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

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

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.

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.

The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • georgebeach

    Cut the cord years ago – Need a 6mb connection or better. Never looked back! Already have saved thousands!

  • Kelderic

    My current options are Brighthouse Networks or AT&T Uverse. The Uverse, without cable, is offered at 6Mb/s and 15Mb/s (maybe their speeds are different in different areas). The cost though is far greater than the numbers you have. Without bundling, it’s $40 for the 6Mb/s, and $60 for 15Mb/s.

    (Also please fix the units in your article. Speeds are given in MB/s and Mb/s. mb/s is meaningless. Capitalization changes what a speed is. Example: 1MB/s = 8Mb/s.)

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks Kelderic. Units fixed. (That was an error unbecoming of an MIT grad!) Costs are a slippery thing: there is very little transparency in this market. For one thing, as you’ll note from my table above, companies like AT&T rarely disclose their standard rates: they only shows you the promotional rates for the first 6 to 12 months of service. Also, rates vary by geography. It was tricky finding the data above, as most ISPs ask you to enter a valid street address before they’ll tell you about availability and rates for different parts of the country.

      • georgebeach

        Network speeds are always described using bits and never bytes,

  • georgebeach

    If you have a wifi connection to the internet that is 100mbps that does NOT mean that YOU have 100mbps. You have to understand that the 100mbps is shared with everyone inside that building, and maybe everyone attached to the wireless Access Point! So your real speed may differ. Use a site like speedtest to verify your speed, know this can change depending on how many people are using it at any given time.

    Network Engineer/Cisco Certified

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Georgebeach: Thanks for the comment, and point taken. Believe it or not, I do have 100 mbps or close to it most of the time. I just ran speedtest and at the moment I’m at 91 Mbps down and 77 Mbps up.

      • georgebeach

        nice – Service provider connection must be better than 100mbps. Can’t wait for Google to get the country wired. Enjoy

    • Anna Smaya

      I’m paying comcast for 100mbps, getting download 56mbps and upload 6mbps Bother’s me i’m paying for twice what i’m actually getting.

  • veezee

    You forgot to mention Comcast Business Internet Service. 16Mb down/ 3Mb up, no data cap for about $70. Its price competitive with the only WISP available in Boston, but faster. I’m not a Comcast fan, but competition in this market is hard to find.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Hey Veezee. In this article I wanted to focus on consumer services (since Xperience is the consumer section of Xconomy). Can you sign up for Comcast Business Internet Service if you’re not a business? Also, what is the name of the WISP in Boston that you mentioned? Thanks.

      • noc007

        Yes, residences can get Comcast Business Internet and it can be signed up under an individual’s name. I ran it at my house concurrently with Residential TV service. People need to understand what they’re getting into before signing up as the cancelation process is entirely different.

    • Kroooooosta

      What about rcn? I’ve had it for a few years, much cheaper than comcast and great speeds.

  • Clarification

    Most U-Verse is FTTN and thus still uses Copper/DSL. So, your split of ATT into a DSL service and a fiber service (and likening U-Verse to Google Fiber) above and your claims about DSL not supporting streaming video are both highly misleading. ATT, CenturyLink and others offer high speeds over DSL where the fiber is far enough and the copper length is short enough. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AT%26T_U-verse

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      As I wrote, the answer to Candace’s original question is that it depends mostly on where you live. With DSL that can come down to how far you are from the central office. You and georgebeach are right that some people have DSL that’s fast enough for streaming video.

      It’s true that U-Verse doesn’t send a fiber optic cable all the way into your house. (Wouldn’t that be great: we’d need a new type of port on our laptops and routers!) But as far as I know it’s the only large-scale service that offers fiber to the neighborhood/node or FTTN as you put it.

      • Clarification

        Fiber to the home would be great and it wouldn’t require any new ports on our laptops or routers. An ONT or fiber jack does the translation to ethernet for a router and relative to laptops it seems like most people use wireless from their router regardless of how the router gets a signal. (but in any case you could keep any ethernet hard line from a router to the laptop as is with fiber to the home given the ONT) Our laptops don’t have different ports for Telco DSL versus Cable Docsis either. https://support.google.com/fiber/answer/2667494?hl=en

        Still seems to me that labeling a product which includes DSL into the home as not-DSL is a bit misleading. Basically all ATT incorporates DSL unless you’re talking about a limited rollout in Austin of a gigapower branded version.

        As far as large scale FTTN, here is one additional US example: http://www.fiercetelecom.com/story/centurylinks-puckett-74m-households-are-our-fttn-product/2013-08-09

        Beyond that there aren’t huge telephone companies in the US:
        http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/052014release.html

  • http://www.grantbergman.com Grant Bergman

    Uverse is $56 per month for the 12 Mbps service off-contract. This is not hard to find on their site, but you may have to go through getting a quote for a specific address. Perhaps it varies by address, as well, but I had no problem seeing the non-promotional price separately from the 12 month discount. (I looked it up for a neighbor’s address, but this price is consistent with my off-discount Uverse monthly bill.)

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks Grant, that’s extremely useful info. Yesterday I couldn’t get the AT&T site to give me a quote for any address whatsoever. I don’t think they like me.

      • http://www.grantbergman.com Grant Bergman

        They don’t like me, either, and I’m a customer!

  • GaryE

    At least for NFL FAns there is NFL Game Rewind which provides day-after video library of webcasts for every single NFL game. They usually maintain the entire season archived so you can catch up or go watch a game you read about that was particularly good. There is no app so far and it only works on PC at the moment. I use a Dell laptop as the media server “set-top box” for my setup so i see the games on the big screen that way. Fyi, i have DSL and it works pretty well with most internet video — a little less so for the NFL service but more than workable.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks Gary. Other sports leagues such as MLB also seem to be offering more ways to catch up on sports news and even sports video outside of live TV, such as the MLB At Bat app. But if you’re a big live sports fan, you’re still going to be stuck shelling out your hard-earned dollars to the cable monopolies. Sometimes I think of the entertainment industry as the NCAA-NFL-Fox-Disney-Comcast Complex.

  • http://KingArthur13th.Blogspot.com/ KingArthur13th

    I really hope Google Fiber grows.

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  • Dormie

    I see some people mentioning problems with AT&T UVerse’s bundling pricing plans. I sort of gamed the system. I took advantage of a deal they were offering where I could get free installation with the purchase of a TV and internet package. I did this, then immediately canceled my TV. I pay $63 monthly for up to 13 Mb/s, now.

  • NeverLetMeGo

    Here in New York there are already large parts of the city where you can get internet access for free from home. Google provided it for free to my entire section of Manhattan.
    I think that is the wave of the future at least in cities and towns.

  • kathy

    What about us?…….people who are off the grid…….we have no telephone or cable lines available unless we pay thousands of dollars to have them put in which is about 5 miles. Do we have any options for internet besides ‘hot spot’ from cell phone companies, which are sky high

    • http://ebtgroups.com/ Joe Mellin

      Tip: Living off the Grid means it is hard to connect to the grid.

    • rit

      google are trying to spread fiber optics to plenty of out of grid areas. try to find out out it, i know that they are working hard in kansas right now. but you need to get enough people to opt into it. internet is generally free or cheaper.

  • Christy

    Just an FYI on ATT DSL internet; I found much better prices/discounts on this page http://www.buyatt.com/high-speed-internet/ instead of the one listed in the article. $15 for all speeds except the highest which is $20. Not sure how long that is for but better than the starting price of $25 for the lowest DSL speed on that attsavings site.

  • Fin

    In Tampa, FIOS pricing has gone up twice in about half a year. It now costs $100/mo for 25/25 Mb/s internet-only service. Their next step down is 3/1 service at $75/mo, which is a terrible value, and a useless speed of service. They used to have other value options, like 15/15, but no more. When I spoke with them about how unaffordable their service is now, they basically told me that they don’t have any competition in my market, and they had no way for me to reduce my monthly bill while keeping a more usable speed.

  • Joe

    In Tampa I see Brighthouse is offering 10 Mbps for $54/month, at the moment.

  • Cait Sal

    Get a Rabbit TV! just $10 a year and it gives current seasons of TV shows so you dont have to wait for them to show up on Netflix and Hulu after the season is over!

  • Alex

    Denver, Co must be the best place. Century Link offers 40 mbps for $30.00 a month.

    • http://www.longmontcompass.com longmontcompass

      Longmont, CO is even better. Our city is equipped with a fiber loop and we’ll get 1 gigabit/sec in just a couple of weeks. http://bit.ly/hbodivorce

  • Milen Videnov

    Really, really nice article! Thank you! However, recently I found a site which offers comparing services(they compare internet, cable, phone services and show you the best option for you) and I want to share it with you. It is http://www.bestcheapinternet.com/ and I’m very satisfied with them

  • Anna Smaya

    I haven’t had cable TV in over 4 years, I cut the cable a long time ago. I do, however, pay for internet and cringe every month at my $50-$79 broadband bill. It varies based on service changes and promotional endings. I’ll call as soon as they up the bill and work it out back to the $49.99/month range. If not for streaming video to watch the few TV shows I like on the internet I’d go back to dial up just to save money. At $9.95 a month DSL might be slow, but if all you are doing is internet surfing, email, twitter, forums, and research for school that is really all you need. Paying for more if you aren’t using it becomes a waste of money. I admit I’m spoiled by my broadband speed though, can’t imagine returning to 1.3-5mbps.

  • Alexandria Regilio

    Hi Wade — Can you explain to me how AT&T’s UVerse is so much faster than my current Comcast internet? I want to cut the cable, but AT&T just offered me internet at 3Mbps (and phone) for $34.95 for the first year, then it will go up to $61. The sales rep told me the UVerse 3Mbps was all I need for “super fast” tv watching. Right now I have 105Mbps through Comcast and the videos still skip every once in a while. I’m so confused. What is a consumer to do!!!???