Stop paying $200 a year for your Internet cable modem

By Brian Livingston

From the January 11 AskWoodyPlus Newsletter:

If there’s anything I hate, it’s paying $15 or $20 a month for something I don’t want or need.

Now our political system — such as it is — has done something about it. A law passed by Congress went into effect just a few days ago: December 20, 2020, to be exact. ISPs (Internet service providers) are now prohibited from charging you a monthly “equipment fee” for connection devices you bought and installed yourself.

ISPs know all about this law, which is called the Television Viewer Protection Act (TVPA). It was supposed to go into effect last year on June 20, but cable and telephone companies pressured the FCC to delay its protections for six months. But now, if you own your own hardware, one call to your ISP should get the charge removed — although it should already
have disappeared from your bill.

This is a big deal. Along with some other ISPs, Frontier Communications — which sells Internet access in 25 US states — charged all its users, until recently, $10 a month for a cable modem, “whether you use it or not.”

Asked for comment, Frontier VP Javier Mendoza told me: “Customers that are charged for covered equipment may return equipment and will not have equipment charges.” Well, which
non-Frontier modems are compatible? Frontier “cannot endorse or recommend other routers,” Mendoza responded.

Aye, there’s the rub. What to buy? Like every law that makes it out of Congress, TVPA generated several Web mentions. But do a search in Google News on tvpa fee. All the articles within the past month ended by saying, “You can save big!” while never telling you the right device that would stop the monthly fees from your ISP.

Well, let’s fix that here and now. In this week’s column, I’ll tell you how to determine which
devices are compatible with almost any ISP you might have.Step 0: Maybe you’re actually better off just renting?

You first need to decide whether saving the fee is worth it. True, many ISPs raised their equipment charges on January 1, 2021. Comcast/Xfinity’s basic cable modem fee is $168 per year, and its xFi version is $300 per year. But for that, you do get a free replacement if your unit goes belly-up.

My wife and I bought and moved into a fixer-upper in a Comcast service area last year. For the sake of convenience — since we had a few thousand contractors to juggle — I allowed a rep to install a generic gateway (a modem/router combo). A few weeks later, I happened to move an Ethernet cable in my entertainment center to an adjacent port. That one click shouldn’t have broken anything. But my Xfinity gateway immediately stopped working.

After I called Comcast, a technician came to my house within two hours — surprisingly fast. The fellow spent 45 minutes testing my external signal and the gateway. Yep, the device had fried, and he gave me a new one for free. You might find this kind of insurance worthwhile.

To keep my monthly costs down, I call my various service providers once a year and ask the operator whether any new plans are available. The “customer-service reps” are really just “retention specialists,” but they’re usually authorized to knock at least a few dollars off your bill. Blogger G.E. Miller reports that with one call, he reduced a $20 monthly equipment fee to only $5.

However, buying your own hardware puts you in control. To cite just one example, Comcast silently gives away some of your wireless bandwidth to complete strangers who pay for connections to its “Xfinity WiFi Home Hotspots.” Yes, you can disable this, though some people say the routers mysteriously re-enable themselves. But with your very own cable modem, sharing doesn’t happen — you don’t lose any of the bandwidth you’ve paid for!Step 1: Which type of hardware do you need?

Not every device works with every ISP technology. I’m oversimplifying here, but there are three main types:

  • cable modem converts data on a coaxial cable into a digital signal that an Ethernet port can pass along. A router divides an Internet signal among two or more wired or wireless computing devices. A gateway is a combined modem and router. A gateway typically has one coax port, four or more Ethernet ports, and possibly a Wi-Fi router as well.
  • DSL modem converts a telephone line’s Internet signal into an Ethernet signal.
  • Fiber-optic Internet, such as Verizon FiOS, requires an ONT (optical network terminal), not a cable modem.

The remainder of this article focuses on cable modems, since most fixed-broadband  customers in the US use a cable company for Internet access.Step 2: Do you need a phone-capable cable modem?

If you’re currently getting landline service from a cable company — or you want to someday
get your dial tone that way — the cable modem or gateway you purchase must include one or more modular jacks (RJ-11 ports).

As long as you’re changing your cable modem, however, you might want to also ditch your ISP’s voice service. Get a highly rated, independent VoIP provider such as RingCentral or Ooma Office.Step 3: Do you need 25Mbps, 100Mbps, or 1Gbps?

ISPs constantly promote fantastical speeds. “Watch videos faster” is a common advertising claim. Most of these promises are baloney.

To test this, University of Chicago computer science professor Nick Feamster developed software called Net Microscope. After analyzing tens of thousands of streaming videos across the Internet, he announced in a 2019 white paper that “higher access speeds provide only marginal improvements to video quality.”

This study received a lot of play in the mainstream media, including a front-page Wall Street Journal article. Testers with 100Mbps service who launched seven video streams at once used only about 7.1 Mbps — far below their hardware’s capacity. “It’s not worth it,” the
Journal concluded about 100Mbps service or higher.

Even Netflix states that its most-demanding streaming-video formats — a 4K TV picture with Dolby Vision or HDR10 audio — require you to have an Internet service tier of no more than 25Mbps. For commonplace high-def 1080p videos, just 5Mbps is the minimum recommendation.

Most websites will never feed you anywhere near that much data per second. Don’t pay more for a 100Mbps or 1Gbps tier unless you have some specialized need.

Now that we’ve gone over the services you want and need, next week my column will take you step by step to the exact device that’s best for your specific ISP.

Do you know a secret that we all should know? Tell me about it! I’ll keep your identify totally confidential or give you credit as you prefer. Send your story via the 
Public Defender tips page
Questions or comments? Feedback on this article is always welcome in the AskWoody Lounge!

The PUBLIC DEFENDER column is Brian Livingston’s campaign to give you consumer protection from tech. If something is irritating you, and it has an “on” switch, he’ll take the case! Brian is a successful dot-com entrepreneur, co-author of 11 Windows Secrets books, and author of the new book Muscular Portfolios.

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