace and her husband only watch streaming video over their Apple TV, and they aren’t necessarily in a rush to get Comcast to send a repair crew, since its charges for Internet-only service (when it’s not bundled with phone or cable TV service) are considerable. Candace, who had discovered my article online, wrote: “My question for you is, what is my best Internet source, and how much should I pay a month?”

Also a good question. Candace’s predicament inspired me to pull together some information about how to get Internet service without paying a dime to the cable monopolies. Below, I’ll run you through the main options.

But first, let me explain my own setup. I confess that it’s easy for me to sneer at cable subscribers, since I’m in an ideal place to lead a cord-cutter’s lifestyle. The building where I live and work in San Francisco is connected to a wireless Internet service provider or WISP called Webpass that offers a blazing fast 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for both downloads and uploads. Webpass is simply fantastic; it’s the fastest connection I’ve ever enjoyed, at home or in a workplace. But the Webpass service, which depends on a line-of-sight radio connection to nearby microwave towers, is limited to specific buildings in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Diego, and Miami. So I’m very lucky. (Update: Webpass is expanding to Boston in 2015.)

As far as my costs go, here’s the breakdown. The Webpass connection costs $500 per year or $41.66 per month. At least half of my Internet usage is work-related, so I’d put the streaming media portion of my Internet bill at roughly $20 per month. My other TV-related expenses include $8 per month for Netflix and an average of $15 per month for movies and TV show rentals and purchases at the iTunes Store. So my total video entertainment budget is about $43 per month.

That’s far below the average U.S. cable TV bill of $78 per month. Unfortunately, the strain that cable bills are putting on household budgets is only going to get worse over time, given the fact that cable subscription costs have historically grown at four times the rate of inflation. Then there’s the ongoing consolidation in the cable business: find me someone who believes that the AT&T-DirecTV and Comcast-Time Warner megamergers will lead to lower cable rates, and I’ll show you someone who’s been watching too much Forrest Gump on AMC.

If you’re like Candace and her husband and you want Internet video but don’t feel like paying Comcast (and you don’t care about live sports), what are your options? That depends mostly on where you live. Webpass’s service is still very limited, but there are more WISPs popping up in urban areas, offering decent speeds at reasonable costs, so it’s worth finding out whether there’s one in your neighborhood. The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association has an online directory where you can search for local WISPs in North America. Here on the east side of San Francisco, for example, there’s a second WISP called Monkeybrains; for a $250 setup fee and $35 per month they’ll supply you with up to 20 mbps.

The other options fall into three categories: old-fashioned DSL, satellite Internet, and fiber optic. Below is some baseline data I’ve dug up around the Web showing connection speeds and monthly costs for various providers. I’m only listing the largest providers with the biggest national footprints; there may be smaller regional providers in your area, such as CenturyLink, Windstream, or Mediacom.

DSL

Verizon
0.5 to 1 Mbps $25
1.1 to 15 Mbps $35

Earthlink DSL
1.5 Mbps $30-$40
3.0 Mbps $35-$45
5.0 Mbps and higher: $40-$50

AT&T High-Speed Internet
1.5 Mbps $25*
3.0 Mbps $30*
6.0 Mbps $35*
* These prices cover the first six months of service. After that, a “standard rate” applies, but AT&T’s website doesn’t explain what the standard rate is. AT&T also charges a $99 Installation fee, a $49 Service Activation fee, and a $6 monthly equipment fee.

Satellite

Hughesnet Satellite
5 Mbps down / 1 Mbps up $50
10 Mbps down / 1 Mbps up $60
10 Mbps down / 2 Mbps up $80
15 Mbps down / 2 Mbps up $130

Dish Satellite
5 Mbps down with 10 GB data cap $40
10 Mbps down with 20 GB data cap $50
10 Mbps down with 30 GB data cap $70

Exede Internet (from WildBlue)
12 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up with 10 GB data cap $50
12 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up with 15 GB data cap $80
12 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up with 25 GB data cap $130

Fiber Optic

AT&T U-Verse
3 Mbps $15*
12 Mbps $20*
24 Mbps $30*
* These prices cover the first 12 months of service. AT&T doesn’t publish its standard rates for service beyond 12 months. There’s a data cap of 250 GB per month. There’s a $29 installation fee and a $49 service activation fee.

Verizon FiOS*
50 Mbps down / 25 Mbps up $75
75 Mbps down / 35 Mbps up $85
* FiOS is available in 20 cities: New York, NY, Philadelphia, PA, Washington, DC, Hagerstown, MD, Los Angeles, CA, Tampa, FL, St. Petersburg, FL, Sarasota, FL, Manchester, MA, Dallas, TX, Ft. Worth, TX, Pittsburgh, PA, Providence, RI, New Bedford, MA, Richmond, VA, Petersburg, VA, Norfolk, VA, and Newport News, VA.

Google Fiber*
1,000 Mbps $70
5 Mbps $0 + $300 construction fee
* Google Fiber is only available in Kansas City, MO, and Provo, UT, but it’s likely coming to Atlanta, GA, Austin, TX, Charlotte, NC, Nashville, TN, Phoenix, AZ, Portland, OR, Raleigh-Durham, NC, San Antonio, TX, and San Jose, CA.

There you have it. If you know of other good options in your area, please leave a note in the comments.

Given that DSL is barely fast enough to support streaming video, most consumers who want to access TV content over the Internet without becoming cable subscribers will probably gravitate toward satellite service (which works almost anywhere, but has stringent data caps) or AT&T’s U-Verse fiber optic network (which is still limited in geographic scope).

Cost-wise, U-Verse is a pretty good deal. For $30 per month you can get 24 Mbps, which is plenty fast for streaming video. Add Netflix and iTunes and your total costs will still be below $50 per month. Satellite Internet is slower and more expensive: if you shell out for a decent speed like 15 Mbps, your costs are going to rise back up into the Comcast range or above, so it’s not clear that satellite is preferable to cable Internet.

My best advice to Candace and everyone else: move to an urban neighborhood with more connectivity options, or keep paying your cable bill for now while keeping an eye on WISPs and fiber providers to see what’s coming to your area. Note as well that it’s usually possible to knock a few bucks off your cable bill by calling your cable company’s customer service line and telling them you’re thinking about defecting to some other service. Bring data like the numbers above, and be nice about it. May the force of persuasion be with you.

Postscript: If you’re just looking for basic TV service, the services above may be overkill. It’s easy to forget that there’s still plenty of great, completely free programming coming to you over the air from local television stations broadcasting in high definition. (Here in the San Francisco Bay Area there are between 20 and 30 such stations.) So your best investment might be a $30 indoor digital TV antenna from a company like Northvu. There’s even an interesting startup called Tablo that’s building an HDTV tuner that acts like a DVR, with a nice smartphone/tablet interface that lets you select which broadcast shows to record.

The beautiful photo of a TV on the beach, above, is by Flickr user Michael Shaheen.

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  • Mario

    I am planning to move out in the country about 30 minutes way from laredo texas, on hwy 59, can I get a good Internet. Out in the country so I can be on Netflix, vudu, or YouTube and Hulu, on two or three devices.

    Thanks,
    Mario

  • Factory_Hag

    I don’t really understand any of this. I am retired and live with my son. We used to share everything half and half, but he pays for more things now as money is tight with me. I would just like to know if he ever moved out and I wanted to keep just Internet to read the news, get email, and maybe occasionally watch a tutorial over You Tube, how could I do that? I am willing to give up the You Tube part if I can’t do it. What company just does the Internet? I am in eastern MA.

    • TMM

      All you truly need is max 1-1.5/mbps download speed. 1-1.5/mbps isn’t advertised very often (depending on what’s in your area).

  • Bob Smith

    Comcast is totally overpriced, get off the cool-aid people!
    OTA digital is the way to go, and It’s free.

    • Trevor Rees

      There are literally zero over the air digital channels where I live.

      • Bob Smith

        Hey Trev, sorry to hear that, maybe internet streaming would work for you?
        Of course moving closer to OTA broadcasters is still another option.

  • Jay kendall

    My Comcast goes up almost every month. Yes I have called, get endless passing from 1 sales guy to another, nothing resolved. Can’t make out from the bill ($153.87) what JUST Internet & phone would be. I could get Amazon Fire TV for the rest. My zip 95621 I am told there are no choices. Whada ya do…? Infuriating!

    • ???

      This is what one elderly lady’s son did. Switch to the competition for 30 days and come back to Comcast as a new customer. They value “new accts” much more than loyalty. So it means every year you have to leave and come back. This is common with any quantitative based company. Is it smart or just bean counting?

      • TMM

        I’m about to do this for my mom since I found out she’s paying AT&T $34 a month for 768/kbps download speed internet. I said, “You’ve got to play the game and switch back & forth. It’s the only way to truly save money”. It’s such a hassle to do it for someone (60+ years old) who just wants things to be simple and painless. She’s had AT&T internet+phone for more than a decade. It couldn’t matter less.

  • Dean F Marsh

    75/75 Fios Quantum in Central NJ is $94.99 + $9.99 rental on router = $104.98 per month for internet only. As of the posting date of this comment

  • miatooblssdtoobstrssdrobinson

    can i use a wireless combo if i don’t have cable or phone services?

    • ???

      You can but I just got told you will pay retail and they will not waive many fees for services and hardware that might be waived if you bundle.

  • febwitch76

    I live in the sacramento area and have Comcast as they are the major cable company and I live in an apartment complex. Does anyone know if FIOS from Verizon is coming in? If that comes through, bye bye Comcast.

  • Wanda Griffin

    In Hampton, VA where my mother has been with cox communications for 28 years, the cable bundle (non digital cable, phone, internet and the slowest speed ever) price just increased without notice from $136 to $159 RIDICULOUS!!!!!!!!! I had to call them and let them know that the price was way too much for a 28 year customer. There were no changes at all with the service but yet the price continues to increase yearly, I WILL CONTINUE TRYING TO CONVINCE MY MOTHER TO DROP COX COMMUNICATIONS; we basically watch approximately l0 stations and streme Netflix.
    Someone need to create ways of utilizing the internet service without GREED, BUNDLES, ETC…..

    • Makaylah ricketson

      if you find out a way PLEASE let me know, me and my bf (18 years old) are struggling with rent and utilities much less paying $150 for freaking internet! we ONLY watch netflix and play world of warcraft when we arent working or sleeping :/ WHY CANT THE WORLD BE FAIR AND SIMPLE! :(

  • Bonnie

    The apt. Bldg I live in has a monopoly, how can I get around this?

    • lastone65

      You can’t.

  • j_wi

    what about dsl extreme, leo the tech guy recommends them

  • lastone65

    Where I live, I tried to disconnect from Comcast in the past, but all the other options are just as expensive or even more expensive. I hate them paying because I watch almost no TV, but I need the internet because of my work. I hate Comcast – they have the absolute stupidest and rudest people in the world working for them.

  • Mjal

    I have TWC internet. I like the idea behind this article but in my area they are the only real game in town. The only other players are satellite and WISP providers that are more expensive and impose harsh monthly data caps. It’s great that you have a WISP so close by but sorry the numbers just don’t work for me.

  • Just My Opinion

    This information is very helpful but I can attest first hand that the prices for uverse are way off. I have Uverse TV & Internet. For Internet I have the MAX Turbo 24 Mbps and it cost me $74.00/month this is in addition to the $161 for TV. I had a 12-month deal for $57 but now its back up to $74. No where near the $30 you mentioned. I now have a ROKU and I’d like to cut the cord but looking for an affordable independent internet provider.

    UPDATE: I realize this article was written almost a year ago. I checked on the Webpass website and it seems they have increased their prices It is $60/Month or $550/year.

    • TMM

      that’s because they have no idea what they’re doing and we, the American people, are getting pounded by their unregulated “services”. They’re now saying they intend to ditch “u-verse” tv altogether in favor of signing everybody up to direct-tv thanks to their idiotic purchase of the company. Instead of investing their profits into building the infrastructure for u-verse AND fiber gigapower at the same time, they lay countless employees off and offer us satellite tv so they can get richer.

      I was coming here to comment on the price he lists in this article, too. $15 dollars for 3mbps??? Did it seriously used to cost that little?!

      • Samantha

        We see what deregulation brings … Don’t vote Republican :-).

  • integrity

    This was a waste of time. You just listed what internet you had and then listed the primary companies? ?

  • j_wi

    what have you to opine about DSLExtreme??

  • Kess

    I live near Hilton Head Island and the only service provider is Hargray. Our fees are outlandish. Basic cable and internet run almost 200 as a bundle deal. How do we get other providers in our area so we can have some healthy competition?

  • Kenny Hendrick

    If anybody comes across the sales pitch for freedompop, i’ll clue you
    in now. Firstly this service works rather well if you only need a
    phone or web browser for email reading. For us it did not work as the
    sales agent had led us to believe it would…hours on tech support and
    reading various websites confirmed that the freedompop service will not
    allow for a server to run via the lg6100d router’s port forwarding
    function. Finally, a freedompop tech affirmed it will not work.
    Great. Less than 24 hours I’ve had the router and now must submit for
    an RMA and find some tape and blah blah blah. Is anyone else sick and
    tired with the direction this arguably criminal government is heading
    with these monopolies? I remember the bait and switch “education” we
    received that monopolies were not a part of our lauded democracy, and
    here it is a few decades later and we have barely more than two choices
    for anything (and the choices are all related to the rogue element we
    now have here). Democrat and republican, time warner/bright
    house/roadrunner and At&t, bestbuy and walmart, microsoft and apple,
    ad infinitum and nauseaum.

    Well there’s some good news I can
    leave my victim compatriots…if you have to have a computer, kill
    microsoft and mac and install linux. That’s the best advice a computer
    tech (me) can offer.

    amen

  • Guest

    I am not satisfied at all with Comcast and Verizon is to high in price. Are there other providers in the Philadelphia, PA Area and Suburbs?

  • Michael McCord

    I’m in Oklahoma and have had a hard time locating stuff like this without having to deal with AT&T which makes me ill. Do you have any solutions or ideas? Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. My e-mail is wx5del@gmail.com

  • kymykat

    My comment goes a little off topic but my point to it is there’s ways and times you can slip out of a contract with the big named providers, as well as smaller companies. It’s timing. Verizon recently dumped it’s CA customers ( and two other states) off on a company I had never heard of before getting abandoned into the arms of frontier communications. When a provider changes anything in a contract with you, you have the right to review the changes and the option then to say “no, that’s not in our contract so I’m leaving” and there’s your exit early without all the rip off fees they rob you for ETF. So with this verizon dumping customers to frontier they actually addressed that by saying customers couldn’t use that “OUT” because frontier was providing the exact same services, same quality, same prices as verizon did. That’s hardly the case in reality. I use to love verizon home service and wireless both, and I’ve been a loyal customer over 25 years up until 4 years ago. I didn’t mind paying more because I got more but when I started to get less and less and hacked and hacked and made to now pay even more and deal with supervisors who were hard as____ not customer service motivated at all. I dumped them as my cell provider and they literally used auto pay I had set up on my open account but not on a closed account to take 650.00 out of my bank account a week after I’d closed my account and was awaiting a finial bill. I’ve been stuck with their fios home service up until they dumped me off on the worst company I’ve ever dealt with in my 56 yrs on this planet. Calling frontier communications customer service takes a lot of time effort and you still can’t understand these people that answer the phones. When they themselves can’t understand you they actually just hang up the phone on you. It all changed. Internet service has been down, slow, and there’s extra charges on the bill that customer service has to put you on hold for to ask what the charge is. Not at all professional. I’m a new customer to frontier but I can’t call up and get the advertised specials that comes in my mailbox to my house. Well that’s why I found the Articial above and read it. I’m trying to cut ties away from have a company I get bundles with. I bought an antenna that says 150 mile range. We will see. And i want to get one of those deals on home phone where you buy the unit pay a 250 up front price and free service for the rest of your life as long as you have that box. Too good to be true it sounds. But like the rest of you what about the damn internet? I can hot spot off my phone. But that’s not enough to do very much at all. Good luck to everyone. It’s a long journey away from these rip off companies who steal from us and who won’t let us go peacefully when we have had enough.