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CUB’s Internet, cable, and telephone shopping guide

Gone are the simple days of a landline phone, a few TV channels, and a dial-up Internet connection.  Step into the nearest Best Buy, and you can become quickly overwhelmed by the plethora of telecom options available.  To make shopping a little easier, here’s CUB’s tips to help you make the right Internet, cable and telephone choices for your household.


When purchasing Internet, you need to first assess your needs.  Begin by asking the following questions: Are you looking for affordability, availability and/or speed? These are helpful questions to guide your decision-making.


Not all companies are available in all areas.  Before you dive into research on a particular company’s offers, make sure you verify if it serves your location.  You can find a list of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) by ZIP code here.


Download speeds range from 1 megabyte per second (MBPS) to 1 gigabyte (GBPS or 1000 MBPS). If you are just doing simple tasks on the Internet, like reading your email or surfing the web, you likely don’t need more than 3 MBPS downloading speed. However, if you plan to watch videos or play games, you’ll probably need to go higher.

The Federal Communications Commission’s Household Broadband Guide has a great advice to help you determine what speed you might need.  Also, check out the Netflix ISP test, which can tell you the fastest providers nationally, and Netindex.net, which shows the fastest providers in your area.

A DSL connection, which uses a phone line to connect to the Internet, is cheaper but slower, and quality depends on the distance from a provider’s central office.  Top speeds are around 25 MBPS.

Broadband is an umbrella term that covers cable, satellite, DSL and fiber optic (for more info, see “How Do I Choose the Best Internet Service?” at lifehacker.com).

Cable Internet is pretty fast, but you share bandwidth with neighbors, which can slow speeds (think at night, when everyone is logging onto Netflix and streaming bandwidth-hogging video). It doesn’t depend on proximity to a central location like DSL, however.  It’s also widely available, but sometimes areas are only served by a few providers (for example, most households in Chicago must choose between Comcast and RCN).

Satellite Internet covers areas where cable isn’t available and is often the only option in rural areas, but it is slower and more expensive.

Fiber Optic Service (FiOS) is the fastest type of service, but it’s not available everywhere yet.  AT&T and Verizon have introduced FiOS service.

Bundled or unbundled?

Often Internet, cable and TV are bundled together as part of a package. However, this can be unnecessary and expensive if you’re only using one of the services.  Bundles can be your best bet, however, if you want to purchase TV, Internet and phone together.  Read CUB’s Guide to Unbundled Internet if you’re considering purchasing stand-alone Internet.

Other Internet considerations include the cost/length of your contract, the length of any promotional offers, hidden fees in your deal (found in fine print), and whether or not you choose potentially unnecessary add-ons, like Wi-Fi hotspot access.

Home phone

Phone service is often cheaper unbundled, so avoid bloated packages unless you know you are going to be using TV or Internet.

Beware of big flat-rate plans. Packages that offer unlimited local and/or long-distance calls – as well as a long list of features, like call waiting and voicemail – for one set monthly price can look better than they actually are.  Also eliminate unnecessary services, like landline insurance (such as AT&T’s Line-Backer), which is rarely needed but can cost up to $10/month.

For long distance service in Illinois, consider Pioneer, which offers rates of 2-3 cents per minute vs. the normal 7-10 cents per minute (plus monthly fees).  You could also use your cellphone to make long-distance calls.

Data ends up being the biggest money waster on cellphone plans. Pay attention to your actual monthly usage and modify your plan accordingly. (See CUB’s Guide to Cellphone Data Plans for more information.)

For more phone tips, visit CUB’s Phone Savings Center.

General advice

  • Don’t pay for unnecessary services and add-ons.  Avoid bundling if you don’t want all the services included.
  • Assess your own wants and needs (affordability, reliability, speed, number of calls per month, amount of channels) and use your answers to guide your decision-making.
  • Beware of long-term contracts or high exit fees.  Also, make sure you are not on a promotional offer which could expire quickly, kicking you onto a higher rate. Read through the fine print to make sure you know the length and terms of your contract.
  • Negotiate.  Many companies are willing to offer you better deals–but you won’t know unless you ask!