Tech journalists (including me) often recommend buying a modem for internet service rather than renting one from your provider. It’s quick advice that readers will remember and, in most cases, it works out. Take PCWorld’s own local pricing as an example—for the most basic plan, renting a combo modem-router gateway from Comcast is $15 per month or $180 per year. If you buy a compatible modem and basic router for $100 total, you’ll save money.
But sometimes renting can still work out in your favor. Case in point: Right now in San Francisco, Comcast is offering free gateway rentals on select plans for the first two years. If you plan to move, hop to another service provider for a better price, or otherwise need flexibility, choosing to rent can save you cash and headache.
So how do you pick your best path forward? Here’s the ultra quick guide:
Buy if you:
Can’t change providers and will remain on plans compatible with the modem’s speed limitations
Will only change providers that have overlap in compatible equipment; also, you will remain on plans compatible with the modem’s speed limitations
Will stay on a plan long enough to at least break even relative to renting a modem and don’t mind if you don’t extract additional value beyond that
Hate giving your internet service provider any extra reason to make a mistake on your monthly bill
Rent if you:
Will change internet providers before breaking even on a modem purchase
Will get the rental fee waived and will change providers (or buy your own modem) before the promotional period ends
Hate dealing with technical issues all on your own
Need access to perks (like no data caps) tied to use of the internet provider’s gear
Don’t have many connected devices (some providers cap the number of active devices on lower-priced plans <cough>Comcast</cough>)
Learn that your internet service provider requires it (sorry, that sucks)
Of course, these scenarios don’t address the nuances of your specific preferences and situation. For maximum optimization, you’ll have to ask yourself the five following questions and crunch some numbers.
What’s the price of the rental?
Obviously, renting a modem for no cost has a different impact than if it’s $6, $10, or $15 per month. The monthly price affects how long it takes to break even on a modem purchase and if that time period makes sense for your situation.
People who already own modems can generally ignore this question, except when the rental price is free. Say you have an older DOCSIS 3.0 modem (or gateway), but Comcast is offering free use of a DOCSIS 3.1 gateway. Comcast’s gear will be compatible with gigabit plans, but your device won’t. For such high-speed plans, the easy path is to use that gateway for the year or two (or however long that its rental price is free.) Also, the ISP’s device may offer faster Wi-Fi speeds than your existing router or gateway, depending on its age.
But if you’re signing up for a plan under 400 Mbps for download speeds and it were to cost even a penny-per-month to rent Comcast’s gateway? Your purchased DOCSIS 3.0 modem is going to be cheaper.
What features are offered by your rental option(s)?
Usually, renting a modem means you get a device that meets the most current specs. Often your provider will periodically upgrade the modem with a newer version, too.
But the latest bells and whistles don’t matter much if you’re stuck with nothing but 50 Mbps download speeds at your location. Unless the rental comes out cheaper than buying, you can buy the cheapest compatible modem and call it a day, especially if you already own a router. You’ll have to be your own tech support, however.
What gear do you already own?
Speaking of your getting your own equipment—more’s at play than just the modem itself. As a recap, you need a modem to translate the signal coming into your home so that your local equipment (PC, phone, etc) can use it. Meanwhile, a router makes it possible to share that connection among many devices simultaneously. And a gateway combines both the functions of a modem and a router into one piece of equipment.
You could end up needing to buy just a modem, just a router, or nothing at all. It depends on the plan you pick, the number of devices you want to put on your network, and what your situation could be like later on.
Say you have no networking gear of your own. Your contract length will determine the value of buying vs. renting. However, if you do rent, a gateway’s limitations could still require a router purchase. Some Internet providers (ahem, Comcast) restrict lower-speed plans to a handful of active devices. You’ll need your own equipment to bypass that policy.
And, if you do have an existing modem or router (or both), a rental could make sense if your stuff isn’t compatible with the network or won’t make the most of the speeds you’re paying for.
What’s in your future?
Knowing your lifestyle can help you cut down on wasted expenses and aggravation. For example: Do you move frequently between locations with several available internet providers? Buying a modem (or gateway) could be too much of a commitment—you won’t know for sure which ISP you’ll end up with next. Or the new location could support much faster download speeds, making a previously smart, frugal purchase semi-obsolete.
On the flip side, you could be a person who lives permanently at one residence with just a single available internet provider. Renting a modem could end up far more expensive when sticking with the same provider for the long haul.
If you’re somewhere in between—you don’t move often, but you can switch providers easily—then you’ll have to weigh other factors, like existing equipment that you already own, how likely you are to hop to a new ISP or haggle over renewal pricing, and more.
What’s your internet provider’s reputation?
With some internet providers, it could be safer to forgo a rental. Billing errors are an extremely real phenomenon with ISPs and wasting minutes of your life arguing with customer service can be taxing. Even if you don’t mind arguing with customer service, there could be other irritations like Comcast’s above-mentioned limits on active devices.
So, even if the math works out a little more in favor of a rental, buying could be the less costly choice. Time is its own form of currency. Your mental and emotional health are important, too.
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