Quick, take a look at your cable bill. Are you paying $5 or $10, or even more, each month just to rent a router from your cable company? Seems outrageous, doesn't it? Well, you can actually buy your own device instead, saving some cash over the long haul. But there are a few things to consider before diving in.
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Can you stop renting?
The first question you should ask your ISP is if you may replace their modem/router with your own. While you can almost always add your own router to the mix, some ISPs require you to use their hardware, so even if you attempt to replace it, you're still stuck paying their rental fee. Call their customer service and find out before you spend any money.
Routers vs. modems
My Internet Service Provider (ISP) provides a combination router/modem--one device that does double duty--or you may have two different devices. The modem is the device that provides access to the Internet (typically connecting to the coax wire that your ISP runs from outside of your house to the inside), while the router shares that Internet access among devices throughout the house.
The router may be wired (Ethernet cords that plug into the back of the device) or wirelessly, or, typically, both. If you buy your own modem, but it doesn't include a router, you may still end up paying the monthly rental fee to your ISP. Make sure the device you purchase offers all of the features that you need. But don't pay for extra if you don't need it.
Check for compatibility
Similarly, you need to make sure that any router or modem device that you purchase works with your ISP's equipment--and not all devices do. Most providers have a compatibility list on their site, so take a look and make sure you're investing in compatible equipment. Or you can call and talk to to their customer service.
What will it cost?
Tech doesn't last forever, and you shouldn't expect your modem or router to, either. But you can expect them to last several years. So when calculating the price of renting versus buying your own, be somewhat conservative and factor in 24 to 36 months worth of payments.
With that in mind, the math is pretty straightforward. Suppose your cable bill says that you pay $5/month for a router rental fee. You can buy your own high quality router for under $100. (For example, consider the superb but still very affordable TP-LInk Archer C7.)
If you conservatively assume this router will last for at least 3 years, that's $100/36 month = $2.75/month. That's half the price of our hypothetical rental fee. The router will probably last more than 3 years, and odds are good that it's a better quality model than whatever your cable company gives you. Win/win/win.
Understand speed and standards
Wireless networking can be confusing even to those of us who spend a lot of time writing about and researching technology products. To make things (somewhat) clear for consumers, wireless standards are given names that start with a series of numbers – 802.11 – followed by a letter. You've likely seen 802.11b or 802.11g in the past, while today's cutting-edge products are 802.11ac. The letter signifies a different technology that can reach a higher speed.
Products are backwards-compatible, but their speed is limited by the slowest device trying to connect. So if you have a brand-new 802.11ac laptop and an older 802.11n router, your laptop won't reach its full potential. And if you are renting a modem and router from your ISP, chances are it is not the latest and greatest model. After all, think about how long you've had the same device in your house. If speed truly matters to you, investing in your own gear is likely worth the extra hassle. Keep in mind, though, that your speed isn't restricted only by your equipment; it's also tied to your Internet service plan. If you're not paying for your provider's high-speed service, there's no point in investing in high-speed gear.
Consider a mesh network
You can buy a reasonably powerful wireless router fairly inexpensively these days. But if you have a large house or one with lots of signal-blocking walls, it might not reach all the corners of your home. The fix? The newest trend in routers is something called a mesh network, in which you place 2 or 3 "nodes" around your house, and they blast WiFi into every corner of your home.
To learn more about mesh networks (and if they're a good investment) listen to Techwalla's recent One Cool Thing podcast about this very subject.
Find out reviews, ratings and prices
That's a lot to take in, but don't let it scare you away from investing in your own modem and router. You really can save a lot of money, and end up with better service to boot. Before you invest, though, it's do your homework. Read product reviews (PCMag.com has comprehensive reviews of wireless routers) and comparison shop. And then it's time to save!