So Long AT&T: Why I'm Better Off with a Small ISP

The little guys are coming into the market for broadband and wireline services. Here's how CIO.com blogger Bill Snyder took the pain out of switching from AT&T to a small local carrier, and is saving money in the process.

Goodbye AT&T! Today is Day Three of the rest of my Internet Life. After more than 10 years as a disgruntled customer of AT&T’s broadband and wireline services, I’ve cut the cord. And yes, it’s working well.

On Monday at 11 a.m. Pacific Time, I became an active customer of Sonic.net, a small carrier headquartered in Sonoma County, California. Switching wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but the good news is this: I’m saving nearly $50 a month on my combined wired phone and DSL service, and my Internet connection is about one-third faster, according to tests I've run. As Grandma used to say, "Such a deal."

I'd been thinking of ditching AT&T for some time. The former Ma Bell is a service-challenged bully that seems to put the customer last, and like many of you I've been on the receiving end of the company's arrogance far too often. My worst experience happened back in 2010, when I had moved a couple of miles from one San Francisco neighborhood to another, and spent about a week fighting AT&T’s bureaucracy before my service was restored.

Please understand, though, that many individual employees of AT&T are great, but working within a broken system often overwhelms the best of intentions.

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I would have switched then, but because I'd had my old sbcglobal email address for years, I felt like a hostage. As a tech and business journalist, I live and die by my sources and the thought of being cut off from them -- at least by email -- paralyzed me.

Of course, those of you who have never used any email service but Gmail have no idea what it's like. Gmail addresses are independent of the ISP, so if you're just starting out, or don’t need to worry too much about losing your contacts, it’s certainly a good way to go.

That wasn't me. Once I found Sonic.net, and spoke to a number of people who use the service, I decided to sign up and gave real thought to managing the transition.

First thing I did was dust off a personal domain I had purchased a few years ago and never really used: billsnyder.biz and added it as an account to my Thunderbird email client.

Then I added a line to the signature of my outbound emails saying I was going to switch to the new email address in early April. Next, I created an "out of office" message to everyone who was writing to my sbcglobal address, telling them that I was going to switch. Finally, I sent an email bomb to everyone in my address book with the news of my new address.

I let all of that cook for about six weeks and switched over on Monday. The amount of email I’ve gotten in the last few days is way down; part of that is a welcome reduction in spam, but I'm sure that some of my contacts who never noticed my switch emails have missed me.

On the other hand, saving this much money will be great, and finally having a faster connection is, of course, most welcome. Sonic uses a technology called ADSL2+ which wrings about as much speed as you can get via conventional copper wire. I'm getting download speeds of about 3.22 Mbps, compared to the 2.40 Mbps or so I'd been getting with AT&T. If I were closer to my local exchange switching office I'd get even more speed. In any case, cable is much faster than any form of DSL.

If you're thinking of switching to a new ISP, be sure you first measure the download speed you’re currently getting (Speedtest.net does a good job) and then do a bit of research to see what speeds your potential new ISP provides. Remember, to watch out for the phrase “as fast as,” which usually means that you'll get the top speed when pigs fly from you know where.   

As to my landline, for much less money, my phone service has all of the features you'd expect -- unlimited long distance, voice mail, call forwarding and so on. If there’s a down side it will come when I have an inside wiring problem. Unlike, AT&T, Sonic is not in a position to work inside a customer’s home, so I’ll have to find a contractor if and when that happens.

There's another important lesson here. As the Internet matures, and service becomes ever more commoditized, smaller players are bringing a lot to the table. Sonic.net is pretty much restricted to a few counties in Northern California, but I suspect there are many Sonic equivalents all over the place. I'd urge you to check with local news sources to find one in your area. And if you like, forward what you find to me, and at some point I’ll write about them as well.

The next step of my personal Project Independence is to cut my final tie with AT&T by ditching them as a wireless carrier. For a number of complex reasons, I can’t do that just yet, but when I do I'll let you know how it goes.

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