How to be smart vs. the corporate internet behemoth?
December 29, 2016 4:42 PM   Subscribe

All Kid BlahLaLa wanted for the holidays was better wifi at home, so after maaany years of DSL we are switching to cable internet, which in our area is only provided by Spectrum (aka Charter). Help me understand the best way to do this? I have all sorts of questions.

We have: multiple Mac devices, an ancient modem, an AirPort Express.

We want: fast internet + wifi.

Some things I see, when attempting to sign up via the Spectrum website:
-- I see that it's initially cheaper (by $10/month) to get cable + internet + phone. I don't want any of these other things and am strongly considering it's worth $10/month to just not have to deal with any of it, and not have to deal with remembering to cancel the unwanted services at the end of the year before the bill goes up.

-- They want to charge me $5 a month for wifi. Is there a reason I need to pay that? Can't I just get them to hook up one connection and then use my Airport Express to do the wifi myself, as I do now?

-- They want me to lease a modem, which is free. I'm assuming that only means free for the first 12 months. Is there any reason I wouldn't go out and purchase my own modem, based on the list they have on their website?

-- When it comes to the internet, they don't seem to be advertising any sort of speed tiers, and they say data is unlimited. Should I be wary or disbelieving of this?

-- Lastly, my house hasn't had any cable service in 20+ years, so there will be some sort of installation involved. And of course they can't quote any costs until they see my house. I am right next to a telephone pole, so not sure if that helps. Thoughts about this?

What are my unknown unknowns here? I feel like I'm about to get rooked because I'm so naive and unknowledgeable, so help me please!
posted by BlahLaLa to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To answer your subquestion about modem-leasing in particular, it's definitely worthwhile to just get your own. Saves on the "lease" part, and you can get a better-quality one. The Wirecutter's guide is what I'd say to use as a reference.

For the "unlimited data" part, usually in the fine print there's something to the effect of "We can throttle you if we feel the need", usually for people doing commercial-level streaming/torrenting. So you're probably fine, but also right to be wary.

I'd imagine the $5/month for wifi is probably a hardware lease, in which case you could get your own Wirecutter to the rescue again.
posted by CrystalDave at 4:58 PM on December 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Pricing isn't based on their costs so it's often the right choice to include things you don't want, e.g. phone, to save money.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:15 PM on December 29, 2016

I have Spectrum in NYC, so I think it's ex-TimeWarner territory, but I could be wrong. (And before this, I had TimeWarner in Texas. But when you move states, you literally have to close the account and start over completely because their system is that stupid.)

TWC used to charge for modems, so I own a modem and use that. I didn't bother reading the fine print on the new "free" modem policy, so I'm not sure if it's free for a year or what. I find it hard to believe there isn't a catch. They do periodically revise the list of "acceptable" modems, but on what basis I don't know. They don't seem to force you to upgrade your modem when they drop it off their list.

Their modems have a wireless router built in and they're charging you to turn it on. You don't have to pay for it. Just hook your modem up to your Airport Express.

Speed tiers are gone (and with it my $15/month plan). They're now claiming "up to 100 Mbps". I think I get around 10Mbps down. Speed appears to be somewhat inconsistent here, but was consistent in Texas (where I got 1 and a bit Mbps for my $15).

Be warned, customer service is atrocious. I don't think I've ever had a phone call take less than 15 minutes, even for something trivial. Anticipate spending at least half an hour on the phone to get them to start service. You get through to a person straight away, but this person will inevitably put you on hold for minutes at a time, multiple times.
posted by hoyland at 5:20 PM on December 29, 2016

If you have a TimeWarner/Charter/Spectrum "store" near you, it's much easier to go there than to phone them. Unfortunately, you have to phone them to get them to start service and if you're moving out-of-state.
posted by hoyland at 5:22 PM on December 29, 2016

I see that it's initially cheaper (by $10/month) to get cable + internet + phone. I don't want any of these other things and am strongly considering it's worth $10/month to just not have to deal with any of it

Know that there can be a sizeable difference in the monthly bill from the various FTC fees and taxes that get tacked on, which are based on the services you choose.

Usually there aren't too many fees or taxes for internet, but cable and phone service can come along with many fees and taxes.

From the sample bill provided here by Time Warner, you can see that cable can come with:
* FCC Admin Fee
* Franchise Fee
* Municipal PEG Access Fees
* Broadcast TV Surcharge
These fees can run around $10-$20 per month, thereby negating the savings.

So yes, avoid signing up for services you don't actually want.

And definitely acquire your own modem and wifi router. The other way they get you is to charge $300 for "unreturned equipment" when you cancel service. In fact, cancelling cable service is a whole art unto itself.
posted by metaseeker at 6:25 PM on December 29, 2016

They want me to lease a modem, which is free. I'm assuming that only means free for the first 12 months.

Nope, it means free. My Charter cablemodem (a DOCSIS 3.0 which they swapped in to get higher speeds) has been free for much longer. They want you to return it when you cancel, will add a charge if you don't, and you may need to schlep to the local billing office to make the return, but I haven't considered it a massive hassle. Charter's also proved fairly pain-free at cancelling service compared to the famous Comcast retention department. This is an area that's always been Charter, not ex-TWC. Tech support is iffy though if you have a question that requires an actual tech, not a script, and get past Tier 1, the actual techs are clued.

How old's the Airport Express? If it's anything other than the current model, you might be better off with a new wifi router. Mesh systems are the new hotness, though using your Airport Express as a range extender might be sufficient.

If it needs a completely new install, they'll put in a utility box near all your other panels, then either hook up whatever coax might exist, or run new coax to wherever you want it to go. Consider where the best place for the modem and wireless router should be, especially if you're going to be making ethernet connections as well as wifi.
posted by holgate at 7:07 PM on December 29, 2016

Note that it is not $10/month cheaper to get the bundle, especially if you don't care for the television or phone.

Charter advertises internet-only for $40/month, or $30/month for internet+television+phone, each. That's $30 for each component, and you have to buy all three. So the total cost of the bundle is $90/month.
posted by Troupe of trained rats at 7:36 PM on December 29, 2016

One thing to be wary of is streaming Amazon Prime. It only streams on HD which eats bandwidth like you wouldn't believe. I have "unlimited" data but after a set limit it drops to a snails pace. So check the unlimited data to see if its unlimited at the highest speeds or not, I'm guessing not.

Amazon streaming is basically unusuable for me, unless I buy shows individually and pick the SD option. I can stream netflix 24/7 with no limits as far as I can tell.
posted by fshgrl at 8:17 PM on December 29, 2016

Another reason to get your own modem is that most cable providers will not give you administrative access to their combo modem/wifi gear. That makes it difficult or impossible if you need to do anything even slightly special with your network, like forward a port or use public DNS servers.

As someone mentioned above, your airport express may be a bit of a problem. I've owned or gifted about ten of those things over the years, and have had endless problems with them. You can look at wireless router reviews to get a sense of what's out there. I just replaced an ASUS RT-AC68U (excellent product) with a six-device Eero mesh throughout my house, which is expensive, but offers significantly better wifi performance. Depending on the square footage you're covering and your habits of use, a single wifi router is plenty for most households.

You probably won't get anything close to the actual performance limit of your cable modem out of an airport express, unfortunately. If it's working well for you right now and you haven't had issues with speed or reliability, it's certainly worth a try. If you get shiny new cable service that is supposed to be much faster than what you currently have, but it doesn't actually seem to be any faster, the airport express is likely your bottleneck. You can check the difference by comparing your results from something like when connected to the airport express vs. connecting directly to your cable modem or router via an ethernet cable. You might want to try this before you switch from DSL to cable, as your current DSL service might have more headroom than you can access via an airport express. One small note: it's generally not a great idea to leave a machine directly connected to a cable modem for very long. Routers usually provide a firewall. It's fine to plug a machine directly into a modem for a speed test, but not a great idea to leave it there for days on end.

When you look at modems, it's worthwhile to read some reviews. You'll need a DOCSIS 3.0 device if you want 100Mbit. They've been around for quite a while, so you can probably find them on eBay.

As folks have sort of mentioned already, most unlimited data plans are throttled or traffic-shaped in one way or another. Comcast service has something called "burst," which means the first X MBs of any data transfer are at maximum speed, but then they throttle. So, if you're downloading a 1GB file, you might get super fast service for the first 100MB, but the remaining 900MB comes in at a much lower speed. In other cases, you might get unthrottled service for X GB per month, but then everything afterward is very slow. Those caps are creeping up, but it's shockingly easy to blow through hundreds of GB per month if you're streaming high def content or playing games on a current-gen console or computer. XBoxOne and PS4 games can pretty easily be 50 - 60GB downloads and require 5 - 10GB patches on a regular basis.

You can occasionally get installation fees waived if you push back on them. It might depend on what class of service you order. They are more likely to waive installation fees if you're opting into the high-end package rather than the low-end. If you already have a cable jack(s) somewhere in your house, installation is usually dead simple. If you don't have a cable jack anywhere or you need to have your modem in a specific place that requires a new jack, it's more complicated.
posted by drklahn at 9:01 PM on December 29, 2016

Yeah, the Airport Express isn't great as a primary access point/router. Airport Extremes are excellent in my experience, but also discontinued. I don't have direct experience with any other current consumer-grade wireless stuff so I won't make a specific recommendation, but I do recommend that you replace the Express with something modern.

One thing to be wary of is streaming Amazon Prime. It only streams on HD which eats bandwidth like you wouldn't believe. I have "unlimited" data but after a set limit it drops to a snails pace. So check the unlimited data to see if its unlimited at the highest speeds or not, I'm guessing not.

I'm sure the limits vary by ISP, but I watch plenty of Amazon Prime video (as well as Netflix and iTunes) on a major US cable ISP, and I haven't experienced this at all. The bandwidth required by compressed HD video isn't as high as you might think. If you're hitting your cap from that, I think you must either have an insanely low cap (much lower than industry standard) or watch many hours a day...
posted by primethyme at 9:23 PM on December 29, 2016

I've not experienced any kind of throttling on Charter Spectrum. I've definitely noticed contention at "Netflix o'clock", more noticeable in terms of buffering on Hulu or Amazon Prime than Netflix itself, but that's just what's going to happen given the amount of streaming HD video now being pushed over residential pipes at 9pm. (This thread makes me increasingly glad that I'm not in a Comcast region, and nervous that Comcast-style business practices are inevitable, because as much as people here like ragging on Charter, you Comcast people are talking about stuff I've never encountered.)
posted by holgate at 10:00 PM on December 29, 2016

For wireless coverage, I highly recommend the Unifi AP for wifi. Note that it's an access point, not a router, so you'll still need to keep your Airport Express around with the wireless broadcasting turned off to use its routing capability. If there's a spot in your house that gets poor coverage, you can add an additional access point to boost coverage while still connecting to the same wireless network.
posted by serelliya at 12:08 AM on December 30, 2016

It depends on a number of factors including your distance from your DSL hub, your modem, and your cable carrier, but when I switched from DSL to cable for supposedly better/faster internet, I didn't get faster internet and I got a bill that continues to snowball despite me removing services and features. I'm planning to switch back. With DSL, I had a great modem and great wifi. With cable (Comcast) I'm roped into all sorts of costly add-ons and my internet and streaming isn't better. If you have outdated equipment, you may want to try an equipment upgrade before switching. Your situation may be different due to lots of different factors, but cable isn't always the best.
posted by quince at 12:43 AM on December 30, 2016

Thanks, everybody. We did use the Wirecutter's guide to get a modem and also a new router, though the installer said, "Keep the Airport Express too" for a reason which I totally, toally did not understand. We are left with two new networks (via the new modem/router) and one same old network (via the Airport Express) and seriously, this is all too, too complicated for me to understand.

We did not add unneeded services -- phone, cable TV -- to avoid those extra charges you guys mentioned. Installation did cost $40 but whatevs, the guy had to climb up the telephone pole so that seems reasonable.

So, we're paying $10 more per month (for now) than we were for our DSL and it's way, way faster. Multiple people can be watching Amazon Prime or Netflix at the same time. My kid reports happier gaming. Game downloads that used to take five days now take 30 minutes.

Ask me how I feel in 1 year when the bill goes up.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:37 PM on January 29, 2017

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