Let's be honest, cable modems aren't what I would consider glamorous technology. A technician probably set it up for you when you started your cable plan and you haven't thought about it since.
It's easy to forget how important, and impressive, your cable modem actually is. It handles your internet traffic 24/7 for years, usually without a glitch. Some modems even pull double duty as your wireless router.
There is a good reason to occasionally think about your cable modem, though. If it's more than a few years old, you might not be getting the internet download speeds you're paying for.
Cable companies have been busy upgrading their networks for faster speeds. These faster speeds require faster cable modems.
Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) is the international standard used for transferring data. Currently, DOCSIS 3.0 is the most common used by cable companies. (Although, DOCSIS 3.1 is available in some very limited areas.)
DOCSIS 3.0 can achieve download data rates of 160 Mbps or better - four times faster than DOCSIS 2. This means if you're using a DOCSIS 2 modem, you might not be able to achieve the download rate that you're paying for.
Cable modems with DOCSIS 3.1 have a network capacity support of at least 10 Gbps downstream and 1 Gbps upstream. This will make for lightning fast downloads. That's sometime down the road though as cable companies haven't announced when they will begin supporting DOCSIS 3.1. So we'll just look at DOCSIS 3.0 for now.
Before you run out and get a new modem, check with your cable provider to see what download rates it offers. If the modem you have is sufficient, there's no need to upgrade.
There's also no rush to upgrade if you're happy with a basic low-speed plan. However, if you have an older style modem, there's a chance that it may be throttling your internet connection speed.
In addition to boosting your transfer rates, a newer modem could clear up any connection issues you've been experiencing. Most cable companies are phasing out older modems anyway, so it might be time to update yours.
To find out what kind of a modem you have, visit the support pages of the manufacturer's website and look up your model number. The manufacturer name will be printed on the bottom or back of the modem - it isn't the same company as your internet service provider.
Buying or leasing
Once you've determined that upgrading to a DOCSIS 3.0 modem is the right move for you, should you buy your own or lease one from the cable company?
Both strategies have their pros and cons.
The major cable providers tack on a monthly fee for renting a modem. If anything goes wrong with it, the company will usually fix it or replace it for no charge.
Bonus tip: Replacing your modem is the perfect chance to reorganize your computer cables. Click here for clever ways to organize your cables, cords and wires.
Whenever a performance-enhancing firmware update comes along, most cable companies push it to the modem without you having to worry about it.
On the other hand, you can buy an excellent DOCSIS 3.0 modem for under $100. Let's say it gives you four good years of service. At $4 per month, you'll pay $192 to lease a modem over the same period.
The downside is that you're on the hook if something goes wrong with it, and you're responsible for staying current on firmware updates.
If you decide to buy, check out your service provider's support pages for recommended DOCSIS 3.0 modems. If you stick with top brands such as ARRIS, Zoom, Netgear and D-Link, you'll get reliability and a good warranty.
You should also be able to use it with another provider in case you move.
Gateway vs. Stand-alone
When shopping, you'll notice some modems with built-in wireless routers; these are often called gateways. While a gateway is convenient space-wise, it has disadvantages compared to a stand-alone router.
Stand-alone wireless routers are more powerful and have more features. While a gateway is tethered to the wall with a short coaxial cable, you have more freedom to place a standalone router, which can mean a better signal.
If one part of a gateway goes kaput, you'll lose your internet service, or your network, until you can get a new gateway. When a stand-alone router goes down, you can at least get a computer on the internet by plugging it into the cable modem with an Ethernet cable.
What's the difference between your modem and router?
Whether you're calling your internet provider for help or talking to your kid, getting technical support can be frustrating. Between all the abbreviations (LTE! Mbps!) and the secret code language for all the computer stuff, you just want a translator to explain why the Wi-Fi is down. Sometimes even two little grey boxes that look the same do completely different things. Tap or click to learn the difference.