Hate Your Internet Provider? Haggling Can Help, a CR Survey Shows. – ConsumerReports.org

In the annual survey, many internet and TV customers reported that they’re unhappy with high prices and lousy customer service
When Consumer Reports asked its members for feedback on their pay-TV, home internet, and bundled plans, most companies got poor marks for value and many for customer service. A good percentage of people had decided to cancel their pay-TV contracts with their cable or satellite company, and many reported a lack of options among internet providers.
A couple of bright spots emerged from our annual survey, which this year received responses from more than 57,000 CR members. Google Fiber, which offers internet service in 27 cities throughout nine states, topped our ratings for overall satisfaction, as it did in 2020. (Google is retiring its TV service in markets where it had been available.) That service and Sonic were the only internet providers among 28 in the ratings that received positive ratings on every attribute.
Only two TV service providers out of 22 in our ratings, Midco and Dish, received decent marks for overall satisfaction.
Another high point: CR members were very successful in negotiating with providers to get lower prices or better deals.
“Much like other services we rate, we’ve found it pays for CR members to haggle with their cable and internet provider for a better deal. When they do, their efforts usually pay off, as about 70 percent of negotiators in our survey were able to get a price reduction or other perk,” says Tian Wang, a research associate in Consumer Reports’ survey department.
Despite the growing number of options for free and streaming TV services, 72 percent of CR members still subscribe to a traditional pay-TV service. However, cord cutting continues at a fairly fast pace, with 11 percent of those who had a pay-TV service in 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 cutting their ties with their provider by the time the survey data was collected.
One big reason was the ever-escalating cost of traditional pay-TV service. Of those members who cut the cord, 61 percent cited rising rates as a reason (see chart below). And in this latest survey, every single pay-TV provider we can rate earned our lowest mark for value.
An overwhelming majority—93 percent—of those who swapped a traditional TV plan for an internet streaming service thought they got much better value for their money. Of those, more than half said their streaming service had a superior selection of channels and/or shows.
However, there’s turnover among streaming services, too, with people picking up and dropping individual services as channel lineups and pricing change.
For example, 10 percent of those who had subscribed to a cable-replacement streaming service, such as AT&T TV Now (now called DirecTV Stream), Hulu + Live TV, Sling TV, or YouTube TV, said they dropped it completely. That compares with the 7 percent who dropped a subscription to an individual streaming service, such Disney+, HBO Max, or Netflix.
In addition to turning to streaming services for TV content, many people use antennas. In our survey, 22 percent of our members said they use an antenna to get free over-the-air TV signals on one or more of the sets in their home.
Only 2 percent of members who had paid home internet service dropped it. Those who did also cited escalating costs as a reason.
It’s no surprise that only a small number of our members dropped a paid internet service. In our survey, the overwhelming majority of CR members—81 percent—agreed that web access is now as important as electricity or water service. Plus, a third of CR members said they’re now using their home internet much more than they did before COVID-19 hit.
While the choices among TV providers has exploded, most people have few options for internet providers. More than 1 in 5 CR members who subscribe to a standalone internet service (one that isn’t part of a bundle) said their current ISP was their only option. Another 30 percent said they had only two companies to choose between.
Previous studies by Consumer Reports show that many Americans lack access to fast, reliable, affordable internet service, a problem that may be addressed by infrastructure spending signed into law this fall.
Value continues to be a differentiator among internet providers: Only 1 out of the 28 ISPs on our list received a passable (MetroNet, T-Mobile) or favorable (Google Fiber, Sonic) rating for value. In general, ISP reliability was received more favorably by CR members.
In general, fiber-optic internet providers got significantly higher overall satisfaction scores than any other type. DSL and satellite internet providers received the lowest overall satisfaction scores, respectively.
The satellite internet provider HughesNet was the lowest-rated company, with an overall satisfaction score significantly lower than all other providers. It also received our worst marks on all rated attributes across the board.
Data Caps
The CR survey asked members whether their internet plans imposed data caps or limits on the amount of data they could use each month. A number of companies had suspended data caps during the pandemic but have since reinstituted them. Industry analysts and consumer advocates say that data caps could be on the rise in the next few years.
Only 12 percent of our respondents said their plan had a data cap; 3 out of 10 CR members were unsure about it. More than half—58 percent—said their internet service plan wasn’t subject to data caps.
Customers of HughesNet, Viasat, and Xtream (Mediacom) were the most likely to say their plans came with data caps.
Bundles that combine TV, internet, and phone service are sometimes described as the glue that binds people to traditional TV companies, because these packages promise to offer convenience and especially savings. But the cost continues to climb. Members reported paying a median price of $188 per month, an $11-per-month increase from last year.
Perhaps that’s the reason no bundle provider received a favorable overall satisfaction score in our survey. Every single provider received our worst mark for value, even though there was a $100 difference between the cheapest median price paid ($114 per month, from Kinetic by Windstream) and the highest ($217, from Cox).
RCN was the only bundle provider to receive a decent overall satisfaction score, jumping from an unfavorable mark last year. It also received a passable rating for its customer service, joined by Cincinnati Bell, Midco, and Wave.
About two-thirds of members with a three-way bundled plan reported having at least one negative experience with their service. For example, a third found that the cost of their bundle increased significantly after the initial promotional period ended on their contract, and 22 percent had difficulty getting customer service on the phone.
The relatively few consumers who had three or more bundle providers to choose among were more likely to be very or completely satisfied with their bundle provider.
A big takeaway from CR’s survey is that when it comes to internet, TV, and phone bundles, it pays to haggle. Only 39 percent of CR members who subscribed to a bundle had done that. But among the people who negotiated, an overwhelming majority of them—70 percent—succeeded in getting a discount or other benefit.
About a third of those who negotiated with their provider received a lower price and/or got a new promotional rate. Fifteen percent were able to get faster broadband speed, and 8 percent received additional premium channels, such as HBO or Showtime, or an extension of their original promotional rate. In fact, some hagglers walked away with multiple perks.
AT&T, Comcast (Xfinity), Cox, and WOW customers were the most likely to get a promotional rate when they asked for one. Bundled customers who negotiated with Verizon, Charter (Spectrum), and Frontier Communications were the least likely to get their price dropped.
James K. Willcox
I’ve been a tech journalist for more years than I’m willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I’ve not yet figured out how to safely combine.
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