Broadband with a slim budget

Denise Trowbridge

Americans have adjusted to the post-recession economy by cutting back significantly on everything from restaurant meals to new clothes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But there are still areas where price hikes are out of control. For example, the average family's expenditures on cellphones and home Internet have soared in recent years. I addressed several ways to reduce cellphone bills in the February column. Now it's time to tackle the home Internet bill, which has risen by more than 81 percent since 2007, according to the labor department. Luckily, I'm married to a professional computer geek who puts a lot of thought into how we're using our home network.

Here is how we reduced our home Internet bill, and how you can, too.

1. Call your current provider and ask for a better deal. My Uncle Gary summed it up best when he said, "You pay a penalty for being a good customer." If you're quiet and dutifully pay your bill every month, it will inevitably creep up. There is speculation in the technology media that cable companies nationwide have been raising fees on existing customers to make up for all the people cutting cable TV. Don't let their profits come out of your wallet.

You have to call to ask for a lower rate to get a deal. You may even have to threaten to cancel. So, call. It's worth it. Sometimes, though, calling isn't enough. You might have to switch companies to get a better deal. If so, shop around. We switched companies last year and cut our bill by $30 a month. That's $360 a year.

2. Beware of equipment rentals. At least one local Internet provider advertises "free home Wi-Fi" with only the most expensive Internet packages. Don't trade up for more service than you need because of that. Anyone can have free home Wi-Fi, no matter the Internet speed. You just have to buy your own wireless router. Don't rent one from the company, which will cost more over time.

Also, look over your bill. If you're paying a fee for home Wi-Fi, and you already own a wireless router, call your provider. They're likely charging you a rental fee for a fancier modem than you need.

3. Analyze your home Internet needs. Bear with me here. Internet speed is measured in megabits per second, or Mbps, which refers to the upload or download speeds for your home network. Higher speeds mean higher bills. Do you need all those Mbps?

Prices vary significantly. At Time Warner, Internet service ranges from $14.99/month for basic service with 2 Mbps download speed, up to $64.99/month for 50 Mbps. At WOW, prices range from $30/month for 4 Mbps to $115/month for 110 Mbps.

It can be hard to know what speed best meets your needs, so think about how you actually use the Internet. If you mainly use it for email and web surfing, a Wi-Fi spot for your smartphone, Netflix and online homework, you can probably get away with a lower Mbps plan.

If you have multiple teens at home, sorry. You need the big plan. Our friends have a 15- and 22-year-old at home, and on a recent Saturday night, 40 devices were accessing their home network. It's easy to do, with each family member's smartphone using the home Wi-Fi, Mom on the laptop, Dad on Skype and the kids streaming games and movies while listening to Pandora on their stereos.

If you still aren't sure, the FCC has a free broadband speed guide online, which has a chart outlining exactly how many Mbps you need for everything from email to online games. They also have a chart with the type of service you'll need if your family uses multiple devices at the same time. Go to

4. Make your home network run better and faster. Check each computer for hardware and software issues, like malware or faulty wireless cards. Replace old equipment, like wireless routers, to speed up your connection.

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, and middlepathfinance.