Figuring out the best combination of phone, television and Internet services for your household can be headache-inducing — but it also can be worth the mental energy. Consumer Reports recently ran a detailed report about the advantages (and potential annoyances) of "bundling" those services together through the same provider. Generally speaking, the magazine recommended choosing a bundled package if its services meet your needs and the price is right. Here are some tips to consider as you shop around.
1Know this market. Residents of the Tampa Bay area have more choices than consumers in other parts of the country. Cable provider Bright House and FiOS fiber-optic-cable giant Verizon duke it out regularly, and satellite services are available through DirecTV and DISH Network. Knology and other providers are noteworthy regional players as well, and all offer bundled services. Consumer Reports said switching to a new provider can be disruptive since it often requires new equipment and installation fees, but sometimes deals for new customers can be so fabulous that it really can pay to shop around.
2Know your TV-viewing patterns. Are there certain high-definition channels or NFL packages you must have? If so, that could make all the difference when choosing a provider. Compare programming carefully before committing to anything so you know you'll be happy.
3Don't pay too much for Internet speed. Most households typically need an Internet download speed of at least 1 Mbps, but you can pay big bucks for much faster speeds. The Consumer Reports analysis said the only households that might need such wicked-fast Internet speeds are ones where people share lots of video files or watch multiple video-on-demand programs at the same time.
4Think about your phone needs. When picking services for your bundle, decide how helpful or unnecessary it might be to have a plan that includes international calling, unlimited long-distance and so forth. Be aware that customer satisfaction is high with Internet phone services. Many Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services come with voice mail, caller ID and unlimited long-distance in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.
5Know what to expect in an emergency. The best and most dependable 911 service is through a traditional landline. Consider these details from Consumer Reports: "Cable VoIP and fiber phone service require a battery backup for use during power outages. One might be provided with your service or can be purchased for about $45. But such packs provide only 4 to 8 hours of running time. . . . Even with fiber, you need to weigh the need for service during a long power outage. You can usually opt for a landline from the fiber carrier and still qualify for bundled savings."
6Do homework online. To see what deals are available to new and existing customers, visit the websites of the various service providers in your area. Keep an eye out for great offers, as well as fine print about equipment rental and other added costs.
7Once you're armed with information, start calling around. If you don't want the hassle of switching carriers, call your current carrier and say you're satisfied with everything about your service but the price. Specify deals you've seen from competitors and ask to have such deals matched. If need be, ask calmly and politely to speak with a supervisor. You may ultimately get transferred to a "customer retention" expert whose focus will be preventing you from jumping ship.
8Avoid contracts if you can. This might be tricky, and it might not be possible in some cases, but try not to get locked into a contract because you could end up facing early-termination fees if you need to back out for any reason.
9Keep good records. Note the names of the people you speak with and any terms and costs you agree upon. This could come in handy later when your bill arrives and it's noticeably higher than you anticipated. Remember to clarify how much you'll have to pay after any promotional period ends.
10Become a cell-phone-only household. Another way to save money is to cancel your home phone service and simply use cell phones, a step that has already been taken by more than 20 percent of U.S. households. Before doing so, make sure you're happy with your cell service in your home and all your regular haunts, and you're comfortable with calling 911 from a cell phone. (You may have to tell a 911 operator where you are when you call.)
Laura T. Coffey can be reached at laura@ tentips.org.
Sources: Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org); Robert Trigaux's Venture blog at tampaBay.com (blogs.tampabay.com/venture/)