If you’re considering buying a cable modem to save on rental fees, get better performance, or both, we’d encourage you to read this list of tips first for the smoothest experience.
Most U.S. cable internet providers charge an equipment rental fee for provider-supplied modems. If you’re one of the millions of cable internet subscribers paying to rent your modem, it’s worth looking at how much you’re paying per year to know when you’ll make your money back on a cable modem purchase.
We think renting a cable modem is a huge rip-off, and we crunched the numbers to show you’ll save thousands of dollars over the years by purchasing your cable modem. Most people will make their money back in less than a year. It’s like knocking $10-20 off your internet bill, forever.
That said, there isn’t a payback window to consider for people lucky enough to have a provider that doesn’t charge a rental fee for modems—notably, Spectrum is the biggest cable provider that doesn’t charge modem rental fees. If you’re in that group, you won’t save money by purchasing a cable modem, but you may end up with a much better modem (and performance).
We can give you all the advice in the world about cable modems, but the ultimate authority on which cable modem will work with your internet subscription is your cable internet provider.
Each provider maintains a list of approved modems. Your experience with a modem not on that approved list will range from “It isn’t officially approved, but it works” to “We won’t even provision that modem for use on our network.”
With that in mind, check with your provider. Some providers, such as Spectrum and Cox, have published lists on their help sites. With other providers, you may need to log into your account to access the approved modem list or contact tech support.
One thing to remember when talking to a sales or tech support representative about buying a modem instead of a provider-supplied modem is that it’s in the company’s interest to have you continue to use their modem. They make a substantial amount of money off equipment rental fees, and they will usually suggest you continue to use their modem. However, modern cable modems are interoperable thanks to the DOCSIS standard.
As long as you use a modem approved by your provider, there’s no harm in using a purchased modem over a provider-supplied modem.
It’s common for cable and other internet service providers (ISPs) to supply customers with an all-in-one combination modem/router/Wi-Fi router.
These combo units help keep costs down (and profit from equipment rental fees up), but they do so by sacrificing performance across the board. This is why we recommend people replace their ISP-supplied Wi-Fi Router, put the unit in bridge mode, and use a much better off-the-shelf Wi-Fi router.
You can find off-the-shelf modem/router combo units. Some of them, like this Motorola MG7700 DOCSIS 3.0 modem or this Arris G36 DOCSIS 3.1 modem, are certainly better than the bargain-bin combo units your ISP might offer.
But you run into the same problems with an ISP-supplied combo unit, and you’re better off buying a stand-alone modem and a stand-alone Wi-Fi router.
Your cable modem has channels (not entirely unlike TV channels but used for a different purpose). DOCSIS 3.0 modems, which most people still use, have channel configurations ranging from 4×4 (four channels for downloads and four channels for uploads) to 32×8 (32 channels for downloads and 8 for uploads). The more channels you have, the more bandwidth you have—although having more channels won’t give you bandwidth beyond what you pay for.
If you’re interested in learning more about cable modem channels, we have you covered, but the only important piece of advice is to buy a modem with more channels. In the past, cable modems were significantly more expensive, but in 2023 you can get a DOCSIS 3.0 32×8 cable modem for under $100 (and often in the $50-60 range on sale).
ARRIS SURFboard SB6190 DOCSIS 3.0 32 x 8
This dependable and popular option from the Arris Surfboard lineup is perfect for cable internet subscribers with any subscription tier at or below 800 Mbps, which is the majority of cable broadband users in the United States.
So don’t waste your money on a 16×4 or even 24×8 modem. A 32×8 modem will meet all your cable broadband needs up to around 800 Mbps. Most people have a cable internet package of around 200 Mbps, so there is plenty of room to grow with a 32×8 modem.
Not everyone lives in an area with gigabit (or better) cable internet service. And, because gigabit internet is more expensive (and not even necessary for most households), many people stick with a lower tier even where it’s available.
But if you currently have gigabit or better cable internet or wish to upgrade to it in the future, you’ll need a DOCSIS 3.1 modem.
DOCSIS 3.1 improves upon DOCSIS 3.0, allowing for a theoretical maximum download of up to 10 Gbps. Anyone subscribing to a gigabit package of the few multi-gigabit packages out there must use a DOCSIS 3.1 modem to hit the advertised speeds for their subscription tier.
If you’re a tech news reader, you may have heard some chatter about DOCSIS 4.0—the next generation of cable modems right around the corner.
As of May 2023, DOCSIS 4.0 cable internet is in field trials in select locations around North America. But the earliest consumer rollout of DOCSIS 4.0 won’t be until the end of 2023, and, realistically, it will take years to reach most cable modem subscribers. There’s a good chance you’ll be using a DOCSIS 3.1 modem well into 2025 and beyond.
So, for now, no need to worry about DOCSIS 4.0. If you want a modem that will last you for years and years, buy a nice DOCSIS 3.1 modem and coast.
One of the nice things about the interoperable nature of the DOCSIS standard, how long cable modems last, and how slow providers are to fully adopt the next version of the standard, is that it’s very easy to sell a cable modem you no longer need. Compared to computers, routers, and smartphones, cable modems have a much longer lifecycle.
Let’s say you buy a cable modem today and then move across the country or switch to fiber internet six months from now. Not only will you likely have nearly made up the purchase cost already in equipment rental fee savings, but you can easily sell the modem to a neighbor using your old provider or list it online. Between a few months of saving on fees and getting even half the purchase price back by flipping the modem on your way out the door, you’ll come out ahead.
By keeping the tips above in mind, you’ll end up with the right modem for your needs and likely save quite a bit of money in the process.