Learn to Negotiate With Your Internet Service Provider and Save Money
Experts share with CNET their knowledge of how you can get better value on our household broadband connections.
Trey PaulSenior Editor
Trey Paul is a CNET senior editor covering broadband. His 20+ years of experience as a writer and editor include time at CNET's sister site, Allconnect, and working with clients like Yahoo!, Google, The New York Times and Choice Hotels. An avid movie fan, Trey's career also includes being a film and TV critic while pursuing a degree in New York.
ExpertiseHome internet and broadband, including plans, providers, internet speeds and connection types. Movies and film studies.Credentials
Master's degree in Cinema Studies from NYU and interviews with Conan O'Brien, Stan Lee and some of his biggest Star Trek childhood idols
Pew Research Center data from 2021 revealed that approximately 90% of all US adults found the internet either "essential" or "important" during the pandemic. How is it not 99.9%? Our internet connections have been crucial for work, school and family ties. But what happens when the cost of that internet connection starts to creep up? If you don't qualify for Lifeline or the Affordable Connectivity Program program, then one solution may be an old-fashioned negotiation.
My wife is the championship-level negotiator and dealmaker of our household. Before we met, she'd already crushed significant life moments, including buying a house, hammering out a great deal on a new car and getting the best possible salary offer for a new job. So when it came time to gather guidance for negotiating with your internet service provider, you'd better believe I started with her.
"Kindness is key," she said. "Always be friendly and courteous." Why? Because the person on the other end of the phone (or online chat, as the case may be) is much more likely to work with you if met with decency and patience. Also, it's not an easy job, and they want to help, so why not start on the right foot?
Locating local internet providers
I could fill a whole column with my wife's negotiating tips and tricks, but I've also sought professional advice. As you might imagine, some gave me standard company lines about how every customer gets the same high-value offers or how agents work tirelessly to ensure everyone gets the best available price every day. You know the drill.
We all know that's not 100% true, or providers wouldn't constantly change their promotions and deals. So, after sifting through the pros' best ideas, here are the five steps you should take when negotiating with your ISP.
"I think the first thing is to try to be knowledgeable before you make the call," said Earthlink CEO Glenn Goad. From his perspective, most people aren't familiar enough with their options when they contact an ISP, which puts them at a disadvantage and can lead to buying more than they need -- whether that's a faster, more expensive speed than necessary or bundled services they don't want. Here's how you can avoid pitfalls like that.
Look in the mirror
Spend part of your preparation building a case for yourself as a desirable customer. How long have you been with your ISP? If you're two months into a 24-month contract, you're less likely to get any traction on carving out a better deal. Providers often collect an early termination fee if you bail on your existing contract.
On the other hand, if you've been with the same ISP for several years, there's a much better chance of finding a flexible attitude. In that case, the provider should be much more motivated to keep you as a subscriber because there's no financial benefit claimed from your loss. Either way, this basic information will help you make your claim better.
You can also do yourself a favor and set the stage for a more profitable exchange by paying your bills on time. Once you've built up months or years of steady, on-time payments, the sales agent will likely see you as a valuable customer and one worth keeping happy.
Decide what you actually need
Don't be an impulsive internet shopper. Before negotiating with your ISP, determine your goals for the call -- it's not always just about cutting a deal for a lower monthly bill.
Yes, knocking a few bucks off each month's bill is great, but it might not ultimately be your best deal. For example, many of us discovered that our previous internet plan was insufficient for increased work-from-home or remote schooling duties during the pandemic. Our old plans couldn't keep up with more people (and devices) online simultaneously.
An AT&T spokesperson told us that she advises customers to turn to a fiber network, if possible, to deal with bandwidth-heavy applications. "However, when fiber isn't available, we recommend choosing the fastest option available based on the customer's need," she said. "With the average number of connected devices continuing to grow, most households would benefit from fast and more reliable speeds."
Guidance like this CNET speed test tutorial can help you determine how much speed you really need, so start there. Perhaps when you signed on with your provider, you chose a starter plan with 50 megabits per second download speed, but now your family needs more than that. Focus on securing a faster speed -- maybe more like 300Mbps -- and aim to get more for your money and decrease your cost per Mbps.
On the flip side, perhaps you signed up for a multi-gigabit speed plan because your ISP touted it as the fastest residential plan available. But do you and your roommate need that much? You might find significant savings by downgrading to a plan that allows you to do all the same activities without any discernible difference in performance. For instance, many homes won't notice much difference between a gigabit plan and 500Mbps.
2. Craving the speediest plan? Not so fast; check all offers first
While download speed is undoubtedly essential in figuring out what type of plan fits you best, it's not the only factor. A spokesperson with Xfinity told us to encourage consumers to spend some time looking into the total value of their internet service rather than simply stopping at speed. For example, can you get mobile service included? How about access to Wi-Fi hotspots? Value can come in multiple ways, not just in your download speed.
Our AT&T contact concurred. "What discounts or special offers are available to you? There may be discount offers for qualifying customers that you should inquire about. Some providers may also offer subscriptions for streaming and other services that could make a package more enticing."
So, you can help yourself out by putting in just a little work before the call. For example, look beyond download speed and consider your data usage. Are you paying extra for unlimited data and not using it? Or, perhaps more commonly, do you tend to exceed your data limit and incur additional charges? Consider if there's an unlimited add-on option that'll save you money in the long run.
Also, gather your facts about what you're currently paying. Do you already have a promo rate? Are there any deals you're taking advantage of right now? Don't get caught flat-footed, or you'll risk losing a reasonable price in the hunt for a better bargain.
Last, if you're not currently taking advantage of any deals or offers, look up the promotional discounts offered to new customers and ask your ISP to match that. It's also worthwhile to check for online-only deals so you can ask for the equivalent for your existing account.
3. Know your options before you call
Sorry to mix metaphors -- If you plan on playing hardball, don't bluff if you have no hand. If you're threatening to cancel your subscription, ensure your address is serviceable for other providers. Otherwise, your current ISP will know that you don't have other options.
On the other hand, you can politely but squarely use this to your advantage if you have options. You might have a cheaper plan than you found on a competitor's site at face value. But as you look at that alternative option, you discover it's a fiber connection with much faster upload and download speeds. You could get a faster, better online experience at a lower cost per Mbps for just slightly more per month.
But such a pivot might not be available to all. In addition to serviceability, you also have to answer another question. Is switching to another ISP even an option? For example, if you live in an apartment complex, does your leasing company have an exclusivity agreement with your current provider? My wife and I learned this the hard way. We were excited by the idea of ditching our old ISP when we moved to the Charlotte area, but our hopes were dashed when we learned our housing development had a contract with the same provider, so we didn't have the same range of choices as other city residents.
Also, is satellite internet an option? It's often cast as the only viable alternative for rural or suburban customers. Recent developments with Elon Musk's Starlink and Jeff Bezos' Project Kuiper promise faster speeds and more flexibility. But be aware of satellite dish installation regulations in your area, set by your HOA or in your lease rules.
Lastly, might 5G home internet be an option at your address? Verizon and T-Mobile are aggressively expanding the coverage areas for their respective services and looking to lure new customers. These services offer better download speeds than satellite and much more affordable rates (unlike satellite service, there are no equipment rental or purchase fees to add to your monthly costs).
Watch this: Slow internet? We've got tips to speed it up
4. Ask for what you want before you give up
You've researched, collected your facts and jotted down your goals for the call. That's the key to any eventual success. Now it's time to try to seal a new deal.
"Any customer has the right to seek changes to their plan if they choose to do so," said the AT&T spokesperson. "There's not really a specific time of year for deals, but customers should check ISPs' websites regularly for any new updates or offers they can take advantage of."
Goad offered that the moving season of May to October is a prime season to find promotions, offers and incentives. That said, it's also a time when your customer experience may not be as good as if you called during a different time.
"If you think about it, if you're going to shop on Black Friday, it's a different experience than if you shop on March 12," Goad said. "So maybe you do your research in the first and second quarter of the year and do your buying in the third quarter when you're fully prepared."
If you decide to make your move during the busy season, strongly consider not calling during the busiest time of the day -- the lunch hour.
Whenever you decide to leap, it's worth repeating -- always, always be courteous. This is foundational to having a good call. Try to be friendly, speak of your length of time with the provider, and highlight your excellent payment history.
5. If, at first, you don't succeed, try, try again
Here's another tip from my wife: If she gets an agent who doesn't seem willing to work with her or share the same courteous approach, she'll politely end the conversation and try again. Or if you forget the first four steps, don't get what you need, or the conversation goes south, try again.
One colleague I spoke with echoed this advice and shared a story about her customer experience. She was so frustrated with her bill increases that she decided to get on the phone and threatened to cancel, with the idea they would beg her to stay and offer a new promotion.
Instead, they canceled her service.
She sheepishly called back later and spoke with a different representative. Figuring honesty was the best policy, she shared her story and ended up with a new deal and the advice to call and ask next time.
So be prepared that it may not go right your first time -- but don't give up. You may need to call a few times to find an agent willing to work with you or find the right promotions to suit your goals. If it means a lower bill or a better plan, it's well worth the effort.