Cable Modems: Buy or Rent?

Should You Buy or Rent a Cable Modem? Whats Better?

If you enjoy cable Internet in your home, you probably have a cable modem. And, chances are, you’re shelling out money every month to keep it working.

The typical modem costs anywhere from $5 to $10 a month. While this may not seem like much, the costs can build up over time. That’s why more and more homeowners are considering buying a modem. Purchasing a modem outright usually involves higher upfront fees, but it can save money in the long run. However, depending on what you’re looking for, buying may be more trouble than it’s worth. To help you decide, let’s break down the pros and cons of renting versus buying.

What Is a Modem?

Before we examine the differences between renting and buying a modem, it’s important to understand what this device does. Put simply, the modem receives information from your ISP and transforms it into a digital signal. Then, your router pushes this signal out to your home devices using either an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi, which gives you Internet access. The way your modem receives information depends on the type you have. There are three main varieties:

  • Cable: Connects to your ISP using a coax cable connection
  • Digital subscriber line (DSL): Connects to your ISP through phone lines
  • Fiber: Connects to your ISP through optic fiber

Every modem is specific to an ISP, meaning it’s not interchangeable with other modems. The process of acquiring a modem depends on which type you need. Most DSL and fiber modems require special equipment, which you’ll have to get directly from your ISP. If you need a cable modem, however, you can usually choose between renting it from your ISP or purchasing your own.

Renting Your Cable Modem

Many ISPs (including Spectrum, Comcast and Optimum) charge a monthly fee in exchange for a modem. Some providers may list this as its own charge, while others will combine it with the monthly cost of your router or disguise it as a general “Wi-Fi” charge. On average, most homeowners spend close to or upwards of $100 a year on modem rental fees.

Pros of Renting

Let’s face it — nobody likes monthly fees. However, there are benefits to renting a modem instead of buying it. Here are some of the main pros.

Easy Maintenance

When you rent a modem, the ISP usually provides technical support. This means that if your modem suddenly stops working, you don’t have to worry about tackling the problem yourself. The ISP will offer support, and — if necessary — send a complimentary replacement.

Covers Software Updates

Technology is constantly advancing, and modems are no exception. Every so often, your modem may be eligible for a software update that sorts out bugs or improves performance. These updates are usually covered by your monthly rental fee.

Guaranteed Compatibility

Every modem is compatible with a certain service provider. If you buy your own, you risk accidentally purchasing one that doesn’t work with your system. However, if you rent from your ISP, you’re guaranteed to receive a compatible device.

Cons of Renting a Modem

While there are benefits to renting a modem, this process also comes with some downsides.

Higher Long Term Costs

Monthly fees may seem fairly small, but they can accumulate over time. If you’re only using the modem for a few months, those regular costs might be cheaper — however, if you add them up in the long run, the fees are typically higher than the one-time, upfront cost of purchasing a modem.

Costs May Change

The initial monthly fees you pay for renting your modem are susceptible to change. For example, your ISP may start by charging you $7/month, then increase this to $8/month. On the flip side, if you buy your modem, you don’t have to worry about unpredictable charges.

May Be Low-Quality

When you rent a modem, your ISP will usually decide what to give you. While some ISPs send high-quality modems, others might provide older modems with outdated software. If you end up with a low-quality modem, you may experience problems with your cable Internet.

Should I Rent a Cable Modem?

You should consider renting a modem if you meet any of the following conditions.

You’re Looking for a Short Term Solution

Buying a modem only saves you money if you own it for several months (or, in some cases, over a year). If you plan to use your modem for a short period of time, renting is usually the best option. For example, if you’re renting out on a home for six months, you might lose money by buying a modem.

It’s Included in the Price of the Package

If your ISP includes the modem in the price of your package, then renting is the way to go. Check your bill to see if it says “free Internet modem” — if so, buying one won’t save you any money. Keep in mind that some ISPs might still make you pay by disguising the cost of the modem as another charge (such as “Wi-Fi service”).

Buying Is Too Much Effort

Not everyone gets to choose between renting or buying a cable modem. If your ISP requires renting, you’ll have to switch your entire provider just to buy a modem, which can be a strenuous process. Similarly, if you need a modem that’s not easy to find (like one with a phone port), renting will save you time and effort.

Buying a Cable Modem

If you’re tired of monthly fees, the easiest solution is to simply buy your own modem. The main thing to look out for when purchasing one is compatibility. Big companies like Comcast are compatible with many modems, while smaller networks only support a few models. It’s important to note that not every ISP allows customers to buy a modem — before you buy one, ensure your ISP doesn’t require renting.

Pros of Buying

Here are some of the top advantages of owning a modem.

No Monthly Fees

The most obvious benefit of ownership is the lack of monthly fees. While those upfront costs may seem high, you’ll end up saving money in the long run. For reference, the average cost of a cable modem is around $130. So, if your ISP’s rental fees are $10/month, buying a modem will help you save money if you own it for over a year. Most cable modems last anywhere from four to seven years.

More Versatility

Another major benefit of buying a modem is that it gives you the ability to choose the device you want. There’s no shortage of cable modems available for sale — thus, you can hand-pick one that offers a strong performance. Of course, you need to make sure it’s compatible with your ISP first.

Can Be Resold

A common concern among those who buy modems is that, if they change their minds after just a few months of ownership, they’ll end up losing money. The good news is, modems can be resold; you’re not making a permanent investment.

Cons of Buying

Buying a modem may help save money, but there are a few drawbacks that might make you reconsider ownership.

High Upfront Costs

It goes without saying that buying a cable modem comes with high upfront costs. A modem can cost anywhere from $50 to upwards of $350. And, although you can resell one if you decide you no longer want it, there’s no guarantee you’ll earn back all your money.

No Technical Support

A huge difference between buying and renting a modem is that the former doesn’t come with technical support. This means that, if you experience any problems with your modem, you’ll have to solve them on your own (or hire a professional).

Not Always an Option

Depending on the type of modem you need, buying may not be a possibility. For example, homeowners who bundle their home phone service with their Internet plan will need a modem that has a phone port, which is not widely available for purchase.

Should I Buy My Cable Modem?

If the following conditions apply to you, you should probably buy your modem.

You Want Long Term Coverage

The top reason why homeowners buy cable modems is to save money. To determine whether buying will help conserve costs, compare the upfront price of your desired modem to your monthly fees. The longer you intend to own the modem, the more money you’ll save.

You’re Tech-Savvy

Like all electronic devices, modems are susceptible to technological problems. If you buy a modem, you will be responsible for handling these issues on your own. For those who aren’t tech-savvy, dealing with breakdowns can be time-consuming (and costly). However, if you’re good with technology, this may not be a concern.

You Want High Speed

Buying a modem gives you a heightened level of freedom. While renters might wind up with slow, outdated modems, buyers have the liberty to pick a high performing device. This is especially useful if you have a busy household and need high speeds. If you decide to buy a modem, always do your research to ensure you end up with the best possible product.

How to Buy a Modem

When you rent a modem, your ISP will do most of the work for you. When you buy a modem, however, you’ll have to do your own digging to find one that suits your needs. Along with ISP compatibility, check for channels. The channels are represented by a number, which ranges from 8 x 4 to 32 x 8. The digit before the X references the downstream channels, or the amount of download data supported. Ideally, your modem should have at least 16 channels.

Another factor to consider is the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS), a standard that determines how ISPs send and receive data. There are six DOCSIS versions, each with a different megabit per second (Mbps) capacity:

  • Version 1.0: 10 Mbps
  • Version 1.1: 10 Mbps
  • Version 2.0: 30 Mbps
  • Version 3.0: 200 Mbps
  • Version 3.1: 1,000 – 2,000 Mbps
  • Version 4.0: 6,000 Mbps

You want a modem that matches your Internet speed — so, if your ISP supports 1,000 Mbps, you should get a DOCSIS 3.1. Ultimately, purchasing a cable modem requires a little more effort than renting one (at least initially). But, as long as you do your due diligence, you should end up with a high-quality product that will support your cable Internet needs for the next few years.