Sticking It To The Man – Or How To Not Rent Equipment From Comcast

I admit it, I’m a cheap geek. I detest paying $10-20/month for a cable modem or cable box.

The cable and satellite companies would rather you rent equipment. There was a time where DirecTV sold its equipment to you, but as the devices have become more networked, pretty much all of the pay TV providers rent you the equipment.

I can see both sides of the argument. If you rent the gear, they can upgrade you as technology improves and they don’t have to worry about backward compatibility to older equipment. But after you’ve been their customer for awhile, there comes a point where you have paid enough in rental fees to buy that box several times over, which is extra profit that you’re putting in the cable company’s pocket.

So I like owning my equipment. Here’s how you can do it, too.

Cable Modems for New Customers

If you’re getting ready to order cable internet from Comcast and you’re ordering online, it’s pretty easy to get this set up. From my experience, placing an order online with Kabletown is the way to go because you don’t have to deal with their call center and can make decisions at your own speed.

When you click to order your service you’ll be presented with a choice to provide your own equipment or not. Providing your own equipment means you don’t have to pay a $10/month rental fee. When you make this choice they’ll strongly recommend that you rent from them, but they’ll give you a link to their list of certified equipment. Here’s what you do when you click that link:

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Select the speed tier that you’re planning to order by clicking and dragging on the slider. This filters out modems that are not compatible with your tier. Not all modems are created equal. Then check the “Retail Devices Only” box.

Note that if you plan to also get voice service from Comcast you can only buy a telephony modem (which limits your choices). The telephony modem that is sold is pretty much the same box you would rent from them; the one that Best Buy sells even says Xfinity on the box. If you want flexibility and really want VoIP service, you might consider getting your VoIP from someone like Vonage or Oooma.

If you think you might want to upgrade to a faster tier later, consider dragging that slider to an upper tier to ensure that what you buy will work with where you plan to go.

The rule to follow is that you need a “retail box” modem. If you find a cheap modem on eBay and it was stolen/not returned by a customer and you try to activate it, Comcast will refuse. Tick the “Retail Devices Only” box and save yourself the trouble.

Leave the End of Life box unchecked. Sure, you can save money on a modem that’s been discontinued, but you won’t get much manufacturer support.

Click through the list and you’ll see information about all of the modems, complete with Amazon links. If you’d rather get one locally, check Best Buy for the model number; in my experience they were matching the Amazon price in store or at least within a dollar or two.

At our house, I settled on a Zoom 5345. This modem is at both Amazon and Best Buy for about $51 as of this writing and it supports up to 343 Mbps down. I already had a good WiFi router so I didn’t need to order one. If you want a modem with a router or WiFi router built in, some of the models on the list will fit the bill… but chances are you’ll want to upgrade the WiFi sooner than you’ll want to upgrade the modem, so buying the modem and router separately makes more sense to me. YMMV.

Once you have the modem, when the installer shows up and connects your service, s/he’ll activate it as part of the installation.

If you’re an existing customer

You’ll need to choose an approved modem from the list above. Then unplug your old modem and connect the new one using the same cable. Power it up and wait for it to boot. Then connect a computer to the ethernet port, open a web browser, and go to www.xfinity.com/activate. You’ll need the MAC address from the modem. Besides finding it on the modem itself, you’ll usually find that on the side of the retail box, which may be easier to read.

Then make sure you return the modem you were leasing to the Comcast store to ensure you get credit. Tip: get a receipt and save it when you turn it in.

Owning Your Own Cable Box

It’s pretty straightforward to save money on a cable modem; with good modems going for as low as $50, you start coming out ahead in less than 6 months.

If you want your own DVR, it’s hard to make an argument for value. That’s because a TiVo, what I consider the best DVR on the market goes for about $150-$200 and also requires a subscription fee.

There are two plus sides to going with a TiVo:

  1. The user interface rocks. It’s so simple to program a TiVo once you wrap your head around it. You just go looking for shows and you can either watch them streaming from wherever you have an account or live or recorded from your cable subscription. It also finds episodes available on demand without effort. Having everything pulled all together without having to sort through a bunch of menus is really nice. Having an up to date program guide justifies the fee for me.
  2. You can plug in a TiVo Mini in your bedroom and network it to the TiVo in the living room and watch the same live, recorded, or streaming programming as on the TiVo in the living room without paying an additional subscription fee to TiVo or an additional outlet fee to your cable company.

For me, those two things justify having it in our house. But I realize that it’s going to take a long time before I save any money by not renting the box. For me, it’s having a better cable box as opposed to saving money over leasing.

What you need is a multi stream cable card to make this work. The FCC mandates that cable companies provide them to you and they mandate that you are able to install them yourself. And if you can self install, you should, because in my experience cable installers don’t like dealing with cable cards, don’t understand how to deal with cable cards, and they may not have them on the truck. If you don’t need an installer to drop a new outlet in your house, save yourself some time and trouble and just go down to the Comcast store and pick one up yourself.

Here’s the instructions on installing the cable card in a TiVo. Note that during the setup process, it will display the card’s ID numbers and a toll free number to call. Call that number and you’ll reach the activation desk at Comcast; read them the numbers and in a couple of minutes you’ll be in business.

Note that the TiVo Roamio OTA only has a tuner for over the air television and does not have a cable card slot. The TiVo Roamio and TiVo Bolt do. I would not recommend getting an older TiVo on the refurbished market as the technologies are changing and you’ll want a current model for everything to work correctly.

There will come a time when the cable card is obsolete. TiVo says that it is working with Comcast to ensure that they will be able to still work with whatever new technologies are adopted in its place. This is another reason to stay away from discontinued models if you jump on the TiVo train.

I find the TiVo experience superior to any cable or satellite DVR I’ve used, so it’s worth it for me. But if you’re just concerned about saving money, go for just owning your own modem.

(image credit: flickr/paulboxley cc)