Modem Costs: Should You Buy or Rent?

Renting a modem is cheap but buying might be smarter in the long run

Whenever you sign up for new internet service with an internet service provider (ISP), you'll often have the choice to buy a modem or rent one offered by the ISP.

The choice boils down to a few factors. You'll need to compare the cost to own against the long-term cost to rent, the quality of each modem, and how much it'll cost to upgrade.

Rental fees and modem models vary significantly from one ISP to another. Read all of the fine print and understand all upfront charges and monthly payments for both the buy and rent options.

How Much Is a Modem?

When signing up for internet service with either a cable internet company or a phone internet company, the sales representative will ask you whether you want to buy a modem or rent one.

It's best to compare the costs beforehand to know what the most affordable option is for your situation. The monthly fee for renting a modem varies significantly from one provider to the next. The most common providers and their rental prices are:

  • Xfinity: xFi Gateway combination modem/router for $14/mo
  • AT&T: DSL NVG589 combination modem/router for $10/mo
  • Spectrum: No charge for a wired modem, but a Wi-Fi enabled one costs $10/mo
  • Cox: A single band modem/router costs $6.99/mo, and dual-band costs $9.99/mo

A single-band modem only supports 2.4 GHz, while a dual-band one supports 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Most newer wireless devices work better on 5 GHz, so dual-band is usually the better option.

Cable modem and Wi-Fi router prices range from $50 up to $350 each. So, if you decide to purchase one of each at mid-range prices, you'll potentially spend an average of $250.

If your monthly rental fee would have been $10/mo, that means you'll have paid off a $250 modem in about two years.

Does Any Modem Work With Any Internet Provider?

Each ISP maintains a list of specific modems compatible with their service. If you buy a modem on their supported list, their support technicians will be able to connect their internet service to your purchased modem.

Xfinity offers customers a My Device page where you can look up what modem models are compatible with your specific internet service plan.

Screenshot of xfinity my device page

Check out Spectrum's list of authorized modems that work on the Spectrum network. You'll need to choose the speed tier you've subscribed for to get the appropriate list.

Here's Cox's list of authorized modems you can buy, and Cox technicians will work with you to add the device to their network.

If you have any other cable internet service, search Google for the name of the company and "compatible modems" to find their specific compatible modem page.

If you have AT&T or any other DSL internet service that requires a telephony modem, you're better off renting the modem. It's challenging to find telephony modems on the market.

What to Look For in a Modem

You could buy a combination modem/router that will connect to your ISP internet service plus provide in-home Wi-Fi for convenience. However, you're less likely to find the same quality and performance from these combo devices. Buying different devices gives you more flexibility.

You can save money by focusing a buying a wired modem since the router handles the Wi-Fi network. When you're shopping online or in the store for a modem, keep a close eye on these specifications.

  • Compatibility: Bring the list of modems compatible with your ISP to the store with you. This way you'll know exactly what modems you can buy and which you can't.
  • DOCSIS: Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) is the protocol that allows the ISP to transmit the internet to your modem via a coaxial cable. A DOCSIS 3.0 modem can handle up to 1 gigabit (1,000 Mbps) of transfer speed. DOCSIS 3.1 is required for speeds higher than this. Don't spend the extra money for DOCSIS 3.1 if your ISP subscription speed is less than 1 gigabit.
  • Channel Bonding: Usually represented as two numbers like 32 x 8, these mean downstream x upstream. These are the number of channels that download or upload data. The more channels, the more simultaneous data transfers the modem can handle. The downstream number is the most important (since most people only download from the internet most of the time), so any number 16 or over is more than enough for most home users.
  • Speed: Overall modem speed refers to download speed (upload usually isn't specified). As long as the speed indicated is slightly higher than your ISP subscription speed, it will be sufficient for your needs.

Keeping all of these factors in mind, make sure not to overpay for your modem. Buy a model supported by your ISP, and make sure the specifications fall in line with your internet subscription specifications. If you pay for the most powerful modem you can buy, and your ISP isn't providing that level of internet speed, you'll just be wasting money.

  • What's the difference between a modem and a router?

    A modem is what you use to connect to the internet. A router is what you use to share that internet connection between all of your home's wired and wireless devices.

  • How do you reset a modem?

    To reset your modem, unplug it from its power source, wait about 30 seconds, then plug it back in. It will go through an initialization process that can take a few minutes before you can get back online.

  • How do you access your modem's settings?

    To access your modem's settings, you need the modem's default gateway IP address and the default login. Enter the IP address into a web browser and log in to the modem's management portal. Generally, you can find the modem settings under Settings or Options.

  • Can I buy just a modem?

    Sure! You can plug a device, like a computer, directly into a modem to access the internet. But, if you have multiple devices that you want to get online, you're going to need a router too. These days, many modems come with the router built-in.

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