When you sign up for cable Internet service, your provider will often tell you that there’s a fee to rent a modem. And you simply agree because you know you’ll need a modem go online. But with just a bit of research, you can buy your own modem and save hundreds of dollars over a few years.
Comcast, CenturyLink, Time Warner, and other companies try to make you think that you need to rent their modem, but they’re just trying to squeeze you for more money. Don’t let them do it! Buy your own modem to take control of your Internet access and save yourself some cash in the process.
Why Buy a Modem?
If your cable Internet provider is going to come to your house and get everything set up, including a modem and a router, why should you go through the trouble of buying your own? Modem rental isn’t usually very expensive — usually between $5 and $10 each month. What’s the big deal?
What you might not realize is that you can buy a really solid modem for less than $100. So if you’re with Comcast, and you’re paying $10 each month for your modem rental, you’ll start saving money after less than a year. After two years, you’ll have saved $140. Your savings just go up after that.
In addition to saving money, buying your own modem ensures that you’re getting as much as possible out of your Internet connection. While your cable provider will probably provide a modem that takes full advantage of the speeds they provide, there’s no telling what you might get — cable companies aren’t exactly known for doing what’s best for their customers.
Can Anyone Buy Their Own Modem?
In the United States, just about anyone can buy a modem for home use, though some cable providers disallow it. Elsewhere in the world, the process differs. For example, one of our UK-based writers noted that he can’t buy a third-party modem for his BT cable service, but he can buy an older BT modem that might work better than the one he’s currently using.
In my research on the practices in the rest of the world, it looks like the ability of consumers to use third-party routers varies. In Canada, many people report that it doesn’t work, while some say that it does. Europe uses a modified version of the DOCSIS transmission standard, which could affect your choices. One of our India-based writers says third-party hardware is actually encouraged by his ISP because of the low quality of their own. Another in Mexico says he has no problem using his own modem.
So before you go about buying your own modem, make sure that it’ll work with your Internet provider — laws, standards, and practices differ around the world, so if you’re not in the States, your situation may be different. If you can shed any light on the situation in other parts of the world, please let us know in the comments!
Also, if your modem is used for both your Internet service and your voice (phone) service, you may not be able to replace it. Check with your ISP.
Things to Consider When Buying a Modem
It’s clear that you should buy your own modem, but how do you go about doing it? Here are 4 things to consider when you’re shopping online for a new modem.
1. Make sure it works with your cable provider.
While almost every modem will work with almost every provider, there are a few exceptions. For example, the Motorola Surfboard SB6141, the modem that I use, will work with all of the major providers, but won’t work with Verizon FiOS or AT&T U-verse. Most cable providers have a page that lists the modems that will work with their services.
Here are a few links to help you get started:
- Comcast DOCSIS Device Information Center
- CenturyLink Modem Compatibility Table
- Time Warner Cable Approved Modems
Not every provider makes it easy to find this information — if you can’t find it, run a search online, consult customer forums, or call a customer service representative to get the information you need. If there are other useful links for this information, please share them in the comments below!
2. Make sure it’s fast enough.
DOCSIS is the standard that’s used by cable companies to send information over the wires, and there are three different iterations: 1.x, 2.x, and 3.x. If you buy a modem that’s DOCSIS 3.0 (or higher) compatible, you’ll get the best performance. A mid-range DOCSIS 3.0 modem will offer download speeds of up to 340 Mbps and upload speeds of 130 Mbps. Higher-end modems offer higher download speeds.
If you see a number of channels listed on a modem, this can give you an idea of how fast the modem is; most have four or eight “down” channels and four “up” channels. DOCSIS 3.0 allows up to 43 Mbps down, so a four-channel will give you 172 Mbps download speed, and eight will give you 344 Mbps. 16-channel routers are starting to show up with a claimed maximum download speed of 688 Mbps, which is blazing fast.
However, remember that no matter how fast your modem is, it won’t make your Internet connection any faster. If you subscribe to a 100 Mbps plan from your provider and you buy a 300 Mbps modem, your Internet connection will still max out at 100 Mbps. There isn’t a practical disadvantage to having the fastest modem possible, and it might be a good idea if you think you might upgrade to faster service, but faster modems do cost more.
On the other hand, if you’re subscribed to a 30 or 50 Mbps plan, a DOCSIS 2.0 modem will be just fine, and it’ll be about half the price of a 3.0 one.
3. Check the ethernet port speed.
If you’re reading this article, you probably run a router separately from your modem. No matter how fast your router is, if you have a slow ethernet port, you’ll slow down the rest of your connection significantly. To get your Internet connection to your computer, the signal has to travel from the cable company’s lines, through your modem, across an ethernet cord to your router, and then through the air to your computer.
There can be a number of choke points that limit your Internet speed, and the ethernet cord from your modem to your router can be one of them. If your modem supports gigabit ethernet, you won’t have any problem at all, even if you upgrade to gigabit Internet (which is really, really fast, not available everywhere, and expensive).
If you need a new router, please read our buying guide.
4. Decide if you want a modem/router combination.
If you’ve started looking at modems, you’ll notice that you can buy a combination modem/router that serves both purposes from a single box. This might seem like a good idea, as there are fewer wires, less clutter, and simpler setup. However, I’d caution against choosing this option if given the choice.
Why? Because it limits your flexibility. If you choose to upgrade your wireless router, you’ll need to replace the entire device and get a new modem as well. Many modem/router combinations pack solid stats both in the modem and the router, but there are all sorts of reasons why you might want to upgrade your wireless router; faster speeds, more ports, better security — and doing that is much easier and cheaper when you have a separate router
So Which Modem Is the Best?
Obviously, a number of considerations go into choosing which modem will be best for you. However, there are a few standouts that I can recommend.
The Arris/Motorola Surfboard series is very popular. As I mentioned, I use the SB6141, and it’s been great, especially for the very modest price of $85. NETGEAR’s CM500 modem is another popular option, and is also quite affordable at $100.
If you’re looking for a modem with even higher bandwidth, the Arris/Motorola Surfboard SB6183 is a great option, with download speeds of up to 686 Mbps promised and a price tag of $125.
And if you decide to go with a modem/router combination, I’ll give you yet another Arris/Motorola Surfboard recommendation: the SBG-6782-AC. The dual-band AC router included in this combination provides the best performance you can get out of the $192 you’ll spend on it.
Do you want the absolute best, the highest speed potential, and the ability to broadcast some seriously fast Wi-Fi? The NETGEAR Nighthawk modem/router combination has 24 download channels and 8 upload for up to 960 Mbps download speed, combined with N- and AC-wireless. And it’ll only set you back $280.
Take Control of Your Modem
Whether you want to save money, improve your Internet connection, or just make it a little bit harder for your ISP to spy on you, buying your own modem is a great idea. It doesn’t cost much up front, it could save you hundreds in the long run, and you know that you’ll be getting the maximum speed that you can from your connection. Just make sure that you choose a router that will help you get the best performance from your modem.
Does your ISP allow use of a third-party modem? What’s your experience been? Which models do you recommend? Share your thoughts below!