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How one couple beat the cable company

Hal Mayforth for the Globe

The breaking point came in July 2012. Our Comcast bill for Internet, television, and phone hit $184 a month. And that was without premium channels like HBO. Add cell phones, and our total telecommunications bill was $244.

By last month, we had chopped that to $97 a month – a savings of $1,764 a year.

But before explaining how we did it, a caution: If you are a diehard Red Sox fan, this may not work for you. That said, our telecommunications diet plan is based on four precepts:

1. Pay only for what you use.

2. Buy your own equipment.


3. Mine the Internet for all its riches.

4. Comparison shop (yes, that takes time, but if you’re a cheap geek like me, it’s part of the fun.)

For us, cutting the cell phone bill was easiest, but more on that later. The big challenge was Comcast, a complicated beast made more so by constantly changing plans and promotions. Up until then, we had kept our costs reasonably low by calling the cancellation line every time the bill went up. Customer reps seemed to pull discounts out of a hat. If I resisted, they’d toss in perks like a free year of HBO. It reminded me of those late-night Veg-O-Matic commercials: “But wait, there’s more.”

But it came to the point where Comcast would no longer budge. We couldn’t switch providers because our condo building was wired by Comcast, and Verizon FIOS didn’t reach into Brookline. Satellite TV was out because we’re not allowed to mount an outside dish.

So we scrutinized our bill and looked for places to cut. We paid extra for equipment rental, HDTV, and a cable package that included NESN (for the Sox) and AMC (“Mad Men” and “The Killing”).

We started by buying our own modem. Comcast lists compatible devices at mydeviceinfo.comcast.net, and we shopped around before purchasing an Arris cable modem through eBay for $36. Comcast rents modems for $8 month, so we recouped our investment in five months.


Since we opted for an Internet-only modem, rather than pay nearly twice as much for one that could handle Comcast phone, we had to find a new phone service. That led to even bigger savings. After comparing many VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services, we selected VOIPo. For $185 (including taxes), we purchased a two-year contract. That translates to under $8 a month, a third of the Comcast rate.

We cut our cellphone bill by even more — 75 percent. We paid AT&T $60 a month for two lines with a combined rolloverable 450 minutes. We’re not big talkers or texters (call us thumb challenged), so we switched to Pure TalkUSA, which offered two lines and 200 rolloverable minutes for $15 a month.

And we’re not technological dinosaurs. After making the switch, our annual cellphone savings — $540 — was enough to buy a pair of tablets.

Swept up in cutting fever, we decided to take the big step: getting rid of cable TV. Using websites such as tvfool.com, we plugged in our address and found we could receive all major broadcast channels in the area with an indoor antenna. A Mohu Leaf antenna ($35) did the trick. We cut the cable cord. We paid to download “Mad Men” from Amazon ($2.45 per episode) and I learned I could live without the Red Sox (thankfully, the World Series is still on broadcast TV).


But we missed the DVR. Through Craigslist, we found a TiVo box for $75. The seller had negotiated her monthly fee to just $7, and that was transferable. Comcast charges $18 a month for its HDTV DVR box.

We later sold the TiVo box for $40 and spent $50 for an AverMedia TV tuner for our laptop computer. The device consists of a 3-inch stick that plugs into a USB port and a tiny antenna that can be mounted on a computer monitor. It easily pulls in 20-plus channels, with better reception than the Mohu Leaf.

The accompanying software downloads TV schedules, making it easy to set up recordings. Our laptop was now a DVR. For playback, we run an HDMI cable from the computer to our television. Using the laptop mouse, we speed through commercials.

But wait, there’s more. The HDMI link turns the television into an Internet monitor, opening Internet media to big-screen viewing. For example, you can go to the PBS website to watch current and past shows.

Alternatively, an array of other devices link TVs to the Internet. We bought a Roku player, which offers access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime and more than 1,500 other online channels, many of them free. We bought the Roku 3 on eBay for $68.

You can watch every baseball team live on the pay service MLB.tv, except the home team, which is delayed 90 minutes; B-rated horror films on Cryptic Television; or foreign detective shows on MHz International Mystery. New channels pop up all the time.


By allowing you to subscribe to individual channels, the streaming model offers more flexibility than cable’s tier pricing. A friend of mine who loves old movies saw her cable bill soar when Comcast moved Turner Classic Movies to its Sports and Entertainment package. Besides having to pay for sports channels she didn’t want, she also had to upgrade her service from Digital Economy to Digital Starter. Her bill swelled to $70 a month from $45.

The future of cheap and varied Internet content, however, could be disrupted, depending on the outcome of the “net neutrality” debate. That eye-glazing term refers to the principle that Internet providers treat all traffic equally. Without it, Comcast, Verizon, and other providers could make streaming sites pay to secure fast delivery to customers. Giants like Netflix would likely pass the cost to customers (us); startups, like niche movie sites, might never get off the ground. Stay tuned to see how the Federal Communications Commission and Congress act on the issue.

Over the past five years, Comcast’s video customers have declined 10 percent, to 21.7 million at the end of 2013 from 24.2 million in 2008. That trend has slowed, however, and shows signs of reversing as the company upgrades its technology. The X1 DVR allows you to record four shows simultaneously and upload them to the cloud for access from any of your televisions or mobile devices. Comcast apps provide a single, searchable source for your recordings and thousands of on-demand programs. Of course, this convenience comes at a price.


Postscript: I have to fess up. After getting assigned this story, my Internet bill climbed to $77 a month when a $20 customer loyalty discount expired. When I called to cancel service, I was offered a one-year package that included an HD-DVR box, HBO, and six months of Showtime for about the same price. I faced a decision: Stick to Internet only at a slower speed or retie the cable cord. I retied the cord. Had I not been off cable TV for more than a year, I don’t think I would have been offered the deal. And I suspect a year from now, I’ll have to cut the cord again. But I’ll be prepared.

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.