One Man’s Quest for Affordable Internet and Cheap Entertainment

htpc

Almost a decade ago we received a TiVo recorder as a gift and quickly discovered the joy of watching a few shows that we like without irritating commercials. Like so many other well-intentioned gifts, this one came with a side order of hidden expenses – in this case a deadly sin known as The Recurring Monthly Cost. Our eyes were opened to the benefits of the DVR world but our wallet didn’t like another budget drain so TiVo had to go. *Note: there is a TL;DR version at the end of this post.

No thanks!

tivo

My solution? I built a Home Theater Personal Computer or HTPC for short (first picture in this post). It was under $500 to put together and carried $0 recurring monthly costs. It’s connected directly to our TV in the living room and since it’s basically a networked computer, it’s much more than a TiVo or a DVR could ever be. TV shows are recorded and played in HD with ad skip functionality built-in. More importantly, it allows us to do everything else we could want on that same device – download and play music and movies, watch DVDs, watch YouTube or Hulu or any other streaming programming, browse any website, display our pictures on the big screen… It’s a PC so there are no worries about being left behind as new technology is introduced – just swap a new component in instead of replacing an old technology box with a new technology box. If you haven’t considered an HTPC I can’t recommend it enough!

We were still carrying basic cable for around $20 per month – another financial leak begging to be plugged. I decided to experiment with over-the-air digital TV by building a HDTV antenna with a scrap 2×4 and some laundry wire hangers.

antenna

To my surprise this contraption worked great to pick up the channels that we actually wanted. ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and several PBS channels all came in beautiful HD. Our HTPC doesn’t care if it’s cable or over-the-air and records the shows just the same. Considering we could now get all the shows we ever wanted over-the-air or online, it was a no-brainer to eliminate yet another Recurring Monthly Cost by cutting the cord.

Then again, I always thought that “cutting the cord” is a peculiar way to describe dumping your cable provider. It sounds liberating and middle finger-ish to proclaim that you cut the cord, but did you really? Did you drop your internet as well? If not then chances are you’re still tied to that same provider with that same cord. (Reminds me of all the PF posters who proclaim themselves debt-free while still carrying mortgages. Hate to break it but you’re still in debt!) So we didn’t cut the cord with Comcast, they just changed our account profile turning on the “no more TV for you” setting. Either way, good riddance!

And that brings us to high-speed internet. Our provider, Comcast, has several internet only packages with their XFINITY service. The four that I used over the years were Economy Plus (3 Mbps – $40 regular price), Performance Starter (6 Mbps – $50 regular price), Performance (25 Mbps – $67 regular price and $40 per month for first 12 month promo), Blast (105 Mbps – $77 regular price and $60 per month for first 12 month promo). All of these prices are local market dependent and change frequently.

We never paid more than $50 per month for the internet service using a well-known trick of calling Customer Service and asking for another promo once the current promo plan was up. For many months our monthly bill was in the sub-$30 range. After signing up for a promotion I’d set up a Google Calendar reminder to call back in 6 to 12 months depending on the promo period length.

Most of the time all I had to do was politely ask to see if they can do something about my internet bill that was about to increase significantly. A couple of times I had to threaten to cancel my service which initiated a transfer to the retention department that had access to other “unadvertised” offers. Comcast would often extend my existing plan for another 6 months at the same discounted rate or switch me to a different tier.  For example, they’ve given us faster internet at a lower price than we were paying for a slower service. Think going from 25 Mbps to 105 Mbps and paying 5-10 bucks less for another year… Not bad.

After being with Comcast for a decade the writing was on the wall when I noticed that negotiations were becoming progressively harder at each promo expiration. My latest promo was up last week with a monthly internet-only bill scheduled to go from $40 to $67. I called 5 times trying to get a different customer rep but received the same reply – “Sorry, there is nothing we can do”. Threats of cancelling ceased to work. Tired of the runaround, I asked to be switched to the Economy Plus plan at 3Mbps which costs $40 per month.

Streaming anything sucked, with all the buffering not seen in the dialup days, but the worst part was that our WIFI connection started dropping all the time. I can live with buffering but need a reliable WIFI since I use my smart phone for calling over WIFI to save my Airvoice $10 monthly plan minutes, checking traffic before I get in the car and lots of other things that I do on the phone instead of the desktop.

I called Comcast and got switched to a 6 Mbps plan at $50 per month. It worked pretty good for streaming and WIFI was fine. However paying that much for that little bandwidth seems weird in this day and age. It was time to play the ace up my sleeve!

My street is wired for Verizon FIOS but my house is not so there are installation costs to consider. Plus their service, while without a question better than Comcast, is generally more expensive. I looked at every online offer but everything was over $70 per month for something without a 2 year contract. Coincidentally, I recently got a letter from Verizon offering a $5 Amazon gift card for “learning more” about their service. Sure way to get my attention is with a cash offer valuing my time at about $1 per minute ($5 for 5 minutes of telling someone “I’m not interested”).

Well, turns out they had a much better offer on the phone than online – free installation and $50 per month for a 25/25 Mbps internet service, local TV channels and HBOGO for 1 year and without a contract. They’d also rent me a modem/router for $5 per month  or sell it for $100 since my Comcast modem does not work on Verizon. That’s a great offer considering how much more you get with Verizon FIOS over just a 6Mbps internet service from Comcast for the same price. Of course I don’t even need their TV service since my DIY HDTV antenna works just fine. However, HBOGO is a very nice bonus allowing us to stream any HBO show at home or while travelling whenever we want, even from a smart phone.

The Verizon tech came out last week and wired our house to FIOS which took about 3 hours with him mostly working outside and in the garage. I called Comcast immediately after confirming that we were up and running and cancelled their service.

So what’s the plan? First, I jumped on Craigslist and bought the same exact Actiontec modem/router that Verizon sells for $100 and rents for $5 per month for $60 cash. Here it is – brand new, in box, a mile from my house… gotta love Craigslist!

verizon_router

Payback period of buying vs. renting is just 1 year and now we have our own modems that work with both Comcast and Verizon.

3 months after dumping Comcast you are considered a new customer and thus qualify for all kinds of nice deals. For example, you can get 12 months of Performance internet at 25 Mbps for $30 per month.  That’s a great price for a connection that can handle anything that my HTPC can throw at it. Therefore I plan on cancelling FIOS and switching back to Comcast 3 months from now and saving $20 per month over Verizon. A Google Calendar reminder has been set.

It gets better… Now that our house is wired for FIOS we qualify for lower rates. I’ve seen offers for 25/25 service at $30 per month which beats Comcast’s Performance internet offer since Comcast’s upload speeds are nowhere near 25 Mbps plus fiber-optics is a better technology than cable. Of course this offer is only for “new customers” so we’d stay with Comcast for a few months. If I can get on FIOS for $30 and stay there at that rate indefinitely I would stop jumping around. If not, we’ll stay with Verizon for the length of that promo period (12 months I think) and switch back to Comcast for that new customer warm welcome.

Does this sound like a hassle? Sure and that’s why these promos work so well for Comcast and Verizon. People tend to stay with what they know long after promo rates have expired going up to retail levels. Bu that time they got you on auto payments and who has the time to call and fuss over $20-30 per month in savings?

It took a while to get to the point of having a system that is set up to optimize our at-home entertainment and internet costs. Now that we have the house wired for Comcast and Verizon along with owning our modems, switching between providers takes 10 minutes and results in hundreds of dollars in savings year after year.

Statistically, people spend most of their money on housing, cars, food, childcare and subscription services in this country so it only makes sense to concentrate on minimizing those expenses if you care about your financial future.

*Too Long; Didn’t Read?

Here is a plan for minimizing your own at-home entertainment and internet costs:

  • Dump your TV package subscription
  • Make a DIY HDTV antenna or buy a nice amplified model. Enjoy local channels in HD for free. Big savings on your cable bill but also no more cable box fees, less clutter and big electricity savings (cable boxes are notorious power hogs).
  • Consider placing that antenna in the attic and then doing some simple re-wiring where that one antenna feeds all coax outlets. You might need a splitter and a tv signal amplifier if you don’t have it already. Enjoy free HDTV in every room from just one antenna positioned high up delivering strong signal throughout the house. If you have a second/third/fourth TV, just plug the coax into any outlet and you’re good to go.
  • For most versatility, build or buy a HTPC. It will handle ALL the entertainment now or in the future: YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, browsing, DVDs, music and everything in between. Record live HDTV and skip commercials with Windows Media Center built into Windows OS. Enjoy saving on DVR fees.
  • If you are renting a modem/router buy your own immediately! Look on Craigslist or buy a new one.
  • Since all you need now is a decent internet connection, shopping for the right service will be much easier. Forget “triple play” – you don’t need it! Call your internet provider and negotiate.
  • If you are lucky enough to have more than one internet provider available, get wired up for both (hopefully for free) and see who can give you the best deal.
  • Just like with auto insurance, evaluate your options periodically and switch service and/or plan when a better one becomes available.
  • The key here is that now you A) Own your equipment and B) Need only the internet. Switching becomes a 10 minute phone call instead of hours of headache associated with returning old equipment (setup boxes/DVRs/modem), getting new equipment and programming the DVRs to record your favorite shows.

Congratulations! While you didn’t cut the proverbial cord, you just made it a lot easier to pull it and plug into another provider/promotion the next time your cable bill goes up unexpectedly.

 

8 thoughts on “One Man’s Quest for Affordable Internet and Cheap Entertainment

  1. Ok, I’m with you on all the points except building the HTPC. I build my own PCs, have 5MPS Verizon FIOS for $18/mo for life including free battery replacements, and never had cable (use over the air HDTV). I still believe I watch too much programming. 🙂

    So I’m curious as to the components in your HTPC. Would you please share from the case to all the compoents and software? Thanks in advance!

    • How did you get that $18/mo for life FIOS deal?? That would work great for us assuming there are no other charges like a TV or phone subscription.

      My HTPC is a pretty basic system by today’s standards since it’s several years old now. An AMD chip, 2GB of RAM, a mother board that came with onboard video/HDMI output. The biggest problem was the fan included with the processor since it was way too loud for TV watching. I ended up upgrading it to a much larger and quieter fan. If you would like the exact specs I should be able to pull them off when I’m back home, but any PC bought/built today will probably be easily converted to an HTPC as long as there is an HDMI out and a decent quiet fan(s). Also, I’m using this networked tuner for recording over-the-air programs into my HTPC and it works flawlessly!

      • Ok, so for the HTPC all I need is to build a PC with HDMI out on the motherboard, a quiet fan (obviously), and Windows Media Center. Thanks!

        How did I get FIOS $18/mo for life? I had DSL (which is on heritage copper lines as you probably know). Once you sign up for FIOS, they cut the copper line and remove it…you CAN’T go back once you make the switch. Since I had repeated issues with DSL over the years, Verizon customer service kept promoting FIOS to me at $18/mo for 24 months in Sept 2013. I negotiated an email from them stating that once the 24 month promotion ended, all I need to do is call them up and reinstate that promotion price again for another 24 mos. They also have in fine print that normally the customer is responsible for the back-up battery in the FIOS box. I had them also state in writing that the battery is the responsibility of Verizon. Honestly, in the end it’s cheaper for Verizon with FIOS as the copper lines are a headache to them to maintain (which is why they now cut them out and remove the portion from the pole to the house). The FIOS is only internet service as I had the voice service removed when transitioned to FIOS. Voice service in house is now through WiFi / Cellular on Republic $10/mo plan.

        • You will also need a tuner like the one I linked above. That one is a dual tuner which allows you to watch live TV while recording another program or record two programs at once which we do all the time.

          Nice score on the FIOS deal! If I could replicate that I’d be all over it.

          • I have to say I would be intrigued on the home cinema PC – here in the UK I use the freeview box, but if I can do it myself and not worry, with the addition of being able to stream our music throughout the house, then fantastic!

            I am of course assuming that you haven’t already answered the above build in a later post as I work my way through!

          • I haven’t put together a write up on how to make your own HTPC but it’s really not that hard. If you plan on streaming only then pretty much any computer will do as long as it has an HDMI out and quiet fans inside (loud fans quickly make watching anything annoying). If you’d like to record then it’s a bit more involved since you’ll need a tuner and setting up the Media Center as I mentioned above. This works great in the US but I’m not sure about the UK. Are you able to get free channel listings with the Media Center? If yes, then it will work just like I described.

  2. [quote]: “For example, you can get 12 months of [Comcast] Performance internet at 25 Mbps for $30 per month…”

    Unfortunately, that’s not the real cost when you look at the fine print for that price, it says: “Requires subscription to XFINITY Digital TV or Voice service at regular rates.” So you end up paying considerably more for that Introductory rate. What a crock.

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