If your internet or cable bill is more than you can afford — or suddenly looks higher than you signed up for — you’re hardly alone.
Many American internet and cable TV companies employ a shell game of limited-time promotions and hidden, variable service fees to get us to pay more over time. The Biden administration has asked the Federal Communications Commission to address the shenanigans by requiring a “nutrition label” for broadband service, like you get with packaged food. But that could take some time.
So in the meantime, what can you do now if your bill is just too darn high?
Here are five tricks I learned from internet service providers and consumer advocates.
1. Try to switch providers
Check the website BroadbandNow to find all the available service providers specific to your ZIP code. The site’s database is one of the best, though not all the options listed will necessarily offer speeds sufficient to keep a whole family online all at once. Heavy users of computers, tablets and phones may want download speeds of at least 100 Mbps (megabits per second) and upload speeds of 10 Mbps.
If you’re lucky enough to have options, you could even switch providers after promotional pricing runs out. Just remember to set a calendar reminder.
Of course many Americans, like me, live in places where there’s only one real option for internet service of at least 100 Mbps. Sometimes the problem is local laws that restrict or make it prohibitively expensive for competitors to lay down the necessary cables. You could try calling your city or county elected officials and tell them you need more options.
2. Threaten to drop service
Many internet service providers would rather cut your rates to keep you as a customer than try to win you back later. Calling and threatening to quit isn’t fun for you or the person working in the customer-retention department, but it can work. Ask to have access to the latest promotional offer for your area. Don’t be nasty: You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
Some internet service providers, such as Sonic in California, say they’ve made a policy not to re-up introductory discounts after the promotional period is over. Honestly, this might be better for everyone: Getting a fair price for your internet shouldn’t feel like haggling for a used car. This system is even worse for the people who don’t know how to, or are just too busy to play these games.
3. Sign up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit or other discount program
The federal government is offering to pay $50 each month for the internet bills of millions of Americans who were hurt economically during the coronavirus pandemic. If you lost income in the past year, this could apply to you — and even more beyond that. Just know the program won’t necessarily last forever.
If you can prove you have low income, you might have other options — though they may be slower speeds. Another government program called Lifeline offers very low-price connections. And Comcast, America’s largest internet service provider, offers its internet Essentials package for $10 per month for Americans who meet certain criteria.
4. Buy your own modem and router
When you get internet, you need two pieces of hardware to make it work: a modem and a router (sometimes combined into one box called a gateway). Most companies provide their own, and even set it up and then charge you to rent it from $10 to $25 per month.
But you don’t have to rent their equipment — you can buy your own. In my house, I use a $150 Arris SURFboard modem plugged into a $130 eero router for Wi-Fi. (You can often find this equipment used or refurbished for less money.)
This approach will cost you more money up front, but will save you in the long run. It might even work better than what your provider is renting.
5. Unbundle and cut the cord on cable
The TV portion of your combined internet and TV bill may be costing you a lot more than you realize. Many carriers tack on “service fees” for things such as local stations and sports networks that you have no choice but to pay.
These days there are more streaming app options than ever, and they usually make it easy to start and stop service as needed. If you’ve got just $20 to spend on TV entertainment, you could binge on Hulu favorites for two months and cancel, then switch to Netflix for two months, and then maybe head over to Disney Plus after that.
If you still want local broadcast channels that offer news and weather, you can always get an antenna and plug it into the back of your TV — they all still broadcast over the air free.
And there are also cable-replacement services that stream over the internet, such as the $35 (and up) per month SlingTV. Just be careful — if you subscribe to a fully stocked service like the $65 YouTube TV, you could end up spending just as much as you were with that cable package.