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Modems: Forgotten, but key

| Friday, June 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

I'll be honest: Cable modems aren't glamorous technology. In fact, you probably haven't thought about yours since it was installed.

It's easy to forget how important, and impressive, your cable modem is. It handles your Internet traffic 24/7 for years, usually without a hiccup. Some modems even pull double duty as your wireless router.

Beyond that, there is another good reason to think about your cable modem. If it's more than a few years old, you might not get the Internet speeds you pay for.

Don't guess at your Internet speed. Find out how fast it is in seconds with this free service at speedtest.net.

Cable companies are busy upgrading their networks for faster speeds. Naturally, to access these faster speeds requires a newer cable modem.

The newest standard for cable modems is DOCSIS 3 — although DOCSIS 3.1 is coming soon. DOCSIS 3 can have data download rates of 160 megabits per second, or better — four times faster than DOCSIS 2. Sounds great!

But don't run out and grab a new modem just yet. Check with your cable provider to see whether your connection uses DOCSIS 3. If your neighborhood network isn't up-to-date, a new cable modem can wait.

There's also no rush to upgrade if you have a basic low-speed Internet plan. You won't get anywhere near your modem's capacity.

The exception is if you have a really old DOCSIS 1.1 modem. That really needs to be replaced.

In addition to boosting your transfer rates, a newer modem could clear up any connection issues you've been experiencing. Many cable companies are phasing out DOCSIS 1.1 modems anyway.

To find out what kind of a modem you have, visit the modem manufacturer's website. Then look up your model number. This information should be on the bottom or back of the modem.

Even if you've determined that you should upgrade, you aren't done yet. The big question is should you buy a new modem or lease one from your cable company?

Both strategies have their pros and cons.

The major cable providers tack on a monthly fee of $3 or more for renting a modem. If anything goes wrong with it, the company will usually fix it or replace it for no charge.

Most cable companies keep the modem up-to-date with the latest firmware automatically. This can enhance the modem's performance.

Call your provider and see if it will upgrade you to a DOCSIS 3 modem for free. It might do so to keep you a happy customer. Some people have even gotten the monthly rental fee waived.

So, what about buying your own modem? There's a case for that as well.

Let's say you lease a modem for $4 a month. After 4 years, you've shelled out $192.

You can buy an excellent DOCSIS 3 modem for $85-$100. It's more expensive up front. But the longer you keep the modem, the more you save. I know people who have had the same modem for 6 years or more.

Email Kim Komando at techcomments@usatoday.com.

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