"Option Paralysis Follies," Ep. 946: Monthly Data Services/Charges
May 28, 2019 3:10 PM   Subscribe

I am befuddled by the array of options for internet & phone services and fees, and could use some help picking the best, most affordable plan. Altogether too many details inside.

If you're someone who has a "Consumer Reports" kind of brain, I would love your input. My brain doesn't work that way, and I just can't figure out what our best option(s) is/are.

We are open to changing our internet provider and/or our phone provider. We really only care about reliability and affordability - we don't care much about fancy new phones or other frills. If we can bring our monthly bills down and not compromise our service, that'd be great. Paying a single bill for internet plus phone would be nice, but if the better deal is to pay two bills, that's not an issue at all.

We have two cell phones and no landline.
We use Netflix and YouTube and Spotify often. No other major streaming services, besides the occasional movie download on the PlayStation network. We do not do online gaming. I do use BitTorrent sometimes, but mostly for overnight downloads.
The PS4 is our major media device, and it is connected via ethernet to the modem/router. For the other devices - two laptops, two phones, one tablet - we use WiFi.

1. Internet
1a. We have internet service with Comcast. When we signed on a year ago, we took one of those nonsensical deals in which we paid less to get more: it cost LESS to get cable and internet than it did to get JUST internet. We don't use the cable TV at all and do not intend to do so, but took the deal for the rate. We only use and want internet. That deal ends in about three weeks, and the monthly bill will go up.

1b. A local company, Sonic, offers internet + "home phone" service for $40/month at speeds of "up to" 20 Mbps. They have a low-risk 30-day trial period, after which, if I am unsatisfied, they will refund the $145 installation cost. (Sonic piggybacks on AT&T wires, apparently.)

1c. AT&T's current offerings: $40/month for "plans up to 100 Mbps." They also offer a package that throws DirecTV (which we do not want) into the mix for $75/month. A third plan costs $95/month for internet, DirecTV, AND phone - though it's unclear to me whether this means a landline or cell service. (See Section 2, "Phone," below.) If they had a package that offered internet + cell service, we'd consider that, but we are not interested in DirecTV at all, and would only get this if it were another of those dumb "Pay Less to Get More" deals.

Data points:
• Current monthly Comcast bill: $73
• Future monthly Comcast bill (that is, if we do nothing at all): $107.50 (!)
• I honestly don't know how much we'd pay Comcast if it were just internet - that is, if we ditched the unused cable TV. This is something I need to ask.
• Alleged current Comcast speed: 60 Mbps
• Comcast ALSO offers cell service for $12 per phone per month, if we go with them for internet. They call this "cell data" and I don't really know if that refers to WiFi calling only (eg, from our home WiFi network or from one of the many local Comcast WiFi hotspots), or if this means 4G. The customer service rep was confusing. To get Comcast phone service, we'd have to pick new phones from a Comcast list. They will buy back our old phones at $250 each - essentially, $250 off each phone, as far as I can tell. We do not need the latest or fanciest phones - we just want Android devices that work. Any new ones will, anyway, be faster/better, I'm sure, than our current ones, which work just fine for our purposes.

• Sonic's "honest" benchmark assessment of our actual wifi speed: 63.78 Mbps (download) / 5.46 Mbps (upload) huh, better than I'd've thought
• Sonic cost: $40/month

• AT&T alleged speed: "up to 99 Mbps"
• AT&T cost: $40/month (internet only) / $95/month (internet + DirecTV + phone)
• AT&T throws in a $100 Visa gift card if we go with them.

2. Phone
• We currently have T-Mobile and pay $127.29/month for two lines. We have 3-year-old Samsung Galaxy J7s, and they work fine (though mine has a busted screen). They are paid off.
• Sonic does not offer cell service.
• As detailed above, we can get some sort of phone service from AT&T, but I don't know if it's cell or landline. We don't want a landline.
• The Comcast phone info is detailed above. In many ways, this is the trickiest bit for me, mathematically.

3. X-Factors
• I don't know if T-Mobile would consider dropping our rates, but maybe? We've been with that company for at least three years.
• I have no brand loyalty whatsoever. Whoever can give me the best deal, that's the company I like.
• If I can avoid paying more money to horrible companies like Comcast, I'd like to do that. Locals here in the North Bay of CA seem to really like Sonic, which has a rep for being fairly responsible, as far as I can gather.
• We currently pay right about $200/month for phone + internet. This seems high ($2400/year! holy shit) and I'd like to bring it down.
• I really don't know what our actual internet speed needs are. "Megabits per second" is such an abstract idea to me. Obviously, I would like to have no major hiccups in my internet service, but what does that mean? At 20 Mbps (Sonic's offering), would we still be able to stream Netflix (on a PS4 hardwired to the modem) while listening to Spotify in another room and, say, watching YouTube on a tablet? I have no idea. The Sonic rep told me that if the PS4 is hardwired, watching Netflix on that AND using WiFi to watch another Netflix offering on another device "should not be a problem," but that's pretty vague.

If you've waded through all this boring crap, you already have my gratitude. If you have any idea of how to negotiate these unnecessarily complicated options, I think I owe you a beer or two. Thanks!
posted by Dr. Wu to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Straight Talk is what I have, and if you don't need much data they have a $35/month plan. They used to have a better deal for multiline. You can buy a sim to keep your phone.
Comcast let my GF get internet only for about $35 first year. Maybe switching whomever is on the account would let you get the introductory offer. Might have to cancel it outright to switch. Also owning your own modem/router pays for itself in less than a year if you get it on a good sale.
posted by Sophont at 3:31 PM on May 28, 2019

Comcast's cell service is a relatively new thing. Based on what I see, the $12 is a 1Gig limit per month (which may be okay for you) or there is an unlimited play for $45. They use the Verizon network. This actually seems like a pretty decent deal (particularly if you don't use a lot of data).

AFAIK you won't be able to use your T-Mobile phones with this deal, because T-Mobile is GSM and Verizon is CDMA. So that might be a problem. You might have to get new phones (you might have to get them anyway).

The AT&T deal is for home phone (unless the deal specifically says otherwise, but I've never seen a deal like that).

At 20 Mbps (Sonic's offering), would we still be able to stream Netflix (on a PS4 hardwired to the modem) while listening to Spotify in another room and, say, watching YouTube on a tablet? I have no idea.

Yeah, you should be fine. If you are streaming 4K then you will have a problem, but Netflix says that you can get HD streaming at 5mbps.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:41 PM on May 28, 2019

Best answer: Before you go further, let me make you aware of the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which stipulates (in most states, including California) that Internet services cannot be taxed by the provider.

This has a very major implication. If you get Internet service through a provider - just Internet service - you won't pay any taxes on that service. However, if you get Internet service plus phone service, or Internet service plus cable service, you will pay a wild assortment of service charges and taxes on the phone and cable services that will greatly increase the bill.

So, if you pay $64.95 a month for just Internet service and that's it, you should pay just $64.95. If you get Internet + Phone or Internet + Cable for, say, $54.95, which seems like a deal, you'll usually end up paying $64.95 or more after taxes and fees. Sonic, who require you to get phone service with your Internet service, and thus make you liable for taxes, lays out all the additional taxes and fees you'll be paying for the honor of getting phone service you won't even use. Cable video service taxes add even more taxes and service charges.

So, if Internet service by itself is a little more expensive but you're cancelling voice and cable service, don't worry about it. The additional taxes of having phone and/or cable video service from a provider generally will increase your bill by $10 each. If you need the phone service or want cable, that's the cost of having a phone line or cable - but if you don't need those things, the service will deceptively be more expensive after tax.

DSL services - which AT&T and Sonic are offering you - are generally far slower than cable Internet these days. I think Sonic's a great, innovative provider... in their fiber service areas. It doesn't sound like you're in an area where they have fiber, and I think you'll be disappointed in either AT&T's service or Sonic's service after having the faster Comcast service.

So, before you go switching providers and accepting slower service for a similar amount of money, consider cancelling cable service with Comcast, which should then eliminate taxes on your bill. At the very least, ask each of the providers what the proposed services will cost *after taxes*.

In addition, if you like T-Mobile but dislike the cost, Mint Mobile uses the T-Mobile network and has rates that are substantially below T-Mobile's rates in many cases. They're a legitimate outfit, the catch is that they want you to pre-pay not 1 but 6 or 12 months to unlock the lowest rates. If you're OK with one "big" phone bill a year, Mint Mobile is the provider to beat, and your T-Mobile phones and phone numbers will easily port over to their service.
posted by eschatfische at 4:01 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

- Definitely call Comcast and tell them you're planning to switch to a different service for $40/month, see what they offer.
- I had the slowest available DSL until recently and it was fine, I wouldn't be put off by that. Obviously, buy your own modem router rather than renting one from your internet provider. I get used/refurb ones for extra savings, no problems yet.
- AT&T has advertised to me at two different previous addresses - one they didn't actually cover, one they theoretically covered but then refused to serve me because it would cost too much to fix a network component. YMMV.

- Google Fi officially allows you to bring your own GSM phone now. $20 for the first line, $15 for each additional line, $10/gig of data billed to the nearest megabyte and with a maximum bill. Check the coverage map, but I've been really happy with the service in the US and roaming in Canada (no extra fees, just works in many countries).
- Republic Wireless, Consumer Cellular, Straight Talk, etc. all have cheap phone plans, but you may have to get new phones.
- Avoid pre-paid plans as those phones are often locked to a carrier, and a billing/payment problem can get your number reassigned very quickly. I also was unable to port a number with an area code different from the area I lived in a few years ago.
posted by momus_window at 4:31 PM on May 28, 2019

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for the answers so far. You've actually given me ... more data points, rather than fewer, but that's cool. The more you know ...

I guess the major unknowns/variables here for me are: How much data do I use per month on my phone, and how fast does my internet need to be? I *think* I can figure out the former from my Comcast account, but can anyone weigh in on specific internet speeds needed for specific tasks? I just don't know how to measure that.
posted by Dr. Wu at 4:55 PM on May 28, 2019

I use Republic Wireless for my mobile phone. I pay $20.00+ tax for unlimited Talk & Text + 1 GB Cell Data. GPS uses some cell data, and I like to look stuff up on my phone, maybe read some MeFi or whatever. Additional data is 5/GB, no gouging. I was able to bring my own phone. When my phone got borked, I got the same model at swappa.com, pretty cheap and painless. Republic routes calls over available wifi as much as possible. They seem to mostly use the TMobile network for cellular calls. Quality is fine, this has been a big cost saver for me. I'd be surprised if a Galaxy was not supported. Google Fi is another option. You can definitely reduce your mobile phone costs.

For Internet service, Time-Warner got merged with Charter, so that's what I have. Good bandwidth, crap customer service, high price.
Sonic piggybacks on AT&T wires "up to" 20 Mbps. This sounds like DSL, which is generally not speedy. DSL uses phone lines for Internet; the technology has never been fully exploited or upgraded, but is reliable. Speed depends on being close to a phone company switching location. The question to ask is How close am I to a central office? Be clear with the customer service rep that you watch Netflix and Youtube and stream music. It's not in their best interest to install it unless you'll be satisfied.

I have used a slow Internet connection - @ 10 - 15 mbps - and was usually able to stream average quality videos with some delays for buffering. I watch video on a laptop so it was fine because it was free (kind neighbor when I was broke).

When Internet service providers offer you phone service, it's usually an internet-based phone. It costs them hardly anything. I think phone service is bundled into my internet plan. I just declined the equipment. Mobile phone plans can be hella profitable, so I think Charter is getting in on that, they are likely to be expensive.
posted by theora55 at 5:15 PM on May 28, 2019

As another bit of anecdata, I was able to get a 400 Mbps internet-only package from Comcast for $60/month for 2 years after I moved to a different apartment in the south bay. If you're in the Bay Area, you likely live in one of the few places in the US with some slight semblance of competition in the ISP space, so they're very likely to offer you a deal if you tell them you're cancelling.
posted by Aleyn at 5:42 PM on May 28, 2019

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