You need to be a well-informed consumer and even a bit of a detective to figure out how much an internet deal will really end up costing you.
Shopping for a no-nonsense, cheap internet deal, is one of the most frustrating consumer shopping experiences there is. Price, contract length and other terms are moving targets, with the companies doing their best to hide from you all but the tempting, introductory low monthly rate.
The underlying problem finding a cheap internet deal is this: most people are stuck with few choices when it comes to internet service providers. In fact, about 40 million Americans have only one provider of cable or DSL high-speed internet for their home. Unfortunately, these companies no this. They know you need internet access, they know the competitive landscape, and so they know you are at their mercy. They use your desperation against you, hoping you won’t notice the true cost of their plans before you sign up. None of the following advertised prices are your eventual rates:
- Charter Internet Plus:
$29.99/monthbumps up to $44.99/month or more
- Cox Internet Essential:
$34.99/monthbumps up to $49.99/month or more
- AT&T DSL Direct Extreme
$29.95/monthbumps up to $49/month or more
- Time Warner Basic Internet
$29.99/monthbumps up to $44.99/month or more
Before you read further, we want to make sure you’re not missing out on the cheapest deals on broadband internet. If you think you might qualify as a low-income household, go to our low-income internet programs page to learn about plans that offer extraordinarily low monthly rates for basic broadband access, with no pricing surprises or upsells.
What Cheap Internet Deals Really Cost
All the big internet service providers, AT&T, Charter, Cox, Cablevision, Verizon and the rest, are out to trick you into paying more than you think. Do we mean they are dishonest? No. Deceptive? Yes.
You’ve seen the flyers in your mailbox, the ads in the paper, and the companies’ own websites, where they tout deals like “High Speed Internet for only $19.95!” and other incredible offers. But, will you actually get an internet plan for the low price they advertise? Yes and no.
If you get out your magnifying glass and look real hard, you’ll usually find an asterisk next to the price. Then if you’re lucky, you’ll find the related footnote — usually as far away from the price as possible — that explains what that asterisk means. This is where you’ll learn that the price is just an introductory price for a short number of months.
The number of months for the initial term is usually stated clearly: generally three, six or twelve months. And what happens when the introductory term is over? That footnote in itsy bitsy small print will almost always just say, “after x months, regular rates apply” or “after x months, standard rates apply.”
At this point, the obvious question is, what exactly is the “regular” or “standard” rate price for your plan? This is the point that you begin to get extremely frustrated. They don’t really want to tell you.
As hard as you try, with few exceptions, you will not easily find the regular monthly rate anywhere on the page or even anywhere on the website. And if you do fine some standard plan rates, they could vary depending upon where in their coverage map you live.
In writing this article, we spent dozens of hours scouring the pages of many providers’ websites. Our intent was to publish the regular rates for all the plans from the major companies. We gave up. Too much was hidden and too much was unclear. The only way you are going to really know what the regular rates are going to be is to call the company or visit one of their offices.
We found the regular rates to be roughly $15 to $40 a month higher than the introductory rates. For example, on a typical $19.99 plan, you’ll likely pay $35 and higher once your introductory term is over. Multiplied out, that’s a lot of money per year that you might not have realized you’ll be paying.
How to Get the Best Cheap Internet Deal
The first thing is to see which internet service providers are available in your area. You probably already know their names, as you’ve likely been inundated with mailers, seen the ads in the local paper, and know who your neighbors use. But to make sure there are not some you’re missing, you can also use a website like the US government’s BroadbandMap.gov site (http://broadbandmap.gov/) to see who serves your general area. For each provider in your area, go to their website and plug in your address to see what plans, if any, are available to your exact home address. But don’t order service or talk to a representative yet.
Once you know who can provide service to your location, search the internet for deals or coupons, pull out the mailers you may have saved, look in the local papers for speciaks, and ask your neighbors what they pay for their service. For example, you might search the web for Cox Cable Internet Deals or AT&T DSL Internet Coupons. Find the best deals you can and write down all the details.
Why shouldn’t you just call up a provider, pick a plan and order it? Because there are prices and there are prices. And then there are prices. They often advertise different deals at different times and in different media. If you just call up and order service you might be missing a lower-priced deal they may have advertised somewhere. Instead, once you have the best deal in hand you can call up and ask for the best deal available. If it’s better than what you found, great. If not, tell them about the offer you know of and request that price and terms.
You should also check to see of the company has a local office you can walk into and place your order. If you get face-to-face with a pleasant sales representative you might have a better chance at the best deal. And they are less likely to play fast and loose with any of the details. Furthermore, one of the best things about ordering internet service in person is that you can go over the physical contract with the representative, asking him or her to explain any language before you sign.
The Fine Print: Understand you Service Contract
When you order service, you enter into a contract with the provider. Unfortunately, most people don’t read contracts. But we urge you to read this contract. It contains important details that dictate the length of your contract, the introductory price, the regular price, other fees, usage limits and more. Even if you’re not good at reading legaleze, the important parts will jump out at you. Know what you are signing!
Here are some areas to definitely review in your contract:
Length of Contract: Make sure you know what the term of your internet service contract is. Don’t sign a contract for more months than you expect to live at a location. If there is a chance you might move in a shorter period of time than the contract requires to get the best deal, you might be better off paying a higher price (probably the “regular” rate) for a short term or month-to-month agreement.
Intro Rates: We’ve discuss this above, but make sure that the contract agrees with everything you understand to be true about the rate.
Early Termination Fees: Almost every plan has an early termination fee which kicks in if you cancel during your contract period. These fees can be hefty, so check both the amount of this fee and at what point in your contract it no longer applies (there needs to be an end date to it).
Internet Speed: All the big providers offer several plans, with higher monthly rates for higher speeds. Make sure you don’t sign up for something like AT&T’s DSL Direct Lite plan, which only gives you 768Kbps downstream. The 1.5 – 4 Mbps tier is at the lowest end of today’s connection speeds, and while you can watch standard definition videos and movies, there will be buffering. But certainly, a speed in this range is workable for most people on a budget. But even Comcast’s low-income Internet Essentials plan now provides 5Mbps down. Conversely, don’t sign up for more speed than you need as you’ll just be wasting your money if you don’t need it.
Internet Usage Caps: Are there any data usage caps? Heavy users can affect other customers’ speeds on the network, and it can be such a critical problem that some companies will cancel your account with no warning if you hog the network. Check the contract for the details of any limits. You won’t be able to change this, but you should understand it so as to not lose your service.
Rentals: Is there any equipment they are chagring you for each month? For example, you’ll need a modem or wireless router. What are they charging you to rent it? Can you buy it outright? Can you buy your own instead?
Installation Fees: Are you going to be charged for installation (or deinstallation when your contract ends)? Can you self-install? Note: if there is an installation charge, this is an area you may be able to negotiate off or down when you order.
Lowering your Existing Internet Service Bill
Many readers will already have existing internet service, and are (or are about to be) very unhappy with their bill. If it hasn’t already, it will be adjusted up to the standard rate, which will be significantly higher than initially paid. You either didn’t notice the hidden details that your price with rise after 3, 6 or 12 months, or you did understand but simply didn’t have another option and had to accept the deal.
However it is that you got here, if your bill is too high, there is a good chance that you can get your provider to lower it. The first thing you need to do is to see if you have any alternatives to your current provider. If you do, find out what rates they offer. If you find a lower priced plan, and you are beyond the point of early termination fees with your current provider, then you know you can negotiate hard and always switch providers if you don’t succeed in lowering your current bill.
Even if you don’t have many Internet service options where you live, think of as many as you can — even less desirable mobile, satellite and WiMax internet — and write down some advantages of each one. One might be a great bundling deal with TV, higher speed, shorter contract, lower price, and so on. What you’re doing is getting yourself prepared to convince your current company that you do have other viable options you are considering. Otherwise, they’ll know they’ve got you and won’t budge. Make up an introductory rate deal for a available competitor if you have to — anything to negotiate with.
Now call the company and complain about your bill. Don’t get angry with them, but just tell them that you can no longer afford it and that you have another provider you can switch to. Be prepared for their questions about the competitor. The representative on the phone will be trying to determine if you are making it up or if you really would cancel service.
If you’re lucky, the representative won’t hesitate and will offer to reduce your rate ten or twenty dollars a month. Other times you have whine and complain, and tell them you don’t use it enough to warrant the cost. And sometimes you’ll get a rep that will just not play ball with you — either they are smart and have you figured out, or they woke up on the wrong side of the bed. At this point you need to ask for the “retention department.” This is the department whose job it is to retain customers. If they say they don’t have one, ask for their manager. Then you plead your case all over again. Threaten to cancel your service as soon as you get off the phone and place the order for service at the other company. If you can’t get to a manager or the retention department, wait a few days and try again.
We’ve searched the internet and have found stories upon stories of people cutting hundreds of dollars a year from their annual internet costs. It seems to work better than 50% of the time. Of course, if you live in an area with several competitors vying for your business, it’s considerably easier than if you are out in rural America, miles from metropolitan areas and many options. Regardless, it doesn’t hurt to try.