It’s the most cable-tastic time of the year: Review some accounts you may be able to improve on

Today’s post comes with apologies to my international readers, especially my esteemed non-US Tech Field Day colleagues, who may or may not benefit from today’s quick take that ended up not being so quick again.

As my American readers will know, there are monthly expenditures that are painful and rarely decrease over time.

Some, like apartment rent and self storage, are downright predatory by design–try getting the advertised new tenant rate when you’ve lived in an apartment for a year or more. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you move into a different apartment, pay overlapping rent during the move, put a new deposit down and wait a month or two for the old one to be returned, and then get something close to the advertised rates. And in a recent self-storage experience, I was given two choices on upgrading a storage space: Pay full price (and expect a rent hike within 2-3 months of course), or get the advertised price for the new space as long as I paid full price for the old (soon-to-be-empty) space for three full months.

It’s not all bad though

But you can find unexpected opportunities to save, especially (in my experience) with cable companies, who have a suboptimal reputation when it comes to customer service. Some cellular providers can also work this way, although it can be a bit rougher.

It helps to do some homework first, so here’s what I’d suggest you do.

  1. Review your current service plan. If you got a promo when you signed up, or if you renewed with a promotion, it probably disappeared after 6 or 12 months and you’ve been paying more since then.
  2. Consider what you use, what you want to upgrade, what you can do without, and figure out if price change is the most important thing or if feature changes are. For example, if your plan went from $100 to $150, do you want to get more for the $150 for the next 12 months, or do you just want to get back to $100?
  3. Review your service provider’s website for current offers. Mine (Comcast/Xfinity) has a section for current customer promos, but some cable companies and ISPs may not make it that easy.
  4. Think about taking something on in the plan (i.e. voice lines, premium TV promotions) especially if they give you what you want for less than it costs without them. Triple-play promos sometimes do that, and you can probably keep the triple play even if you don’t use the voice line (or even have customer premise equipment that supports it).
  5. Reach out to your service provider via social media. Twitter and Facebook are good options, and many providers have sub-Reddits where company employees help customers with billing and service plan topics. You can call in of course, or if your provider has retail storefronts, you could go talk in person (although masks don’t interfere as much with typing as talking face to face).
  6. Be open about what you don’t need or don’t care about. If you’re willing to cut your channel lineup or take a slower Internet connection, put it out there.
  7. Don’t bluff too eagerly. If you tell them you’ll discontinue service if you don’t get the right deal, you’d better be prepared to do that. A friend of mine ran into that and kinda shot himself in the foot a year or two ago.
  8. If you’re using an asynchronous mode (website chat, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit DMs, etc), be patient and even friendly. Never hurts to be courteous to someone who’s often working with angry or confused customers. They may go a little farther for you, or at least you can have a comfortable interaction and get what you need out of it. Feel free to do this in realtime, but you may not have time to discuss your dinner or holiday plans or the weather on the phone or in person.
  9. Find out when the promotional rate ends, and set a reminder in a personal calendar or device to check back when it’s due for re-negotiation.

A couple of bonus tips

Since I mentioned cellular service and cable service, here are two hardware tips for those two enormous niches, as well as a not-very-secret secret.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators

For cellular service, you can get the benefits of a big carrier without the long term contracts and high prices. There are entities called Mobile Virtual Network Operators, or MVNOs, which buy wholesale cellular access and sell it under usually-smaller brand names. Some of the popular ones these days are actor Ryan Reynolds’s Mint Mobile, Visible, Republic Wireless, and Xfinity Wireless. In each of these cases, you’re on one of the big three (usually T-Mobile but sometimes AT&T or Verizon as well) networks, but you may get shorter (or non-existent) contract lock-ins, deals on non-flagship phones, trade-in offers, and of course lower prices.

If you’re a Google / Pixel fan, Google Fi is a MVNO that uses multiple networks on phones that work with multi-carrier SIMs. Usually these are phones bought directly from Google. In recent years, most other modern phones will work with Fi but may not get the automatic network switching. A number of my world traveler friends use Google Fi because it offers reasonably-priced data and voice service overseas. They have family plans now, a plan with bill protection (capping your maximum data cost, although you’ll be “network managed” over a certain threshold per month), and frequent device promotions. (If you sign up for Fi through my link, we both get a $20 credit.)

Swappa for gently used devices

Swappa started out as effectively eBay for mobile phones. They’ve since added tablets, certain computers, game consoles, and more. You get multiple layers of protection, proactive IMEI checking (so you have a very low risk of getting a blocklisted device and usually get a refund if you do), and an option to buy locally knowing the device has been reviewed and checked against blocklists.

You may not get amazing deals on the latest flagships (although they are often posted), but you can find slightly (or much) older phones for great prices. If you don’t mind a bit of wear and tear or a device that is a couple of years old, you can avoid the long-term payments with your carrier and upgrade/change your device whenever you want. Just buy your “new” device and then post your old one back on Swappa.

Buy your own cablemodem

If you know you’re going to have cable Internet service for a year or more, and don’t mind handling device service yourself, consider buying your own cablemodem. Your provider probably has a list of supported devices (Comcast’s is here–log in for best results), and most cablemodems available at retail will list supported providers and service levels.

If you have a modest service plan (400mbit or lower), you can probably go to Best Buy or Amazon and get a $60-ish cablemodem. At $5/mo for device rental, you break even in a year. Devices supporting wifi and phone service may be a bit more expensive.

Note that often a device will be listed as supporting a specific speed, but the provider suggests it for a lower speed tier on their network. This may be because of actual data on your connection, or slightly different network conditions and configurations between providers. For example, the Motorola/Arris SB6190 linked above says it will handle up to 800 Mbps down, but you see three different speeds for three different providers in the product info.

multi-megabit speed cable internet

It doesn’t hurt to ask your provider if they have any promotions that might include the cost of the cablemodem, but you may find it convenient to just purchase your own. If it breaks, you may have to buy another or see if the manufacturer offers advance replacement on RMAs, whereas with most providers you can go into a retail storefront and get it replaced free of charge.

Where do we go from here?

As I wrote this post, I was chatting with my provider to update / renew my plan, so I’ll be picking up my “free” cablemodem soon and seeing how high a speed my physical connection can handle. This will be useful in testing my next generation home network, as you may have read about earlier this month, without impacting the other two work/study-from-home denizens of my network.

Have you found any tips or tricks for negotiating your Internet, Cell, or other challenging monthly bills? Feel free to share them in the comments.

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