Tech journalists (myself included) often recommend buying a modem for internet service rather than renting one from your provider. It’s easy advice for readers to remember and, in most cases, it works. 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.
But sometimes renting can still work in your favor. Case in point: Right now in San Francisco, Comcast is offering free gateway rental on select plans for the first two years. If you’re planning to move, jump to another service provider for a better price, or simply don’t need flexibility, choosing to rent can save you money and headaches.
So how do you choose your best path forward? Here’s an ultra quick guide:
- Buy if you:
- Can’t change providers and stick to plans that are compatible with modem speed limits
- Only replace overlapping providers with compatible equipment; Also, you’ll be stuck with plans that conform to modem speed limits
- Stick to a plan that’s big enough to at least break even on renting a modem and don’t worry if you can’t get more value than that.
- Hate to give your internet service provider any more reason to screw up your monthly bill.
- rent if you:
- Change internet providers before breaking even on buying a modem
- Can the rental fee be paid and change providers (or buy your own modem) before the end of the promotion period
- Hate to deal with technical issues yourself
- Requires access to perks (such as no data caps) tied to using an internet provider
- No more connected devices (some providers limit the number of active devices on lower-priced plans
- Know that your internet service provider requires it (sorry, bad)
Of course, these scenarios do not address the nuances of your specific preferences and situation. For maximum optimization, you should ask yourself the following five questions and crunch some numbers.
What is the rent worth?
Obviously, renting a modem for free has a different effect than if it were $6, $10, or $15 per month. The monthly price affects how long it will take to break even on the modem purchase and whether that time period is reasonable for your situation.
People who already own modems usually ignore this question, unless the rental price is free. Say you have an older DOCSIS 3.0 modem (or gateway), but Comcast offers free use of a DOCSIS 3.1 gateway. Comcast equipment may be compatible with gigabit plans, but your device is not. For such high-speed plans, the easy way is to use that gateway for a year or two (or however long its rental price is free.) Also, the device in ISP may offer faster Wi-Fi speeds than your existing router or gateway. , depending on its age.
But if you signed up for a plan with less than 400 Mbps for download speeds and it costs a penny a month to rent a Comcast gateway? Your purchased DOCSIS 3.0 modem will be cheaper.
What features does your rental option(s) offer?
Usually, renting a modem means you get a device that meets the latest specs. Usually your provider periodically upgrades the modem with a newer version, too.
But the latest bells and whistles don’t matter if you don’t have anything but 50 Mbps download speeds in your location. Unless renting turns out to be cheaper than buying, you can buy the cheapest compatible modem and call it a day, AMONG if you already own a router. You should be your own tech support, though.
What do you use?
Speaking of you getting your own equipment—there’s more at play than the modem itself. As a recap, you need a modem to translate the signal coming into your home so that it can be used by your local equipment (PC, phone, etc.). Meanwhile, a router makes it possible to share that connection with many devices simultaneously. And a gateway combines the functions of a modem and a router in one piece of equipment.
You may need to buy a modem, a router, or nothing at all. It depends on the plan you choose, the number of devices you want to put on your network, and what your situation will be later.
Say you don’t have your own networking equipment. The length of your contract will determine the value of buying versus renting. However, if you rent, gateway limitations may still require a router purchase. Some Internet providers (ahem, Comcast) restrict lower speed plans to certain active devices. You need your own equipment to bypass that policy.
And, if you have an existing modem or router (or both), a rental may make sense if your items aren’t compatible with the network or don’t take advantage of the speeds you’re paying for.
What’s in your future?
Knowing your lifestyle can help you reduce wasteful expenses and aggravation. For example: Do you often move between locations with multiple available internet providers? Buying a modem (or gateway) can be too much of a commitment—you can’t be sure which ISP you’ll end up with. Or the new location can support faster download speeds, making a once smart, thrifty purchase obsolete.
On the other hand, you may be a person who permanently lives in a residence with only one available internet provider. Renting a modem can be more expensive if staying with the same provider for the long haul.
If you’re in the middle – you don’t move often, but you can easily switch providers – then you need to weigh other factors, such as the existing equipment you already have, how likely you are to jump you to a new ISP or haggle over renewal pricing, etc.
What is the reputation of your internet provider?
With some internet providers, it may be safer to leave the lease. Billing errors are a real occurrence 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 may be other irritations like the aforementioned Comcast limits on active devices.
So, even if the math works out more in favor of a lease, buying may be the less expensive option. Time is its own form of money. Your mental and emotional health is also important.