Will switching cable companies save you money?

By Tod MarksConsumer Reports

If you’re like me, you’re probably bristling over the high cost of watching television. Even with a $15 a month “triple-play” discount for bundling TV, Internet, and telephone services from a single provider, my bill seems out of whack. When Optimum, my provider, eliminated the promotional discount for my HD cable boxes (each set requires its own box at $7 per month), I protested by downgrading my channel package to barely above basic. That ultimately cut my monthly bill from around $180 to $130, but I still felt gouged considering I gave up premium programming, which included a few movie channels and sports.

So I took the bait and responded to a tantalizing counter offer from Verizon. Most of us have read or seen the ads; I receive these so-called limited-duration deals on a regular basis. Optimum plays the same game, too, trying to lure competitors’ customers with similar come-ons. The promotion teases a low introductory rate for 24 months. But the difficulty of getting straight answers to straight questions, and inconsistent responses from one customer-service representative to another, was enough to make me yearn for the days of rooftop and rabbit-ear antennas and Ma Bell.

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After several live-chat sessions, a rep cobbled together a bundle similar to my current Optimum plan. The price: $79.99 per month. But that’s before the barebone-but-essential extras: Three set-top boxes (one for each of my TVs) to receive programming, $23.97; a wireless router, at $4.99; and tax (estimated at 10 to 15 percent), which raised the prospective bill to approximately $120 to $125 per month. That’s not exactly the savings I was hoping for, considering that the installation process can take six hours, and Verizon couldn’t—or wouldn’t—provide an estimate of what my bill would be once the promotion expired.

Save a bundle on telecom services: Learn how to beat the cable companies at their own game.

Having written extensively about negotiating for discounts, I figured I could do better. After all, our recent telecom survey revealed that seven out of 10 respondents with a triple-play bundle didn't even try to bargain down their bills. But among those who did, more than 90 percent got some accommodation from their provider.

When I hesitated to commit, the representative sweetened the deal significantly with a $250 gift card if I was willing to sign a two-year contract. Not bad, but when I continued to balk and explained I needed to talk it over with my family, she dangled another perk: A free three-month subscription to an array of premium movie channels, and 50 percent off for the rest of the year.

Right now, I’m still weighing my options, and hope to squeeze a little harder. And in fact, it looks as if I’ve found one more bargaining chip to pile on yet another discount. A new Verizon FiOS promotion gives Verizon Wireless smart phone customers (like me) $240 in savings ($10 per month over 24 months) if they sign up for a FiOS Triple Play with Quantum Internet, plus another $10 per month off their residential phone bills, also for 24 months. At this point, the deal may be too good to pass up.

—Tod Marks

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