[Updated article for 2017 is here, 10/25/17.] 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.
0.5 to 1 Mbps $25
1.1 to 15 Mbps $35
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
[Editor’s note: An updated article for 2017 is here.]
The beautiful photo of a TV on the beach, above, is by Flickr user Michael Shaheen.
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