Image: Crackle
Courtesy of PC World
Crackle, along with Hulu and Comcast Fancast, offer free TV shows and movies. Crackle is owned by Sony, so you'll find mostly Sony Pictures content.
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updated 1/25/2010 9:03:34 AM ET 2010-01-25T14:03:34

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
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 pricey 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.

Image: Zune TV
Courtesy of PC World
Microsoft's Zune TV are one of several sources for paid, per-show TV.

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.

Get free TV and movies
Hulu is still my king of free TV sites, although it's uncertain if it will — or won't — change to a paid model. And I've been occasionally frustrated when show episodes or seasons disappear just before I try to watch. But the majority of recent network shows are available. Plus, you'll find movie and TV favorites alongside B-level misses.

As I write this, you can watch "Spartacus" and "All the King's Men" alongside the Norm MacDonald vehicle, "Dirty Work."

Check Hulu first, but also scan other sites for free TV and movies. Crackle, Comcast Fancast, and even YouTube have movies and TV content. If you you're looking for a specific show that you still can't find online, visit its Web site or its network site directly.

Live sports can still be elusive. Check the network that's broadcasting the content for a stream; I saw a Monday Night Football game this way last fall. MLB.com hosts live baseball, but you'll have to pay for service. Justin.tv could be your best ace for any sport. While unsanctioned, many users play live streams of their local stations; just click the sports button.

And remember the cheapest, highest-quality TV source of all: an antenna. Over-the-air HD content looks great, often better than video compressed for a cable TV feed. You'll just need a TV with an HD tuner — typical for most sets built in the last several years — or a PC TV tuner.

Cut landline phone and fax service
If you have a reliable ISP, a voice over IP (VoIP) phone company can replace a traditional landline. You can place calls through a PC, but you'll have a better experience on a dedicated VoIP handset. The device connects to your network over Wi-Fi or wired ethernet to route calls.

Skype deserves its VoIP ubiquity. You'll make free calls to other members or pay about 2 cents per minute to dial out to a real phone. Traditional phones can also call in to you. But several alternatives challenge the Skype giant.

I like the features and versatility of RingCentral. Depending on the package you buy, you'll get a local phone number for incoming calls, an incoming toll-free number, and an incoming fax line. Call-routing functions make RingCentral excel. Like Google Voice or my1voice, RingCentral can send incoming numbers to any phone. You can have it ring your VoIP handset, a mobile line, a hotel room, a temporary office, or anywhere you happen to be. Or you can have it go straight to voice-mail during off hours, if you don't want to be reached.

Most RingCentral plans bundle fax service, or you can just pick that for about $8 per month. You'll send and receive faxes through e-mail, and cut the cost of a dedicated, traditional fax line. Many other companies sell fax service, too. Check out Mbox, eFax, and MyFax for several options, all priced in a similar range.

Free yourself from wireless phone service
If you like your current handset or smartphone, you might not be able to change wireless providers. Your device is almost certainly locked to your carrier, and worse, there's a chance that differing network technologies mean you can't move your phone to a different network even if it's unlocked.

AT&T and T-Mobile rely on GSM networks; Sprint uses CDMA; and most Verizon handsets use CDMA, but Verizon also offers some dual-mode devices that support both network types. An unlocked iPhone is still single-mode, so it will never work on a Sprint network, for example. Ask a carrier you're considering how they can enable your old phone.

For GSM devices, including Apple's iPhone, your best option could be unlocking the handset, then swapping in a GSM SIM (subscriber identity module) card from the new provider. Even a prepaid card can work, which drains your account only when you use service.

If you want to completely cut wireless phone service, you could try hopping between Wi-Fi hotspots while using a VoIP app. Truphone and Fring work on Android devices, BlackBerrys, iPhones and even iPod touch media players. (You'll need a headset microphone for any of the players.) It's not the same as real wireless phone service, but it might be enough for some users in some situations.

You can beat text messaging fees by sending texts through an instant messenger app or in e-mail. And instead of paying for your carrier's voice-mail transcription service, you can substitute SpinVox, PhoneTag, YouMail, or Google Voice.

Revise y our Internet service
Did you shop around for your ISP? You might not be getting the best price or service. Check out Broadband Reports for customer reviews. You could find a locally grown alternative to the faceless corporation that you currently use.

You might be able to completely break free from home, wired Internet service. First, walk around your house running inSSIDer. Try to reach a friendly neighbor or café. Or if a neighbor's signal is locked, ask around, and offer to pay part of the fee to join the network and share service.

Wi-Fi service subscriptions from T-Mobile, Boingo, and others can pay off if you frequent airports and other locations with their coverage. But you're almost as likely to find an open, free network. (To be fair, however, if you need an always-on connection wherever you are, nothing beats an EvDO modem stick from Sprint or Verizon.)

Several Web sites map Wi-Fi networks, and are good places to check out before you hit the road. Try Jwire, WeFi, and Hotspotr.

If you require an always-on connection, you might be better off buying short- or long-term service from Sprint or Verizon. You can buy a USB plug that connects a single laptop, or a home desktop for that matter. Many mobile phones can also be tethered to a laptop as part of your service plan, sharing the wireless Internet feed. Or opt for a portable router such as the MiFi, and it'll turn its mobile connection into a Wi-Fi, Internet bubble. The router will work in your car and could be cheaper than a hotel's Internet service.

Break out of satellite radio's orbit
Monthly satellite radio service might not be worth what you pay. If your favorite talk show is in an exclusive contract, you could be stuck, but music listeners have alternatives. Try Pandora, Last.fm, and Slacker from a PC or even a smartphone.

Last.fm is free, and the others offer both paid and free versions. All build music programming based on your preferences. If you indicate that you don't like a certain song or musician, they'll adjust your playlist to better match your tastes.

The mobile versions of these services are an especially exciting proposition. They offer the possibility of replacing traditional car radio by streaming music wirelessly to your smartphone in the car. This, of course, is highly dependent on the 3G wireless coverage you're getting as you drive, but that coverage is getting broader and faster all the time. Additionally, Slacker can cache stations to your device so you can play music without any Internet connection. This helps when you're driving across no-coverage zones.

Get a discount, or cut ties
Sometimes you just can't cut the cord. In spite of poor service and price gouging, you might need some of these services. For one last alternative, try calling up and asking for a discount. It's worked for me, especially with TV and Internet service.

Arm yourself with details on your current companies' introductory deals and competitors' rates, and ask for a break. If you don't get a good answer, call back, and ask someone else.

Even if you only cut one of these services, you could save a lot. Pay for what you want — and only what you use — to take back control of your subscriptions.

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