Telecom Recipes - Minimizing Your Telephone Bills

by Brian McConnell

Most people now have several telecom service providers, including fixed-line service, one or more cellular providers, and ancillary services such as voice mail, dial up Internet, and so forth. It is common for people to overpay for service, often substantially.

Chances are you can shave at least $20 to $30 off your monthly bill if you're using a combination of fixed-line, cellular and broadband service. That might not sound like much but thats several hundred dollars per year, money that can be spent on you, instead of the phone company.

Replace Your Fixed Line With VoIP

The first place to look to save some money is your fixed line telephone bill. If you have broadband Internet service and cellular service, you can replace your fixed line with a flat-rate broadband VoIP service (unlimited local and long distance calling) for $20 per month or less. Depending on your local market, this is probably substantially less than your local phone service by the time you add up local loop charges, long distance service and taxes. Broadband VoIP sound quality is pretty good (one potential gotcha, if you're using DSL, the phone company will probably sock it to you if you disconnect your basic voice service and only use DSL). If you have cable Internet service, you can probably ditch your local telco for broadband.

Lingo, VoicePulse, BroadVoice and Vonage are just a few of the companies offering cheap dialtone via VoIP, some with plans starting at under $10 per month.

Use Cellular Or Bare Bones Fixed Line For Backup/Emergency Service

The problem with broadband service is that you may or may not have 911 service, and your service will not work if your Internet connection or electrical power goes down. In that case, you'll need a backup. Cellular phones work quite nicely for this purpose, so if you have cellular and get a decent signal in your home, you can use cellular for backup/emergency telephone service. If you don't want to cut the cord with Ma Bell entirely, you can downgrade your fixed line to the bare essentials, dial tone and nothing else. Depending on what territory you're in, this can be a money saver as the phone companies charge for "enhanced" services like Caller ID and voice mail.

Also, if you're unemployed or otherwise poor, you may qualify for lifeline telephone service. The telephone companies offer discounted service to people whose annual income is below a certain threshold. Take advantage of this if you qualify for it. You've been subsidizing this service for years without knowing it.

Selecting The Right Cellular Plan

Once you've trimmed the fat off your fixed line service, turn your attention to your cellular service. Pull out the last three months worth of phone bills, and study them closely to determine how many daytime, nighttime and weekend minutes you're using on average. There's a good chance you're buying more service than you need. The trick with these plans is to tweak your service so that you almost use your allotment but do not go over (you'll get dinged with high per-minute rates if you do). This used to be difficult to do, but now several carriers provide real-time tracking tools so you can keep tabs on your usage throughout the month. For example, on T-Mobile, just dial #646# to get a summary of your current usage and remaining airtime allotment. You should also play hardball with your carrier and demand the best possible deal. Thanks to cellular number portability, cellular customers can switch providers more freely. Carriers know this, use it as a lever to extract concessions.

If you use cellular Internet service, be sure to sign up for a flat rate plan. Some carriers still charge by the megabyte. This can be a serious ripoff because your email client may be polling for new messages even when you are not using your phone or PDA. I use T-Mobile, and am quite happy with the pricing for their data plan ($19.95/month for unlimited use). T-Mobile is a GSM based carrier, and delivers wireless Internet service via GPRS, not the fastest system (like Verizon's new EVDO service), but it works just fine for primarily text mode web browsing, POP3 email access, etc.

Cancel Unnecessary Services

Do you really need your dial-up account? Do you really need all you can eat text messaging on your cell phone? Take a close look at the extras, and ask yourself if you really need them or can live without them. $5/month here, $10/month there adds up to real money.

Some service providers are notorious for ignoring cancellation requests. One well known national ISP who shall remain nameless here deserves a special place in hell for this practice.

I make a habit of changing my credit card numbers about once a year. Tell your credit card company that your card has been compromised. They'll issue a new card with a new account number pronto. Anybody trying to charge the old card will be unable to do so, and will have to contact you to get the new account information. You'll be surprised who's been dinging your card for five bucks a month without your knowledge. This measure is virtually guaranteed to save a couple hundred buck per year (more if you are an avid pr0n consumer).

The Bottom Line

How much will you save? Based on my experience, most people can expect to save around $30 per month by reallocating their telecom "portfolio" and dumping underutilized services. Doesn't sound like much but that's $360 per year, money you can spend on yourself instead of your local phone company.

Do you have other suggestions about trimming the fat out of personal telecom bills? Post your suggestions here...