TECH


Save a Bundle on Telecom Services

Tying up your telecom services in a single package is the lure many local telephone and cable companies are casting in selected areas around the U.S. For about $100 a month, you can get cable or satellite TV, local and long-distance telephone service, plus high-speed Internet service. In addition to paying just one bill, you have just one company to call if you have a technical or billing issue. Then again, this one-stop-shop approach can backfire if your vendor's customer service stinks.

Many bundled deals (often marketed as "triple plays" or "triple packs") are limited-time offers ranging from three to 12 months. The Comcast Triple Play, for instance, includes Internet, phone and cable service for $99 per month for one year. After the year is up, will the hammer fall -- and the price skyrocket? Not necessarily. You can expect Comcast's package to cost "about $130 per month," says company spokeswoman Jenni Moyer.

Patrick Matters, who lives in Indianapolis, signed up for Comcast's Triple Play about a year ago. He pays $100 to $110 per month ("a little more if my daughters buy a movie"), a savings of more than $50 over his previous a la carte plans. At $130 per month, he'd still be ahead.

The Triple Play is for new customers only. But current Comcast subscribers can also get discounts if they add new services. For example, a Comcast cable-TV customer can sign up for the company's phone service for $33 per month for one year. If you're already a subscriber, check your vendor's Web site for bundled discounts.

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Some vendors are offering quadruple plays that add wireless phone service. AT&T's Quad Pack, for instance, bundles Internet, telephone, Dish Network satellite TV and Cingular Wireless service for $123 per month. Its Triple Pack -- Internet, telephone and wireless -- costs $95 per month.

Regional offers. Bundles vary depending on where you live. For example, in Qwest's 14-state region, the starting price for a package including Internet, phone and DirecTV is about $90 per month. In southern California, bundles from Time Warner Cable with Internet, phone and cable start at about $100. And in areas of Massachusetts and other states where Verizon has wired homes with its FiOS high-speed fiber-optic service, subscribers can get Internet, telephone and nearly 200 digital cable TV and music channels for $105 per month. Verizon offers bundles with satellite TV in other markets.

Although price is a big draw, a bundle isn't worth it if it excludes services you want. The AT&T Quad Pack, for instance, allows only 100 minutes per month of direct-dial calls from your home. More long-distance minutes cost 9 cents each.

And there may be other drawbacks. If a single high-speed line brings all communications to your home, you could lose your phone, cable and Internet service at the same time if the line goes down. Some digital phone services that use the Internet for voice calls don't support faxing -- a significant shortcoming for home-based businesses.

And bundles make it more difficult to change providers for a specific service -- for instance, switching from cable to satellite TV. Of course, from a telecom company's perspective, that's the whole idea.

Still, the convenience and relatively low prices make bundled services appealing. And there should be plenty of competition as telephone and cable companies duke it out.


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