If you’re using Comcast cable Internet (a.k.a Xfinity), check your bill, you might be paying around $15/month “equipment rental” fee. If so, replacing the provider-supplied equipment with a cable modem of your own will eliminate that monthly cost. Over time the saving will more than pay for the hardware you need to buy upfront.
Using your modem brings about other advantages, too. You then can pick a router, or a mesh system, with features and performance grade of your liking. And, in many cases, retailed hardware can improve connection speeds.
This post will walk you through the process of replacing a cable provider-supplied equipment with your own.
Note: I wrote this post based on an Xfinity Internet plan, but if you use any other residential cable Internet service, such as Time Warner Cable, Cox, Charter, and so on, the process is similar. Also, while this post is about replacing an existing device, it also applies to set up a new service. In this case, make sure you choose not to use the provider’s equipment when ordering the service.
A. Identify your current cable Internet’s modem/gateway
If you’re about to replace a provider’s equipment, there are two things to keep in mind.
First, are you currently using a modem or a gateway? Most users have a gateway instead of just a modem. If so, they will need a new Wi-Fi router in addition to a new modem, or they can get a retail gateway. The reason is a network needs a router — a gateway combines a modem and a router into a single box.
Tip on Modem vs. gateway: Take a look at your internet box, the one that connects to the service cable. If it has just one network port on the back, then it’s a modem, if it has more (typically four) then it’s a gateway. A gateway is generally much bigger than a modem. For more, check out this post.
Second, do you also use phone service with your cable internet provider? If so you will need a phone-capable modem/gateway which is typically more expensive.
B. What cable Internet equipment to get
There are many options for retail modems, routers, and gateways. You’ll need a set of a modem and a router, or a single gateway. Note that if you also have a TV plan from your provider, the Internet modem has nothing to do with that. TV generally uses separate hardware.
What’s the best Cable Modem?
Modems are simple devices and tend to work similarly. What set them apart mostly in their standard — currently DOSIS 3.0 vs. DOCSIS 3.1 — and speed grades. Generally, you just need to worry about the latter, and a typical one from Netgear, TP-Link, or Motorola will likely work out.
Those without a cable phone service can get any modem that can handle the Internet speed of the plan, or faster, and work with the provider. If you’re a Comcast (Xfinity) customer, here’s the list of the approved modem (gateway) for your address based on your broadband speed. (Note: You might need to sign in with your account.)
The key here is to get what you need, it doesn’t hurt to get the fastest modem out there, but if you don’t have an internet plan that requires it, you’re just wasting your money, unless you want to be future-proof. But if you want to make sure just get a DOCSIS 3.1 modem that’s capable of 1 Gbps (or faster).
If you need a phone-capable modem, there are fewer options. In my experience, either the ARRIS Surfboard T25 or the NETGEAR CM500V is an excellent choice. Keep in mind that a phone-capable modem will work even when you do not have a phone service plan. So get one if you intend to add a phone service later.
By the way, an used or refurbished modem will work the same as a new one. Just make sure you get one that’s in good physical shape.
Once you’ve settled on a modem, it’s time to pick a router.
What’s the best Wi-Fi router or mesh system for cable Internet?
All routers, or mesh systems, work the same with any internet source. So if you get a good one, it’ll be good no matter who your provider is and what type of connection you have.
What’s also always true is the fact the router is the one that decides the performance of your home network. Just pick one that fits your needs and budget. Not sure what you need? This post on how to pick the best router for your situation will help.
Or, you can follow the general direction:
- If you just need a reliable able network and don’t want to spend too much? Get one of these Wi-Fi 5 routers.
- If you’re ready for the latest and greatest, get one of these Wi-Fi 6 routers. For those living in a large home, a Wi-Fi system is definitely a must. In this case, also consider one of these Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems.
Retail gateways are available, too
An ideal setup is a modem and a router. However, if you don’t want more than one box at your internet drop, you can get a gateway (router/modem combo) of your own.
Keep in mind, though, that if you get a gateway, you’ll have to replace the entire thing when you want to upgrade your network, and not just the modem or the router portion of it.
If you don’t have phone service, the ASUS CM-32 Cable Modem Wifi Router is an excellent choice, it’s essentially the RT-AC88U plus built-in cable modem. On the other hand, if you have phone service, the ARRIS Surfboard SVG2482AC worked well in my experience. Again, a phone-capable gateway will work even when you do not have a phone service plan.
If you live in a large property and need a mesh-ready gateway, Netgear’s Orbi CBK40 is the only option for now. It’s available as a single gateway or a mesh system. It doesn’t support phone service.
C. How to set up new cable Internet equipment
No matter what you get, be it a simple modem, a phone-capable modem or a gateway, the setup process is the same. You need to activate your equipment on the provider’s network.
These steps, by the way, apply only to when you want to activate a residential Internet plan. If you have a business plan, you’ll need to call the provider.
Cable Internet setup: What you need
To activate a piece of new equipment, you need two things.
- A computer with a network port. If you have one of those laptops that only have Wi-Fi, get an Ethernet dongle for this job. Or, if you have an existing Wi-Fi router, you can use its Wi-Fi network — more on this below.
- Your cable account information (account number, phone number used when signed up, home address, etc.) or the login information. In my experience with Comcast, the Xfinity username and password are enough.
Steps to replace/install a cable Internet modem/gateway
These relatively specific steps apply to those with a Comcast Xfinity Internet plan. If you use a different provider, the process varies though it is likely similar.
1. Replace the old hardware
Remove the existing gateway or modem. (Make sure you return the equipment afterward to have the rental fee removed from your account.)
2. Connect the new hardware
There seems to be a lot of text in this part and that’s because I wanted to be as detailed as possible and cover different scenarios. In reality, it just takes a few minutes. Here goes:
a. Connect the service coaxial cable into your new modem, or gateway, securely.
b. Use a network cable and connect your computer to a LAN port of the modem (or gateway). A modem generally has only one LAN port while a gateway might have a few, you can use any of them.
A couple of things to note:
- Alternatively, if you get a new modem and have an existing router that has already been set up, you can connect the router’s WAN port to the modem, and then your computer to the router via its Wi-Fi or LAN port. Don’t do this if you have a brand-new router that’s not yet initialized. You can’t activate a modem using a router at its default factory settings. That’s because many routers require a live Internet connection (one with an already-activated modem) before you can set it up.
- Make sure your computer and router (or gateway) have the default (auto) DNS settings, meaning it will use the DNS servers of the Internet service provider. The good news is that’s always the case unless you have changed the DNS manually. Using customized DNS will cause the activation process to fail. So use the default one and you can change that later.
c. Now plug everything into power and wait for the equipment to boot up. Typically, this will take just about one minute, but you can give it a few minutes to make sure.
A bit of troubleshooting: Look at the lights on the cable modem (or gateway). You want to wait till the Online (sometimes labeled as Signal or Sync or Data) light is on solid. The color of this light varies depending on the modem but it tends to be white, blue, or green and it almost always takes the symbol of a little globe. If this light doesn’t turn on, that means there’s no Internet signal. Check to make sure the coaxial cable is plugged in correctly, or call the provider.
On your connected computer, launch a browser (such as Firefox, or Chrome), you will automatically get to the activation page. If not, just try going to any website and you’ll automatically reach that page. Now follow the onscreen instruction and log in your account. See the screenshots below.
If you don’t have an account or don’t remember the password, you can choose to use the account number instead and go through a few other steps of verification. After that, the new equipment will then be activated automatically and will restart itself.
If for some reason, the online activation fails, which rarely happens in my experience, you can call your provider. In this case, have the modem/gateway’s serial number and MAC address ready. You can find this information on the bottom (or the side) of the device. The support technician will activate the equipment for you at their end.
The final step
And that’s it. Now your new equipment is ready. If you just activated a modem and have a new router, you can now plug the router’s WAN port into the modem’s LAN port and follow this guide to set up your home network.
Using your own modem, you have the options of replacing the router — and upgrade your home network — whenever you’d like. And when you do, note that you should restart the cable modem after you plug the new router into it for the two to work well with each other.
Dong’s note: I originally published this post on February 15, 2018, and updated it on March 20, 2020, with additional relevant information.