Stop Renting Your Cable Modem, You’re Getting Ripped Off

A close up of the Technicolor E31T2V1 modem from Spectrum Internet
Corbin Davenport / How-To Geek

Cable Modem Rental Fees Add Up Fast

Purchasing a cable modem can save you thousands of dollars in rental fees over time, and the modem should pay for itself in less than a year.

When you look at a utility bill, be it your electric bill or your cable internet bill, it sure feels like a lot of extra fees are tacked on there. While you can’t do much about regulatory fees, there is one fee you can erase: the model rental fee.

Since 2020, thanks to the Television Viewer Protection Act of 2019, it has been illegal for cable internet providers to bill you for equipment you’re not using. You’d think that would have always been illegal, but before the law, many cable providers were billing subscribers for equipment rental (regardless of whether or not they used the equipment). Now, if you use your own equipment, they have to strike the equipment rental fee from your bill.

Cable modem rental fees are provider dependent and can vary based on region, so it’s best to check your bill to see what specific fee you’re paying. While modem rental fees used to be in the $5-10 range, they’ve increased over the years. Most people are paying in the $13-18 range, with the average cable internet subscriber paying $15 monthly.

That means, nationwide, most cable internet subscribers are paying between $156-$216 in equipment fees, with an average of around $180 per year.

It’s worth noting that some providers don’t supply stand-alone modems, and the rental fee includes a gateway device that serves as a combination modem and Wi-Fi router. So your fee may include both a modem and (generally anemic) Wi-Fi router. Although many people put the cable modem/Wi-Fi router gateway in bridge mode and use their own Wi-Fi router—which makes paying your cable provider a premium for equipment you’re not even using pretty silly. But don’t worry, we’ll account for that in our discussion of payback windows.

Most Modems Pay For Themselves In Months, Not Years

Renting a modem from your cable provider doesn’t make much sense when you realize a new modem costs less than the yearly rental fees.

Historically, cable modems rental fees were more modest, and cable modem prices were much higher. Back in the 2000s and early 2010s, it could take two years or more to break even on buying your own cable modem. (And with the whole pre-2020 nonsense of getting billed for equipment you weren’t even using, you would never break even.)

But as of 2023, cable modem prices have dropped substantially while modem rental fees have more than doubled for many subscribers.

You can now pick up a DOCSIS 3.0 modem with a 32×8 channel configuration for around $60 on sale, like this Arris Surfboard SB6190. (You should always double-check your provider’s authorized modem list—like this approved modem list for Spectrum or this list for Cox—but you’ll find the popular cable modems are supported by all the major providers.)

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.

If your cable provider charges you $15 a month for a similar or lesser modem, you’ll break even in only four months. And for folks that need to replace the modem and Wi-Fi router because they were using their provider’s combo unit, that leaves a $120 savings surplus in just the first year to put towards a Wi-Fi router. That’s plenty of money to get a perfectly serviceable budget-friendly router that is leagues better than the junk your cable provider gave you.

Realistically, most cable internet subscribers will break even within a year, even accounting for purchasing a modem and Wi-Fi router to replace the gear they turned in.

You’ll Save Hundreds of Dollars Over Time

A payback window of a year or less is a great motivation to finally turn in your rental modem and buy one. But if you need even more motivation, consider the savings over time.

Let’s say you’ve been a cable internet user for ten years. And to keep our theoretical example realistic, let’s say you’ve been through a few incremental price hikes. For the first three years, your rental fee was $8. For the next four, it was $12. Then, your provider hiked it up to that $15 national average for the last three. Over the ten years, you paid $1,404 just in equipment fees.

Assuming you spent $100 on a cable modem at the start of your cable internet subscription and replaced it once (due to network upgrades or equipment failure), you’d be out $200 in equipment costs and have saved $1,204. That leaves around $120 a  year to cover the cost of your Wi-Fi router.

We recommend replacing your Wi-Fi router every 3-5 years to stay on top of current Wi-Fi technology. If you updated every three years using just the money you saved on the rental fees as your new Wi-Fi router budget, you’d have $360 to put towards each router upgrade.

And that’s just the money left on the table in the past. If we assume no rental fee price hikes over the next ten years, you’ll pay another $1800 in equipment rental fees. That money, put back in your pocket, is certainly more than the cost of buying a DOCSIS 3.1 modem and nice router today, a DOCSIS 4.0 modem down the road when the need arises, and another round or two of Wi-Fi router upgrades over the years.

Even accounting for all that, you’ll easily save hundreds of dollars and have an all-around better experience than coasting on the standard issue gear your cable provider gives you.

While you can make an argument for not buying a cable modem if you’re in a short-term rental situation or if you prefer to have your cable provider be responsible for managing and replacing your equipment, given how cheap modems have become over time, those arguments don’t hold up as well as they used to. When the payoff window is as short as a few months and the savings over time as significant, it’s hard not to see the value in purchasing your cable modem outright.

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