Since your home internet connection will function as the backbone to this entire frugal communications guide, we should start with your internet service provider.
What you do and don’t need.
As mentioned already at the beginning, you’d be surprised at how little bandwidth one actually needs from their ISPs. In this era of fiber to the home and demands of BIGGER FASTER MORE! from consumers, it’s quite easy to lose track of how much bandwidth the average family actually needs to supply a regular stream of ones and zeros to the house to provide a mess of services that other cables used to bring into our house.
Realistically, most people in this day and age can easily get by with no more than 3Mbps service. If you’re gaming online, ping time, quality of the connection and how oversubscribed the ISP is in your area will matter more than your actual speed. If you’re downloading large files, learn some patience. Voice services use very little bandwidth at all and can even squeak by on dial-up levels of bandwidth so long as latency is low. If you’re wanting to stream video, a high definition movie won’t truly entertain you any more than the low definition version of the same piece… unless it’s some sort of technological puff piece where lens flares and blue hair matter more than story and OHGOODGRIEFWHYWOULDYOUSPENDTWOTHOUSANDDOLLARSONATV-ANDSTILLWASTETWOHOURSOFYOURLIFEWATCHINGFERNGULLYINSPACEINTHREEDEE!
…but I digress. Good writing knows no bandwidth restrictions, and NTSC quality video is more than sufficient to get a good idea of what’s going on without feeling like you have cataracts. If you can’t see the wisdom in this statement, you’re probably a media glutton and likely need help with this part of your budget anyway… so pay attention. For streaming video, 3Mbps down is plenty for one feed, a phone call and light surfing all at the same time. It won’t necessarily handle two video streams very well at the same time, but come on! If you’re going to rot your brain away for a couple hours watching TV, make it a family event.
Knowing this, we can go into subscribing to an ISP confident of what we need and how much is reasonable per month to pay. 3Mbps down! National average of $40 a month (expensive for what it is, but that’s deregulation for you)! Fantastic. Now, let’s examine some of the potholes that might crop up on your quest for cheaper internet access.
Pothole #1 – oversubscribing and data throttling.
Some ISPs, especially in the home consumer space, are money grubbing jerks. Some will oversell their available bandwidth for an area causing significant slowdowns during peak traffic periods (most commonly 5-9pm weekday evenings). Others will throttle certain providers or refuse to upgrade their back end to accommodate increased traffic from certain websites, frequently to make their own offerings more attractive (this is what the whole Net Neutrality argument thing you’ve likely heard about over the years actually concerns). This is where researching the ISPs you have available in your area on a site like Broadband Reports is useful and reading the fine print of your Terms of Service agreement are necessary. Find out in advance if there’s problems in your area from specific providers, the nature of that problem, and what the ISP is actually legally bound to do about it.
Also remember that with residential service, there’s no guarantee of specific speeds being provided by the ISP. Please forgive me for saying this because I feel as though it should be an obvious statement, but get what you pay for and pay for what you get. If the ISP is incapable of providing what you’re paying for after dealing with tech support, don’t expect that buying a higher tier of residential service from that obviously crappy provider is going to magically fix your throughput problems. Let your money do the talking and either drop down to the speed package they’re actually providing or take your business elsewhere. The 3Mbps ideal is there to facilitate in streaming video and potentially supply lower cost entertainment as a cable/satellite replacement, but isn’t entirely necessary for the rest of your services. The most important supported services will be VoIP and your general internet usage habits… the rest is gravy.
If you’re one of those unfortunate souls who is in the position of not getting what you’re paying for and don’t have an alternative available, and you’re bound and determined to stream internet video reliably (or just need a reliable internet connection), look into the business service offerings from same said ISP. They will be expensive, but that price will provide a Quality of Service guarantee of uptime and minimum bandwidth speeds provided. Obviously, if you need your entertainment fix and are in this position, shop around for alternatives as internet video isn’t going to be a practical method of cheap entertainment. Heck, it’s not even going to be a practical and reliable method for providing cheap phone services in your situation if this is a major issue. This is a home user guide, after all. There’s more extreme solutions to this problem, but it underscores the importance of scoping out all available resources and utilities involved with choosing a location to live and prioritizing what is actually important in your life and worth spending your hard earned resources on.
Pothole #2 – data metering.
This one’s becoming more and more ugly on a daily basis. ISPs left and right are deciding that users on smaller packages need less bandwidth, and try to push the cap down low enough that it potentially runs afoul of doing exactly what we’re wanting to do. The worst offenders are cable ISPs like Cox, Comcast, Suddenlink, Charter and Warner. For example, Cox and their $48/month 5Mbps down service is capped at 50GB of data a month. For our own usage, despite our frequent streaming of video (around 20 hours a month), we’re still well under that cap. Ironically, the same amount of video streaming on a faster connection actually uses more bandwidth yet rarely looks any better than what we’d have on that slower connection. Our router calculates out on average about 30-35GB of traffic a month for us, which brings us to…
Pothole #2-A – lies, damned lies, and data metering statistics.
Not all ISPs measure data the same way, and some ISPs have locally cached content that they won’t penalize you for on your bandwidth. Cox is a great example on this, but in a good way for the customer. They frequently report on average about 20% lower on data usage per month than our router that runs DD-WRT reports (more on that later). Although we would normally have a 50GB cap which is rather low amongst the 5Mbps plans, our data is used well. Inversely, we have AT&T who are crooked weasels with their DSL metering. They make a habit of measuring bandwidth by adding on all the inflated PPPoE headers, rounding up, and sometimes just pulling traffic out of their hinders, so even with a 150GB cap (currently) and their propensity to lower said caps while jacking prices up elsewhere in their marketing books, this is a very bad situation to be in as a customer.
We used to be with AT&T prior to their data cap policy, then I saw their metered bandwidth on our connection in comparison to the reality reported from our router. 45GB of traffic was reported as roughly 78GB. Although ugly, it’s not sinister. However, not slowing or suspending your account after hitting your cap in favor of billing you $10 per 10GB over with no rollover and that $10 being charged for just 1MB over… after past transgressions, this act inspired me to permanently blackball AT&T as any sort of direct billed primary carrier for any of my data for the rest of my natural born life, vowing I would rather do without than give them another nickel of my money. I also shot off a harsh letter to the local public utilities commission demanding that if metered bandwidth were to be institutionalized with billing on overages, there needed to be a set standard to measuring bandwidth and metering practices that were regularly inspected for accuracy. I’m sure it promptly got ignored. YMMV.
Moral of the story? Be aware of bandwidth caps, and be aware of how honest your ISP is going to be with those measurements, and never trust their equipment to tell you how much data you’re actually using if they want to bill you for overages.
Pothole #3 – service bundling.
Some ISPs like to force you into bundling services together. Comcast is a great example of this as they hate giving people only internet access and actually had a history of charging more per month to internet only users than internet users who also ordered the basic channel TV package. Others like AT&T refuse to give third party DSL providers access to dry-loop installations forcing you to have a local only land line phone turned on with them for $20+ a month before you can subscribe to DSLExtreme where you can save $15 a month on their DSL service over AT&T’s for the same speed, making AT&T’s dry-loop DSL the only and cheapest DSL option for your area at $40+taxes and regulatory fees. Be aware of what sort of price and service restrictions you’re getting into with your ISP.
Pothole #4 – taxes and hidden fees.
Some ISPs charge regulatory fees and taxes on top of the quoted fees per month. Others don’t. The division line usually falls along which chunk of copper coming into your house is being used. Consider it fair warning, and keep it in mind when debating between cable and DSL.
Pothole #5 – Verizon FIOS and copper.
This is a very specific situation to consider and deal with, but for those of you who had cut the copper line and ever had FIOS installed at your house and are now looking to save money by scaling back your services… good luck with that. What they didn’t tell you during your fiber install is that they permanently severed your copper POTS cable going into your house, forever eliminating the slower, cheaper, traditional DSL service. Congratulations, you now get to spend an extra $25-30 a month for that same 1-3Mbps internet access because a shiny little light transmits your data now instead of an electrical pulse. Then of course, what do you expect from a company that has no interest in actually maintaining or repairing their own regulated network? Behold the march of progress!
Now that you’re better equipped to handle how to comparison shop for your 3+Mbps internet connection, let’s look at the bright side on where you can actually save some money under specific provider and location situations!
Regional/Circumstantial ISP Options
The first one actually involves Verizon phone service areas. If you do happen to live in a Verizon area and FIOS hasn’t been installed, you can actually get dry-loop access from DSLExtreme for $25+fees/month with a 1 year contract or $35+fees/month without contract.
If you happen to live in Time Warner or Comcast territory, look into signing up for your cable internet service through Earthlink instead of direct with the cable provider, as lower than advertised speed and overall lower price packages may be available to you without trying to argue with the cable sales reps to admit to the cheaper unadvertised internet packages that they offer (Basic package from Time Warner, Economy Plus package from Comcast).
A couple options have come to my attention thanks to Bakari Kafele’s initial feedback and knowledge of DSL service options out in the California Bay area. First, if you’re in an AT&T or other non-Verizon local exchange area for your phone service, check into the price after tax of barebones metered local service (it’s a home phone account that bills you per minute on outbound local calling). Some regions/providers will be cheaper than others, but if you can’t get cheap dry loop DSL and you are in a third party DSL service area that an outfit like DSL Extreme can service and you can get that phone line service for less than about $15/month, it might be worth looking into going that route instead as it still might save you a few bucks, even if the phone line itself is pretty useless outside of incoming and 911 calls.
The other option brought up by Bakari is Sonic.net for DSL service in California. Their straight up vanilla DSL package prices seem to have mostly been retired, but are mostly competitive with DSL Extreme’s contract pricing. (Both companies are Fusion Broadband partners in the area.) More importantly though is Sonic.net’s new Fusion broadband/phone service available in roughly about 80% of the SF Bay and greater Los Angeles areas. I know that normally bundling services like this frequently winds up costing more than less, but Fusion is a very special exception. Subscribing to their Fusion service will turn on a DSL connection at the fastest rate your phone line will support, take over your traditional POTS phone line, and give you internet access up to 20Mbps with no data caps and unlimited phone calls to the United States and Canada for $40 plus about $10 in taxes a month. That’s it. No ATA equipment for making calls, no need for a UPS to keep phone service active during a blackout, no watching over data usage, no cutting back on data speeds to save money. Roughly $50 for all you can eat home phone and as fast as available ADSL2+ internet as they can provide, and you can even bring your own equipment.
Also, don’t be afraid of trying for even slower bandwidth service if it’s a significant savings option with your ISP. Just be sure to check for data caps and try throttling your connection at your router to the lower speed first to see how much it will impact things overall, but do keep in mind that one can still stream Hulu at its lowest compression rate even over a 768kbps down connection under most circumstances. The reason for the 3Mbps rule of thumb is more an erring on the side of caution and price versus speed suggestion. I’d rather recommend overkill for most usage scenarios than just enough.
Of all the sections, this one will benefit the most from your hard work, diligence and research. As always, Broadband Reports is one of the best resources for researching ISPs.
- Internet Service Providers (what you do and don’t need)
- Networking Equipment (laying the foundation)
- Cell Phone Providers (MVNOs are your friend!)
- Cell Phones (hardware and software)
- Home Telephone Providers (VoIP to the rescue!)
- Home Telephone Equipment (hardware and software)
- Home Entertainment (replace the cable box)
- Closing & Miscellaneous Resources