Sure, the hardware probably came with a solid recommendation from your Internet provider and was installed free of charge. It may even be an all-in-one that functions as both a router and modem, handling all of your Internet needs. Why rock the boat?

The short of it is that you're tossing money away. Unless your internet service provider throws in the modem lease as part of the cost of the monthly plan, you may be spending upwards of $10 on a monthly leasing fee. Under that scenario, you would recoup your investment in ten months. There are many solid modems that are even less than $100. So if you pick up a solid choice for $80, and you're forking over $10 a month to the cable company, it'll be a short eight months before your investment will have been paid off. No matter which way you look at it, you'll come out ahead in a very short amount of time.

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In short, you can do better than just handing free money to the cable company. Here's the case for buying a modem, some suggestions on some models to look at, along with a few details for those who may be in a situation where they may actually want to stick with the one given to them by their cable provider.

What you need to know

The decision to buy a new modem requires a little bit of technical know-how. You can't just run to your local electronics store or jump onto Amazon and grab the cheapest one or option with the best reviews.

First, you'll want to buy a modem that is compatible with the latest iteration of Data Over Cable Internet Service Specification 3.0. For most internet service provider, 2.0 is nearing the end of life status and won't be supported any longer. The latest version, DOCSIS 3.0, will give you support for the increasingly higher speeds that the Internet providers can deliver.

Some cities that are rolling out Gigabit Internet (speeds above 1000 Mbps). If you have such service, your cable provider likely has provided you with a modem as it must be compatible with DOCSIS 3.1. The key is that if you're one of the lucky few with lightning-fast Internet is you may need to check in with your internet service provider to see if they'll allow you to go with a third party.

For the rest of us, there are more options. Some internet service providers have tested and vetted a series of third-party modems and determined them to be compatible with the network. You can check online with your cable company for more details, such as this chart from Time Warner Cable. On the site, the company offers suggested models depending on the Internet speeds that you want to receive. Comcast, whose Xfinity service typically offers among the fastest speeds in the U.S., also has a dedicated site that lists hardware approved for use with the network.

Such major companies typically don't do such things out of the kindness of their heart, but the advice is worth heeding. This indicates that the ISPs have vetted the equipment, which gives you a better chance of having a solid experience.

You're on your own

Keep in mind this doesn't mean that the cable company won't actually provide you with support or troubleshooting advice if you run into a problem with the modem itself.

However, as someone who has used his own modem for many years, I've found that if you buy a good, quality cable modem you are not likely to have any major issues. It's well worth the investment and the additional flexibility you get by being able to use the modem's software controls.

As an example of what this may mean, consider the following caveat from Comcast:

Despite the scary-sounding legalese, there isn't much reason to be concerned.

You are responsible for ensuring that your retail device is secure, certified and compatible by visiting We recommend that you remain aware of new developments in technology to better understand when replacing your retail device may be necessary.

You will be responsible for troubleshooting device-related issues using the manufacturer's user manual if we have confirmed that your XFINITY Internet or Voice service is functioning properly. You will also be responsible for configuring your wireless network's security settings, if applicable.

Despite the scary-sounding legalese, there isn't much reason to be concerned. Most cable modems now are very reliable and have low odds of giving you problems. Additionally, just like any new piece of hardware, you can check to see what the warranty and support service looks like. Odds are that if you're thinking of going your own way with a modem you're at least nominally tech savvy, but it still may be worth doing a little bit of legwork on the front end. Some choices

So you've decided to make the leap and get your own modem. Now comes the hard part - making the choice. If you just jump onto Amazon or into an electronics retailer you may be overwhelmed with a number of choices that all sound the same. However, with a little bit of effort, it's not too difficult to find what will be the best choice for you.

The good news is you can have a solid modem for less than $100. The Wirecutter recommends the Arris SURFboard SB6183, which retails for around $80. The Netgear CM500 High-speed Cable Modem goes for $68, and includes a Gigabit Ethernet port. This provides a little bit of future proofing if your cable provider offers a Gigabit option or you end up switching to a company that does.

Presumably, you'll want wireless coverage, so you'll also need to purchase a Wi-Fi router. Again, there are several good options that can be had for less than $100. The TP-Link Archer C7, also the Wirecutter top pick is a solid offering. There are more expensive routers out there if you're after advanced features. Some routers are better than others at offering Quality of Service controls and things like an iTunes server.

As indicated, the key is to have a modem that's compatible with the DOCSIS 3.0 standard. If you already have one, you don't necessarily need to upgrade to a new modem just for the sake of having the latest hardware. Especially if you're not sure about your long-term commitment to this particular internet service provider. The newest and shiniest hardware isn't always the one that you need to jump on. A good cable modem and router can serve you well until there's a compelling reason to upgrade.

The recommended modems here are compatible with the major companies, such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, and Charter. If you have a smaller provider, check the specifications and consider contacting the company to be sure that you won't run into any issues. Much of the technology surrounding cable Internet service is standardized, so a relatively new modem should be able to do the job.

The exceptions

There are always exceptions, so let's address a few of them here. If you have DSL or Fiber, you won't be able to get your own modem. These use entirely different standards and connectors.

Also, it's a little trickier if you have an Internet/telephone bundle from your provider. If that's the case, you need to purchase a "telephony" or eMTA modem that's supported by your ISP. And depending on who you have for coverage, it may not even be available. For example, Comcast says that not every region lets you even buy an eMTA modem. In those regions that do, you'll need to get one of the approved models from the list.

As with other peculiarities, be sure to check with your cable company if you have any questions. While you don't want to pay for needless service, you'll only cause yourself a major headache if you kill a weekend fiddling with a modem that won't work with your network.

Time to let the cable company know

Keep your smartphone handy so you can look up troubleshooting tips online if you run into issues.

If you have existing service, you'll need to contact your cable provider to tell them that you've switched to your own modem. Otherwise, they'll just keep charging you. You'll probably need to send back the leased unit or drop it off at a local store.

Of course, before you part with the modem provided by the company, it'd be best to get your new modem set up and working. Your modem should include a link to digital instructions or an old-school book that will guide you through the process. It should just be a matter of connecting the cabling from the old modem to your new one and following any instructions provided by your new hardware. For example, Arris offers online startup guides for all of its own modems. Go along with the steps you see there and you should be back online in no time.

Pro tip: keep your smartphone handy so you can look up troubleshooting tips online if you run into issues. Nothing's more frustrating than trying to fix the Internet while you don't have the Internet.

Once you've done that, be sure to check your bill that the charge doesn't reoccur. Cable companies often don't have the best customer service reputation for a reason, and there have been cases of the monthly fee staying on even after the customer has connected service to their own modem. So, pay attention to the next couple of bill cycles to ensure that the charge disappears for good.

Wrapping it up

The bottom line is this: in most circumstances, it's to your advantage to buy your own cable modem. Not only will you save money (we're big fans of the concept here at Thrifter), but you'll probably get a better experience.

You won't have to rely on tech support if you have issues with your modem. And many modems also include a mobile app, so you can take charge right from your smartphone. The possibilities are even wider if you pair up the new modem with a wireless router, as you'll have greater flexibility with the types of networking you'll be able to perform.

Ultimately, you'll save money and have more control over your own hardware. There's no need to hand over any more cash than you need to. Spend some time researching the options for your specific internet service provider and then charge ahead with taking control over your Internet experience.

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