I recently moved and needed to sign up for internet and TV service. I chose a package that Comcast advertised would cost $90 per month.
When the first bill arrived, it totaled — surprise! — $127.72. That’s 42 percent more.
As I’ve learned, jacking up prices for service is perfectly legal. It’s also maddeningly common.
My murky Comcast bill exposes a much deeper problem. The coronavirus pandemic taught us that being online is as important as having electricity. But there’s quite literally a price we pay as consumers for the way companies have cornered the market for internet access. Across many American communities, one or two companies control how we get online — and treat us like captives. They obscure the truth on their bills. And when we don’t know what we’re paying for, we end up getting fleeced.
I’ll show you how to spot their tricks, and what we can do about it.
About 200 million people live in parts of America with only one or two options for reliable, fast internet, according to a recent report from the White House. I’m an example of one of these shotgun weddings: Comcast is the only company I could find serving my San Francisco neighborhood with the minimum 100 Mbps service I needed to support a family working and streaming from home. (Good grief, across California, 59% of homes have only one option for minimally acceptable speeds.)
Internet service providers also get to sell service using techniques borrowed from used car salesmen. They bundle internet access with cable TV without telling you how much you’re paying for each. They invent names like “Blast! Pro+” instead of disclosing typical speeds. They concoct arbitrary charges for using “too much” data. They lock whole apartment buildings into exclusive contracts.
And most of all, they push us onto packages with limited-time pricing that rises dramatically if you don’t remember to call up and threaten to quit. (If you need help lowering your bill, I wrote this guide with five tips.)
Comcast tells me this is exactly what its customers want. It said it disclosed its copious additional fees to me in various fine-print communications — though only after I entered my credit card number. “We conduct extensive consumer research and host focus groups and incorporate our findings into the way we present information to our customers, all in an effort to help ensure they have a positive experience and can easily understand the details of their service,” said Jennifer Khoury, Comcast’s chief communications officer.
This isn’t just a problem with Comcast, the nation’s largest internet service provider. All over the United States, local internet monopolies and duopolies rule, including AT&T, Charter’s Spectrum and Verizon’s Fios.
After I wrote about the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a government program to knock $50 off the price of internet for people hurt economically by the pandemic, I heard from thousands of irate Washington Post readers. Many of you reported your provider was making it difficult to access the benefit, or forcing you onto a new, pricier plan before it would apply the government money to your bill. If internet access is important enough to warrant spending $3.2 billion in taxpayer money, why are these companies allowed to sell it like it’s some kind of luxury?
We don’t even know how much a “normal” internet bill costs, whether people are getting the speed they’re paying for — or how much prices go up in areas without competition. To find out, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports is launching a first-of-its-kind initiative called Broadband Together, where it’s asking Americans to upload copies of their internet bills so it can gather raw data. It took me less than seven minutes to join. You’ll need a recent bill and an internet connection to test your speed, as well as to answer a few questions.
If the government isn’t going to hold these companies accountable, we have to try to do it ourselves. As I learned, you can find many of their shenanigans hidden on your latest bill — but only if you know where to look.
How to read an internet bill
To help me decode my Comcast bill, I called Consumer Reports senior counsel Jonathan Schwantes. Even if you use a different internet service provider, you can learn from Schwantes, who is running the automated systems analyzing bills for Broadband Together. He knows all the tricks.
After I determined Comcast was my only choice for fast internet, I started perusing the offers on its Xfinity website. I settled on a extra-fast option that bundled in some cable TV channels which, it appeared, didn’t add too much to the price. That was my first mistake.
Here’s what I saw.
Had I clicked on “Pricing & Other Info,” it would have popped up this page full of small-print notices that only a lawyer could love.
After I added the package to my online shopping cart, Comcast asked me if I wanted to rent one of its TV boxes for $5 per month and I said yes.
Then it asked if I wanted to rent one of its modem and Wi-Fi routers for an additional $14 per month and I said no. (Most people say yes, but I knew owning my equipment could save me money in the long run, and help me run the Wi-Fi in my hard-to-network house.)
At this point, Comcast appeared to say my price was $95 and asked for my information.
Then how did my actual service come out to $127.72?
Here’s an annotated version of the line-item details on my most-recent bill:
Most of the price hike that I didn’t expect was Comcast sneaking in additional “fees” — not taxes, just expenses related to Comcast’s cost of doing business. I’m paying $27.05 on top of my bundle price for Comcast’s cable service to carry local broadcast networks and pro sports games. “It’s painful, and you can’t opt out,” Schwantes said.
Yes, my Comcast bill, Schwantes said, isn’t as bad as many others he has seen, which can include 12 or more line-item fees. Some companies, he added, try to make people think their fees are government taxes, but they’re not.
Another lesson: Beware of the bundle. Comcast pitched buying an internet-plus-TV package as a way to save money. But the bill makes it hard to see how much the TV service really costs, because it doesn’t break out the price of each. (The company tells me it’s planning to list individual prices for internet and TV for all customers eventually.)
Comcast says I missed several opportunities it offered me to cancel my order if I didn’t like its price. “We provide multiple notifications for our customers about all the prices of our services, including a clear, detailed summary of the order, fees and taxes for customers to review so that they can proactively approve, change or cancel the order — well before they receive their first bill,” Khoury said.
I might have missed a detailed price breakdown that came after I handed over my credit card. (I didn’t receive an email from Comcast with confirmation of my final price until two days after I placed my order.) But can you blame me — or any of us — for being confused by this sales process?
The information we really need
There’s other important information missing from my monthly bill, and probably yours, too. Here’s the right side of the detail page:
What will my price be in two years’ time? My current bill builds in promotional offers of varying length and nature that it thinks we have time to analyze like an SAT math question. The contract details Comcast emailed me say my $90 per month plan becomes $110 after two months, which I think might put my actual cost somewhere closer to $147 per month.
Comcast also tacks on variable costs I can’t easily predict, like $10 for every 50 GB of data I use over 1.2 TB. These data caps prompted a major outcry when Comcast tried to impose these on customers during the height of pandemic work and school from home.
Also missing from my Comcast statement: a clear description of what I’m paying for. My bill says my download speeds are “as fast as 800 Mbps.” (Some other carriers don’t even offer that much guidance.) I’ve clocked downloads as fast as 940 Mbps, but I often see 450 Mbps during times my neighbors are also drawing on the network. Comcast says on average it delivers 117 percent of advertised speeds.
So what if internet and cable companies had to just lay out all this critical information up front in a clear and consistent manner? You wouldn’t buy a new car without a sticker in the window detailing what’s included.
I’m not the first person to propose this. In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission released a draft “Broadband Facts” label that would require internet service providers to be more transparent about all these basics, just like the labels on the back of packaged food.
Alas, this idea has a tortured history. In 2017, the FCC scrapped the idea of stricter transparency rules under the leadership of then-Chairman Ajit Pai.
But on Friday, the Biden White House issued an executive order asking the FCC to revive the idea of a “Broadband Nutrition Label,” among other changes like limiting excessive early-termination fees. How the FCC, divided along party lines, will respond to the order is an open question.
“This issue is a major concern for consumers — and one that the FCC acted upon in the past and needs to address again,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the FCC.
In March, Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., introduced a bill called the Broadband Consumer Transparency Act that would write the standardized format into law.
Craig told me real transparency ought to be a baseline minimum. “It shows just how far some of these large companies will go to squeeze every dollar out of ordinary Americans,” she said.
“Republicans and Democrats alike have been fed up with their internet providers for a long time and have sought reforms and transparency and have encouraged more competition,” Craig said.
Comcast didn’t answer my questions about its view on the broadband nutrition label.
Of course, many of us still have little ability to comparison shop. When I asked Comcast if it charges more in areas where it doesn’t have competition, it didn’t offer a straight answer. “We operate in a competitive environment where customers can, and do, choose among different broadband providers. We offer a number of promotions and packages but also have everyday prices that are very consistent in each market,” Khoury said in an email.
As for me, I’m stuck with Comcast. But I’m dropping my internet service to the 400 Mbps speed tier. And I’m nixing the bundle and the roughly $60 I now understand it’s charging me for TV. I’ll just stream the video I need instead. Cutting the cord can add up, too, but at least I know what I’m paying for.
Graphics by The Washington Post’s Reuben Fischer-Baum.