By Gabe Goldberg (SD user GabeGold)
Image by Flickr user DieselDemon
Trapped! It’s easy to feel that way when the relationship with your ISP (Internet service provider) turns sour. Too often, people slavishly accept whatever service they get, meekly pay bills, and don’t comparison shop or even measure connection speeds. So they don’t know whether they’re getting what they’re paying for, let alone whether they can talk their way into something better.
Utility bills are so nasty and convoluted that it’s easy to ignore them – especially when they’re auto-paid by credit card or bank draft. But that lets companies bury changes to rates and terms of service, hardly ever in consumers’ favor, deep in the small print. So check bills and tiny-type messages every month, and especially carefully after moving or changing services, since orders/options/fees are too-frequently botched!
If service or bundle bills creep upward as they often do, call a few times a year to ask about specials – sometimes they’re not advertised. You may have to extend a contract to win a bargain, but if you’d have stayed anyway, it’s a winning tradeoff.
Watch the market for changes in services, prices, and bundles. When you see new features such as FiOS enhancements offered, call and demand them. Emphasize that as a long-time customer you should get the same deal as new subscribers! When considering FiOS, remember that it depends on your electricity for operation. Battery backup will carry it for a few hours but that may not be adequate for telephone, alarm system, or health communication. FiOS is strongly marketed to include phone but it needn’t; you can retain reliable copper phone service while using Internet and cable via FiOS.
Focus on what matters. For most people, after a certain point, increased Internet speed may not matter as much as other enhancements such as more premium TV channels, online backup storage, or a DVR. Aim requests to optimize YOUR total package, not simply get connection speed bragging rights.
Especially when establishing Internet service, but even after-the-fact, consider separating connectivity from email hosting to allow ISP (s)hopping without having to change email address. Fully sliced, Internet services may involve multiple fees: connectivity, email/Web hosting, and domain registration. But the total won’t necessarily exceed that of a services bundle, and splitting enhances flexibility and negotiating clout, letting you tell your ISP that your email address doesn’t tie you to them.
Even using your ISP’s email service doesn’t mean you’re trapped by monthly bills. Though AOL has offered free email service for years, even allowing accessing it with standard email software and some free Web email services, many people still feel obligated to pay for it. That’s like feeling stranded on a stalled escalator when you can just walk off.
Internet connection speeds are quoted in squishy terms, such as, “Up to xxx megabits/second up and down”. Nobody complains when actual speeds exceed the promised “up to” rating (as mine routinely do!), but not enough people gripe when speeds are far below claimed service quality. So test connection speed occasionally using websites like speedtest.net and dslreports.com, keep records (or let test sites do that), and politely ping your ISP if it falls short of what it advertises.
Check and cite reviews, BBB ratings, or blog posts indicating that the ISP isn’t fulfilling promises. Compare notes with neighbors and other customers elsewhere; if there’s a pattern of dissatisfaction, don’t be snowed by customer support claiming that you’re alone complaining. Investigate whether your city/county has an agency handling Internet complaints and mention that you’ll consult it for advice and action.
You’re a stronger negotiator if you know and cite available competitive ISPs. If you’re a cable customer with FiOS available, tell your ISP that you’re being courted by the other vendor and wonder why you should remain. And WiMAX offerings are proliferating, often adding a third service choice competing with the traditional cozy ISP duopoly (cable and telco).
Keep detailed notes on interactions with your ISP, noting date/time and contact person. Always request ticket/incident numbers for follow-up and proof of patterns. Log problems, outages, and slowdowns for later reference even if you don’t report them all.
If you’re not getting satisfaction from first-level support, escalate firmly but politely, emphasizing that you simply want to resolve issues, but not taking problems personally or blaming anyone. On a more positive note, request personal contact info from helpful people. When available, it’s pleasant being able to contact them directly rather than having to go through usual screening or taking pot luck with random staffers.
If a conversation feels rigidly scripted, try asking questions “off the record” or “person-to-person” or “as one IT professional to another” to try to get off-script and have an actual human conversation. It won’t always work but when it does, results can improve.
Besides billing, speed, and reliability issues, technology itself is a fruitful haggling area. Cellular companies are introducing MiFi, a nifty gadget which uses cellular broadband to create a small/local/personal wireless hotspot. These are often offered under special promotions but you don’t need these to play let’s-make-a-deal with a hungry ISP. A similar technology allows tethering a computer to a cell phone, using it as a modem. Some companies disable this or charge extra for it, but it’s worth asking (demanding?) for it as a service plan addition.
If you’ve had a connection for a while, you may not have the current generation of modem (and router, if it’s all one unit). Companies sometimes provide this gear at no cost, so it can’t hurt to ask for a free technology refresh – especially if speed or reliability aren’t what they should be. Separate from replacing hardware, occasionally ensure that you’re running current software versions in telecom equipment by noting model numbers and visiting manufacturer Web sites for upgrades.
Finally, for emergencies, unless you check – perhaps with a special high-gain antenna – you never know what public hotspots or open networks are within range.
Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with, and written about technology for decades. This article appeared originally on the slickdeals.net web site. © Gabriel Goldberg 2010. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org when you use it.