If you’re using Comcast 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 cable 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 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.
Those without a cable phone service can get any modem. Just get one that can handle the Internet speed you pay for, or faster, and work with your provider. Modems are simple devices and tend to work similarly. You just need to worry about their speed grade and the design, so generally, a typical one from Netgear, TP-Link, or Motorola will work out.
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.
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.
Once you’ve settled on a modem, it’s time to pick a router.
Wi-Fi routers and mesh system
The router is the one that decides the performance of your home network. My personal favorites are those from Asus because they tend to have a lot of settings and features. But they are far from perfect, and can also be overwhelming.
So routers from other vendors will do. Just pick one that fits your needs and budget. Here’s are some options:
- 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 or mesh systems. For those living in a large home, a Wi-Fi system is definitely a must. In this case, also consider one of these top Wi-Fi 5 mesh systems on the market.
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. In this case, there are not many options, but it’s doable.
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, but neither supports phone service.
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.
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 a cable 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, if you have one. (Make sure you return the equipment afterward to have the rental fee removed from your account.) Connect the service coaxial cable into your new modem, or gateway, securely.
2. Connect the new hardware
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:
- 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, and many routers require a live Internet connection (one with an already-activated modem) to be initialized, in the first place.
- Make sure your computer and router (or gateway) have the default (auto) NDS settings, meaning it will use the DNS servers of the service provider. This is always the case — you won’t need to worry about it in most cases — 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.
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.
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 use 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.