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The Downside to Modem Fees: Customers Hold On to Legacy Owned Modems Forever

Phillip Dampier June 6, 2019 Broadband Speed, Charter Spectrum, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Cox 5 Comments

Arris/Motorola’s SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem used to be considered “eXtreme,” but now most cable companies consider it obsolete.

The legacy of the hated modem rental fee is coming back to bite providers that charge $10 a month or more for a device that likely cost the company well under $100.

To opt out of the fee, a growing percentage of customers buy their own equipment, but now many of those modems are becoming functionally obsolete and customers are wary of efforts by providers to convince them to accept a newer, company-supplied modem.

With the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 and faster speeds, the problem is only getting worse for companies like Comcast, Charter Spectrum, and Cox. With an installed base of hundreds of thousands of obsolete modems, customers frequently can no longer get the internet speed they pay for, and the equipment’s limitations can cause congestion on cable broadband networks, because older modems cannot take advantage of the exponential increase in available “channels” that help share the load on the neighborhood network.

“Some customers have cable modems that are incompatible (such as DOCSIS 2.0 and DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems) with the current class of service or internet speed that they’re receiving. As a result, these customers may not be experiencing the full range of available bandwidth that they’re paying for,” Comcast informs their customers. “If a device is no longer supported by Comcast or has reached its end-of-life (EOL), this essentially means that we will no longer install the device, either as a new or replacement device. In addition, we will no longer recommend that customers purchase the device, whether new or used.”

But many Comcast customers do not realize their equipment is effectively obsolete until they visit mydeviceinfo.xfinity.com and sign in to their account or enter a device make and model in the search bar on the homepage or hear directly from the company. Comcast will send online alerts to customers verified to still be using outdated equipment and occasionally send notifications through the mail. Customers can order new equipment online or swap out old equipment in a cable store. Comcast prefers its customers rent its Xfinity xFi Wireless Gateway ($13/mo) or xFi Advanced Gateway ($15/mo). As an incentive, Comcast is testing offering free unlimited data in some central U.S. markets to those choosing its more costly Advanced Gateway.

Charter Spectrum sold its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks partly on its argument that modem fees would no longer be charged. Despite that, many former Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers still use their own modems, which has been a problem for a company that raised the standard internet speed available to residential customers from 15 Mbps to 100 Mbps (200 Mbps in some markets, mostly those also served by AT&T). Older modems often cannot achieve those speeds. Spectrum notifies affected customers in periodic campaigns, offering to replace their obsolete equipment, but many customers suspect hidden fees may be lurking in such offers and discard them.

“Some modems that were issued years ago have become outdated. If you have a modem that was issued by us and hasn’t been swapped in the last six years, it might need to be replaced,” Spectrum tells customers. “To get a replacement modem, contact us or visit a Spectrum store. Please recycle your old modem or bring it to a Spectrum store for proper disposal. If you do a modem swap with us, you’ll receive a mail return label in your package, which can be used to return your old modem.”

Cox is also in a similar predicament. It runs seasonal checks on its network to identify customers using older DOCSIS modems, often DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems, which can only support four download channels. When it finds customers eligible for an upgrade, it mails postcards offering a “free modem upgrade,” usually supplying a SB6183 or SB8200 modem that can arrive in 24-48 hours. But many Cox customers suspect trickery from Cox as well, or run into poorly trained customer service representatives that reject the postcards, claiming the customer is ineligible.

“DOCSIS 3.0 8×4 or higher (or a DOCSIS 3.1) devices are required for all new Cox High Speed Internet customers,” Cox tells their internet customers. “Current Cox customers should ensure they have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device in order to consistently receive optimal speeds. Additionally, Ultimate customers are required to have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device with a minimum of 16×4 or higher channel bonding to achieve package speeds.”

In fact, most modem upgrade offers from your provider are likely genuine, but customers need to pay attention to any fine print.

Customers can also purchase their own upgraded modem if they want to avoid Comcast’s Gateway fee. Cox does not charge customers for modems sent as part of a free upgrade offer, but watch for erroneous charges on your bill and report them at once if they do appear. Charter Spectrum has recently introduced a $9.99 modem activation fee, applicable to new customer-owned or company-supplied cable modems. We do not know if that fee would apply in cases of an obsolete modem upgrade. Be sure to ask, and if the answer is no, make a note of the representative’s name in case a dispute arises later on.

Currently there are 5 comments on this Article:

  1. DMcCunney says:

    I’m a former TimeWarner Cable/current Charter Spectrum customer. Back when it was still TimeWarner, I got a speed upgrade from “Turbo” 20mbit/sec to 100mbit/sec, at no increase in my costs. But getting the upgrade required a new combo cable modem/WiFi router TWC supplied, to be compatible with the DOCSIS 3.0 standard being used. I had to pay a modem rental fee.

    TWC wanted users to own their own modems, and their website provided a list of approved models known to work on their network customers could chose when they got their own.

    They were happy to forgo the modem rental fees. What they wanted was to reduce service costs. They wanted their responsibility to end at the cable coming to my premises. The last thing they wanted was for a tech to have to enter my premises to repair/replace a broken modem. If the modem was something I owned, fixing it if it was broken was my problem, not theirs. They could do diagnostics from their end indicating the problem was my modem, but fixing it with a new one was on me.

    I’ve been a systems, network and telecom admin, I can’t really blame them – I’d feel the same way.

    But obsolete customer premises equipment will be a problem, and the challenge for the provider is communicating to the customer that they must have current gear to get the advertised levels of service, and they need new equipment. Whether they get that from the provider and pay a rental fee or buy their own is their call, but one way or the other they either do it or have unhappy experience because they aren’t getting what they believe they are paying for.

  2. Elbert Davis says:

    Armstrong Cable consumers don’t have to worry about their modems becoming outdated, as Armstrong pretty much forces consumers to use Armstrong modems. There are five that are allowed on Armstrong’s network:
    Arris CM820
    Arris CM3200A
    Arris Surfboard SB6183
    Arris SB8200
    Netgear CM700

    http://armstrongonewire.com/Support/Internet/Articles/ApprovedModems

    Most of these are not available for consumer purchase, but are modems sold directly to ISPs. You might get lucky and find one from the reseller market.
    There’s no discount for bringing your own modem either. The modem rental price is built-in to the overall price of the Internet service. Armstrong claims the modem is free, but we all know better.

  3. Nick says:

    I’m still using a SB6121 from the TWC days, and will still be using it until Charter decides to kick me off of legacy TWC ELP Internet. Since I only get 3.5 down and 1 up, it’s pointless for me to bother with getting a new modem from Charter. It would be nice to have some real competition; hopeful but not holding my breath for 5G or Starlink.

  4. John says:

    Elbert,

    Those are retail cable modems, available online for purchase by anyone, not just supplied to cable companies.







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