Bundle communication services and save money

If you’re scrambling to trim expenses during these hard economic times, relief might be as close as your Internet, phone and television services.
Intense competition for cable and satellite customers between AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS high-speed fiber providers has driven down rates for Internet, phone and TV services, according to the editors of Consumer Reports. Bundles of the three services have dropped in price by up to 20 percent in the past year, to as low as $80 a month.
In spring 2008, the Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 42,939 respondents with a home Internet account, 42,494 with TV service, and 30,164 with phone service, all Consumer Reports subscribers. In their survey of major telecom providers and bundled services, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse, whose networks are fiber-optic-based, received superior scores overall and were the most consistently satisfying providers for their Internet, television and telephone services.
In areas where fiber-optic service is not available, a highly rated cable company is the next-best choice for many households. According to CR’s survey, better cable companies include Cox, Cablevision and the smaller Bright House and Wow.
If television service is a priority and fiber-optic service isn’t available, satellite service may be a fine option. CR suggests opting for a hybrid that includes DirecTV. It scored significantly higher than all the major cable companies and Dish Network, the other major provider of satellite service, for TV picture, sound and channel selection. It also offers hybrid bundles of its TV offerings and DSL and phone service from telephone providers.
How to choose
— Check your alternatives. Only a small percentage of homes have two cable companies to choose from; most only have one. Satellite is more widely available, provided a home has an unobstructed view of the horizon to the southwest. DSL is widely available in urban and suburban neighborhoods. While fiber-optic service, such as Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse, is spreading fast, it is still only available in about 8.5 million homes in about one-third of the states.
— Weigh the case for bundling. With most providers, signing up for more services equals more savings. Bundles allow for integrated services, such as display of callers’ phone numbers on the TV screen. Triple-play offers often come sweetened with more extras, such as free installation.
— Don’t rule out a la carte. Taking fewer than three services from any one provider allows flexibility. Spreading service among a few carriers also eliminates the possibility that a network or equipment failure will knock out all telecom services.
— Consider phone safety. Cable VoIP and fiber phone service require a battery backup to use during power outages. These battery backups may be provided or have to be purchased for an additional fee. Additionally, if an outage lasts longer than the battery backup, consumers may be left without a phone for the remainder of the outage.
— Fine-tune by other attributes. CR’s ratings reveal that providers differ in more than their customers’ overall satisfaction. Consumers should determine which providers carry the programming they desire.

How to get the best price
— Check rates, then check again. Scour the provider’s Web site for the best deals, and ask a customer rep of the price quoted is the company’s absolute best offer.
— Negotiate. Ask for a reduced price or free extras, such as installation or a premium channel at no cost.
— Ask for sample bills. Ask for a summary of all charges for the first and subsequent months, confirming that the figures include all taxes, fees and one-time expenses.
— Fine-tune extras. Don’t pay more for higher-speed Internet service unless there’s a lot of downloading or sharing of very large files. Most VoIP and fiber-based phone plans include features such as caller ID and answering service. Check that these features don’t disappear or that the bill doesn’t increase once the promotional period ends.

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