Cable Cutters: Cheap Alternatives to TV, DSL, and Cell Service

I don't like service providers. Cable TV, landline phone and fax, mobile phone, ISP, and even satellite radio companies have so little real competition that they know they don't have to impress me very much to get my business. I either pay the full fees and become connected to them by their cord (physical or wireless), or I don't get any service. Until lately.

Now those companies face new pressure from Web-based technologies and services that can offer similar features for far less money, or even for free. Many of these services ride in on the cord owned by the big service provider, relegating said service provider to the job of operating "dumb pipes."

Which TV executive knew just a few years ago that paid and free online services could threaten cable companies? Ditto for the VoIP challenge to landline phones, online fax services replacing another cord, Internet radio being a better value than a satellite subscription, and more.

Here I'll explain the alternatives that can help you walk away from the biggest corded companies that we love to hate. You can pick and choose which are still worth keeping and which to toss. Are you being pressured into buying a service provider's "triple play"? Try three strikes and you're out.

Pay for TV and Movies Instead of Cable Service

Microsoft keeps Zune TV and movies too much of a secret. There's a lot here to like.
The cable--and satellite--TV model is on life support. Who wants to pay $100 or more a month for an endless well of unwatched shows? Even if you have an appetite for premium-channel shows, you can save money by buying some à la carte and watching others free online.

Paid, per-show TV sources are all around you. Apple iTunes, Amazon VOD, Zune Marketplace, Blockbuster On Demand, and Jaman store thousands of shows and movies.

All offer various purchase and rental options, often $3 to $4 to rent a movie for a day. Expect to drop about $30 to $40 per season of scripted, premium-channel TV (HBO, Showtime, and such), or, often, about $10 less for network shows.

That sounds pricy at first, and it often costs more than buying a physical disc. But total up four or five of those seasons and a handful of movies, and you could pay half as much as cable over the same time period.

If you want to watch video on a portable device, stick with iTunes for iPod and iPhone compatibility; or Zune Marketplace for Zune support. Unfortunately, the other stores don't offer portable media player support. If you have an AppleTV or an Xbox 360, you can at least watch your shows in the living room.

Netflix is a good base service for any cable TV-free home. The cheapest subscription for the DVD-by-mail service is $8.99 each month, but much of the value comes in the thousands of shows and movies you can stream from Netflix to your PC. Plus, Netflix can stream to a TiVo, Xbox 360, PS3, dedicated Roku device, and other hardware, so you can watch in the living room without a media center PC.

Similar streaming services like Amazon, Blockbuster, Jaman, and others can play on much of the same hardware. Check your TV-connected hardware against these services' support pages.

I've also got my eye on the upcoming Boxee Box and Sezmi service; both will offer hardware that plays Internet-streamed video on a TV. Sezmi, which will be rolling out nationwide this year, even promises local shows and live sports, one of the biggest deficits in online libraries.

Next: Free TV, Movies, Phone Service, and more

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