Has your cable bill been getting out of hand?
You're not alone -- for the last 17 years, Americans have seen their monthly cable bills rise, often at rates far exceeding inflation.
But there's no longer any need to pay for cable. Although it isn't for everyone, the proliferation of online video services has made it possible to cut the cord. Below, I offer three steps anyone can take to get rid of an expensive cable bill.
Pick your content
Unfortunately, a lot of content remains tied to the traditional cable bundle -- ESPN, for example, is nearly impossible to get without a cable subscription. HBO plans to offer an online service next year, but at least for now, remains locked behind the cable complex.
In other words, hardcore TV viewers with discriminating tastes may the find prospect of cord cutting unsavory. But those that find themselves with 300 channels and nothing to watch, or those less picky in their preferences, should find Internet video a suitable alternative.
In place of cable, cord cutters can create their own bundle of online video services. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Instant Video are by far the most popular, but there are also several specialty services, such as the WWE Network, MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, and NHL Gamecenter, that appeal to dedicated fans.
With thousands of TV shows, movies, and some original, exclusive content, Netflix is likely to be the primary service of most cord cutters. Hulu's catalogue is smaller, and more TV-focused, but also more up to date, offering recently aired shows from several networks, including Comedy Central, MTV, FX, and the History Channel, among many others. Amazon Prime is quickly emerging as a worthy competitor to Netflix, with thousands of movies and a few exclusive shows of its own.
In addition to those subscription services, individual episodes of many TV shows can be purchased from iTunes or Amazon the day after they air. Individual episodes of The Walking Dead, for example, can be purchased for $3, allowing die-hard fans to keep up to date with the series even if they lack cable.
Check your Internet
In order to take advantage of Internet-based video, cord cutters will need a robust Internet connection. In many instances, that means they'll still be sending their cable company a check each month, though it should be considerably less.
Netflix recommends an Internet connection speed of at least 5 Mbps for HD video. But, given the tendency of Internet connections to slow during prime hours, a faster connection is likely prudent. Multiple TVs running at the same time require more bandwidth, and larger households should therefore choose faster Internet connections. It varies regionally, but most high-speed Internet providers offer plans in the 15-25 Mbps range, and cord cutters should elect those plans if they're available.
Buy your equipment
With services selected and Internet prepared, the last step for any would-be cord cutter is to secure the necessary equipment. An HD antenna is a necessity, as it will allow cord cutters to access the most popular broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS -- for free.
Antennas vary significantly in both price and quality -- they can be had for as little as $15 or as much as $100 (or more). The quality of the antenna needed will depend on the given location: homes located closer to broadcast stations can make due with lesser antennas; those further away will need more powerful equipment. TVFool.com offers a helpful utility to gauge signal strength.
To access Internet video, a set-top box is necessary. Consumers have many choices, and the market continues to evolve at a rapid pace. For now, the Apple TV and Chromecast are the most popular, with the Roku 3 and the FireTV also offering great value.
All four will have no issue accessing Netflix and Hulu, though only the later two are capable of playing Amazon Prime Video (Apple TV can play Amazon Prime Video technically, but only by mirroring the screen of a nearby iPhone, iPad, or Mac with AirPlay). The Chromecast is the cheapest, but it lacks a dedicated interface and remote control.
Start saving money
Cutting the cord might sound expensive -- subscribing to those services, buying all that equipment -- but compared to cable, it's cheap.
In total, a year's worth of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime totals $303. Add in a $30 antenna and a $100 set-top box (one-time costs), and the total rises to $433. That's not insignificant, but pales in comparison to expensive cable bundles, which can run upwards of $90 per month. In the first year, consumers could expect to save several hundred dollars, and over several years, the savings should total several thousand. Cutting the cord isn't for everyone, but those fed up with bloated cable bills should be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to get rid of.