More cable companies charging cable-modem rental fees

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Dealing with the cable company is about as much fun as dragging your nails across a chalk board.

So Time Warner’s recent notice informing thousands of customers they would now be charged an extra fee for their cable modems wasn’t met with a lot of celebration. But it may be a good thing, a trend that could eventually lead to more choice when it comes to cable service.

The new $3.95 a month charge is on top of the regular cable and Internet bill. In New York City, a typical Time Warner customer can pay nearly $150 a month -- without adding any premium services such as HBO. So it’s unsurprising that the additional charge -- some would say it’s actually a hidden rate hike -- garnered expletive-laced comments on social media sites.

There is a way to beat the fee -- but Time Warner is making it as difficult as possible. Customers can purchase an “approved” cable modem. There are only five approved Motorola models listed on the Time Warner site (the cable company did not respond to for this article). Prices range from about $50 to $150, so going with a basic model will pay for itself in just over a year. (Lower-priced models use the slower DOCSIS 2.0 standard; higher-priced models use the faster DOCSIS 3.0 and include built-in wireless routers.)

Time Warner doesn’t make it easy to switch, however. To begin with, the company doesn’t sell modems directly to subscribers, so a trip to your local Best Buy is the first step. Then customers must call in to Time Warner to switch modems -- my initial service call without any hitches or having to wait long was roughly 45 minutes.

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The first time you call, all the cable company does is enter the request to change the modem. It takes another four to five days to provision (or configure) the line. This kind of manual provisioning is a throwback to the pre-Web era of ISDN lines. So after first installing the new modem to alert the cable company, one then has to uninstall it; reinstall the old modem and wait. (My service rep called back in three and a half days.)

After you receive the call, you can then swap out the modems again. But, wait, you’re not done yet. If you don’t want to still be charged the additional monthly fee, you must trek over to the local Time Warner office and physically return the old modem. In New York City, the lines are extending out onto the street to make returns, with wait times of about an hour.

In the end, you’ll get better performance out of a new modem you purchase than from hanging onto the old model. I replaced an ancient RCA model with a zippy $150 Motorola SURFboard SBG6580 modem and wireless router. In anecdotal tests, I immediately saw performance improve by roughly 30 percent. And if you’ve got an older Wi-Fi router, the SBG6580 should also improve wireless connections around the house.

Time Warner isn’t the only cable company charging modem rental fees. Comcast already charges some customers $7 a month. So is the own-your-own-box trend going to spread?

“It’s certainly put a spotlight on it,” Tom Dunleavy, a senior director at Motorola Mobility told Dunleavy expects cable modem sales to pick up, and the company plans to introduce even faster models next year.

However, in addition to the hassle of installing one’s own equipment, there’s the traditional resistance of American consumers who object to paying for everything up front. That’s why cellphones are relatively cheap, but monthly wireless charges are almost larcenous. And it’s why we continue to pay for set-top boxes and DVRs that are technologically years behind the state of the art.

On the other hand, moving to the customer-owned model has benefits for the cable company. Time Warner isn’t rolling trucks out to make the switch or install new modems for customers, for example. Tech support could also be sloughed off on the cable modem manufacturers. And once you’ve bought a modem that only works with Time Warner, you’re less likely to switch to a competing service.

For years, cable companies have fought tooth-and-nail against this model. The idea of ceding monthly fees and control over the set-top box has been anathema to them, which is why Apple and Google are still struggling to offer improvements to their set-top boxes: The cable companies don’t want to cooperate.

Now the question is, if Time Warner and others now see potential benefits to having customers buy their own cable modems, could they begin to offer the same option when it comes to set-top boxes and DVRs? One can only hope.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at