Call it the cord-cutter's conundrum. You want to ditch Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), Time Warner Cable (UNKNOWN:TWC.DL), or any of the other big cable companies. But even if you can drop their pay-television service, you still need them for broadband Internet.
In many markets -- about 80% of the country, according to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a September 2014 speech -- broadband service of 25Mbps can only be purchased from one provider. The FCC voted to change the definition of broadband to 25Mbps in 2015.
"At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans," Wheeler said. He continued:
Stop and let that sink in ... three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20% who have no service at all! Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice.
It's a bleak picture that forces many Americans to remain customers of the big cable and phone companies, at least for Internet service. It is possible, however, to leave. That does not mean everyone will be able to do so, nor does it mean a viable alternative exists for everyone -- but in some cases there are other choices.
How much do you need?
Since many cord cutters will opt for Netflix in place of cable, using that service as a benchmark makes sense. The streaming service allows subscribers to manage playback settings in order to lower the required download speed of the user's Internet connection. Of course, the appearance of the video will suffer, but Netflix says it is possible to use its service with a connection of just .5Mbps.
The company recommends 1.5Mbps, jumping to 3Mbps for SD-quality video and 5Mbps for HD. You would need the full 25Mbps for Ultra HD quality, but that seems like a pretty niche use not likely to impact many users.
This means that if you are willing to suffer with a less than perfect picture, your options for Internet service increase exponentially. It might not be broadband by the FCC definition, but it might be good enough for you.
DSL service can do the trick
In many markets the alternative to the cable company is DSL service. Where I live (though it's not available on my street) Frontier Communications (NASDAQ:FTR) offers DSL at attractive prices well below what my current provider, Cox, charges.
On average, Frontier DSL offers download speeds of 10.76Mbps, according to SpeedTest.net, which bases its results on "millions of test results from Ookla Speedtest, Ookla Speedtest mobile apps, and Pingtest.net." The company displays results based on the last 30 days of tests, counting only tests that take place with less than 300 miles between the client and the host.
In a broad sense, Frontier is typical for DSL. Its offering is slower than the high-speed broadband offered by cable companies, and its speeds can vary based on demand, but it's probably good enough for what most people need.
Satellites are an option
Though it means attaching a satellite dish to your home, which not everyone is willing or allowed to do, satellite Internet service is another viable option for some. HughesNet, a nationwide provider of satellite Internet service, offers a number of choices at my Connecticut address.
Its cheapest plan, "Choice," offers 5Mbps download speeds for $39.99/month for three months, which jumps to $49.99/month after that. It also has a 55GB data cap. Plans increase in cost, download speed, and data allotment from there.
In many cases, satellite might not be cheaper than cable, but it could give you viable leverage to get a better deal from your current provider. Cable companies, like wireless phone providers, have been known to offer cheaper prices and other incentives to stop customers from leaving if they know they have an alternative.
A hotspot might meet your needs
The last, and probably worst, option is using a mobile hotspot. These devices use mobile broadband -- the same thing that powers the Internet on your phone. In most cases, hotspots offer fairly slow service (just try watching a movie on your phone) and the price per gigabyte of data will most likely be more expensive than other options.
Still, while a hotspot might not be a great choice for streaming video, it is still possible. During a power outage at my house I used a wireless hotspot from low-cost provider FreedomPop (which uses the Sprint network) to stream movies on a tablet. It wasn't ideal, but it worked, and the cost was manageable. The company has a number of free plans (which offer very limited access at 3G speeds) and a $19.99 monthly plan that includes 2GB of data at 3G or 4G speeds. Buying more after that costs $0.015 per MB.
You don't get a lot, but for someone whose Internet use consists of Web browsing and checking email with a movie thrown in very occasionally, FreedomPop may be a cheap way to ditch the big ISPs.