Decoding Your Telecom Bill

Here comes that cable, phone and internet bill again. Another month of seeing a mix of numbers and names adding up to charges that make no sense. It’s confusing. It’s messy. It’s aggravating.

You talk to your neighbor, and she seems to be paying a lot less than you are. Is that true? Does anybody really know? Besides, if you and your neighbor think you have the same services, your monthly bills will still vary depending on the promotion in effect when each of you signed up.

Here’s a guide to understanding your bill. Whether you have phone, internet or TV service in any combination, you can find out what the bill is all about.

Start at the top and work your way down

Your provider has a summary at the top, so look there for an overview of recurring monthly charges, including the different services you have and the total for each. If you see “Other” in this section, it usually means one-time charges.

Promotion pricing plays a big part

Timing is the big differentiator. When you signed on for services, you probably got a promotional price, sometimes called an acquisition price. The promotion price encourages you to try out the services and see how you like them and if they suit your needs. At some point, according to your contract, your charges will change to the regular price, sometimes called the everyday low price.

With your promotion, if you have internet service, for example, you might have received a one- or two-year price  guarantee along with free internet security services for a year. If you have phone service, your provider might be giving you some free calling features. With TV service, you probably received a free set-top box, maybe even a discount on some premium channels. Prepare yourself: This will all come to an end.

Your promotion pricing end date will be on your bill. Find it, and note it. Expect your bill to increase even if you are simply staying with the same services. Keep in mind that depending on your value to the provider—how long you’ve been a customer, the number of services you have—you may be offered a second promotion.

Phone charges will always look the most complicated

Phone is a regulated service. This means the government regulates which information the company is required to provide to you about your monthly phone service. For example, on your bill you’ll see charges for 911 service, which is the fee the company pays to local governments to help fund emergency services, along with various taxes that your provider collects on behalf of the federal and state governments. The FCC provides an explanation of many of these terms, which can be really confusing. The FCC protects you from billing fraud schemes.

I have internet service, but I’m charged for data caps, too?

You have a monthly fee tailored to the internet service you purchased. Some providers will put a limit on the amount of data you can upload and download every month. When you exceed that, they’ll charge you until the new month begins. Find out whether your service has data caps, and be mindful of your usage.

Can this get any better?

Yes, the providers feel your pain. They heard you when you said the bill was overly complicated, filled with too many incomprehensible charges. So these days, when you look at your bill, you might find it a lot more straightforward than you’re used to. Many are moving to a bill that lists the categories and the bottom line. This means it won’t be so tough to find your way around the bill.

When you’re shopping for a new provider, look for one that provides transparency. Ask before you buy. That’s all you need to hear (and see).