Posted by: Captain Easychord | December 29, 2009

How To Spend Less And Get More (Telecom Edition)

A couple weeks ago, Sean solicited suggestions for telecommunications solutions as he prepares to move into a new home.  In Sean’s own words:

I’m looking into options for phone service, cell phone service, cable, and internet. I know there are certain packages out there and want to get your opinion on what you like and/or what you don’t. Obviously, we want something that works but also won’t cost too much. We’re not sure yet whether or not we’ll go cell phone only and get rid of a home phone. … Finally, a DVR, whether through Tivo or another company is a must.

Now I’m not too familiar with a bunch of different packages that telecom companies might offer.  Moreover, I’m sure the options Sean will have will be rather limited by what providers offer services in his new place.  I was happy with the service I got from RCN at my old apartment, but when I moved four blocks away, I found that they didn’t service my new building.  As a result, my recommendations are often more general and philosophical than to recommend a specific provider.

It’s also worthwhile to note that I have some early adopter tendencies when new technologies can save money or provide valuable new options.  For instance, while Sean is still struggling with the question of whether to drop his landline, I did so back in 2000, before anyone I knew had given that a try.  Disclaimers out of the way, here’s a few suggestions after the jump, many of which I’ve already put into practice:

Phone Service

I dropped my landline back in 2000 and aside from a brief spell in law school, haven’t looked back.  Although a landline isn’t really right for me, I can understand that some folks might want to have one.  Fortunately, home telephone service has some great options for saving some money if you’ve been using your local phone company’s “universal” package (probably also their “most popular” plan).

Right now, Verizon’s website is advertising their unlimited plans starting at $40/month.  Ugh!  I’m sure this price point is set to push people toward an all-in-one cable/Internet/phone package, but right now, we’re just looking at component pricing and services.  On that front, a quick and easy answer to unlimited home phone service would be to give Vonage a call to sign up for their unlimited service at $25/month.

But if your home phone needs are just occasional – and anyone considering whether to ditch the landline presumably falls into this category – we can do better.  Dig a little deeper into Verizon’s landline offerings and you’ll find that you can get dial tone for as little as $6 a month, with additional charges of 6 cents per call placed.  If you’re only making a few calls per week, you can get your landline service for under $10 a month!  That’s pretty cheap and well-tailored for most people, but we can still do better.

For just $3 a month, you can sign up for unlimited calling to the US and Canada via Skype.  Now this is the part where my disclaimer about being an early adopter comes into play, because in order to do this, you’re going to be using your computer as a telephone.  Even better, if most of your landline calls are to a particular person, get them to install Skype as well and enjoy free Skype-to-Skype calling.  For me, this solution works extremely well because it lets me talk to folks as though they were sitting there in my apartment.  There’s no handset to hold to my ear, the most basic microphone is sensitive enough to allow me to walk all over my apartment and if you want, Skype offers videoconferencing.  The solution works so well that my family is starting to adopt Skype for the bulk of their calls amongst one another.  It is important to note that one cannot call 911 via Skype and also that I haven’t actually used the SkypeIn or SkypeOut services that allow interaction with the public telephone network, but it’s certainly a worthwhile option to try.

Cell Phone Service

OK, so I’m a bit of a geek… but for all the early adopter talk, I’m still using the same cellphone that I got back in 2004.  That’s right, my cellphone is over five years old.  It doesn’t play music, it doesn’t have thousands of apps… heck, it doesn’t even really handle text messaging in a straightforward manner… but you know what it does do well?  It places and receives telephone calls.  That is to say, my cellphone is good at performing the core function of a cellphone.

Now sure, it would be cool to have one of these newfangled smartphones that can wake you up, cook your breakfast and pick out your clothes in the morning, but y’know what else?  They’re expensive!  I don’t tend to spend a whole lot of time on the phone; I can usually email, instant message or otherwise call lots of people.  Consequently, I have a barebones cellphone plan, for which I’m paying Sprint about $35 a month.  And while I certainly can’t deny that a smartphone would be useful to me on occasion, it’s certainly not worth the $60 or so that the service would cost me on a monthly basis.  The fundamental question here is how much service you really need.

Otherwise, I don’t really have a lot to say about cellphone plans.  Maybe when the AT&T’s exclusivity deal with the iPhone runs out this summer, we’ll see more competition between carriers on price.  In the meantime, it seems like you might as well pick the carrier that gives you the best signal.  That being equal, go with whatever hardware device you like the most.  But if you’re shopping on price, you probably already know that you’ll typically save the most money with Sprint and T-Mobile.

Cable

We’ve all heard the old lament about cable that there’s 500 channels and nothing on.  In fact, I had this experience when I was visiting my cousin a few weeks ago.  I woke up early one morning, flipped on the teevee and found absolutely nothing I was interested in watching.  This isn’t to say that there is never anything worth watching on cable… surely there is.  But by and large, the vast majority of people aren’t interested in the vast majority of the programming on cable television.

At the same time, television content is increasingly available via the Internet.  Services like Hulu and Clicker make it easy to find the shows you’re looking for and if a studio hasn’t put its shows out there for free online viewing, pay services like Amazon and iTunes allow for on-demand viewing.  If you’re looking to catch up on past seasons of a show or if you don’t need your shows hot off the press, there’s also Netflix.

Even live sports aren’t hard to pick up online.  In fact, with package deals from the NFL, MLB and NHL, you may get even more coverage of your favorite team than you get from the cable company (especially if you live out-of-market).  There’s also free golf at PGAtour.com and a litany of options at ESPN360.com and Justin.tv.  Again, some of these are pay services, but they’ll also be more versatile than cable and they’re available at a fraction of the cost.

Now you can watch this all on your iPhone or your tiny netbook screen or the PC in your office.  But it really works best when you’re working with a machine that’s hooked directly up to your television.  In my case, my television is my computer monitor.  But if you’re not willing to take that step just yet, you can certainly take advantage of the convergence of declining price and improving quality in the HTPC market and get a dedicated machine to hook up to your TV for less than the price of a year’s worth of cable.  Hey, you can use this as your home phone too!

The long and short of what I’m saying is that life without cable or satellite TV is easier than you think.  Furthermore, because of these factors, I suspect that ten years from now, cable television as we now know it won’t exist anymore.  On an even shorter timeline, cable and satellite television will be as archaic and disposable as landline telephone service is today.  In fact, the early adopters are finding that to be the case already.

Although I only pay for a Netflix subscription, I’m finding that I usually have too much stuff to watch.  Without cable.  Awesome.  I can’t help but recommend that other folks give the cable-free life a try, especially if you’re looking to save some cash.

DVR

Just a quick aside to note that as the television world moves from cable and timeshifting to on-demand viewing patterns, the future is bleak for DVR generally and TiVo specifically.  Take a look at this chart of TiVo subscribers over the last few years.  That’s not what you want your business to look like.  Besides the structural problems that TiVo is facing, they’re also losing market share to DVR services provided by cable companies as well as homebrewed DVR solutions, including new Windows 7-based solutions.  These are among the reasons why Jason Chen argues that you don’t need a TiVo anymore over at Gizmodo.  So go ahead and get one if you like, but be mindful that your investment may not last as long as you hope.

Internet

As you may have guessed by now, this is the one critical area that will be (or will soon be) the linchpin of all your telecom needs.  There’s also not much to say here, since your options are probably limited to whatever DSL or cable modem service your various local telecom providers offer.  Here, different people in different locations will get different results as far as the superiority of one medium or the other.  All I can say here is give one company a try.  If they don’t work out, try another.  I’m running 7 Mbps max download speed, 768 Kbps up and for me that works fine (although I would be awfully tempted to switch to FiOS should Verizon ever get around to installing it in my neck of the woods).  Generally, if you’re paying somewhere around $50 a month for your Internet connection, you should be getting plenty of bandwidth for most of your needs.

So that’s the full story.  Long and short of it is:  don’t pay for more than you’re going to use productively, look into setting up a home theater PC that can handle as many of your telecommunications needs as possible and route what you can through a good Internet connection.  Put that all together and you can save money while perhaps getting more features, flexibility and customization in your telecom services.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for writing this entry! It looks like we’re going to keep a home phone since there are a lot of packages of internet, cable and home phone out there.


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