Computers / Hands-on Review

Cutting Cables: TP LINK and Why ISPs Do Not Want You to Own Your Modem

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What’s the first thing you make sure is up and running when you move into a new home or apartment? Gas and electric? Sure. Water? Maybe. But it’s a safe bet to say that one of the first things you want to make sure you have on move-in day is a cable provider for your TV and Internet, which is a must in our digital age.

"Did you know you could purchase your own cable modem, and that by purchasing your cable modem, you could save some money while potentially increasing your bandwidth?"

When you set up the cable and Internet in your home, you usually go with the modem that the cable provider technician brings you. Most of the time, these cable modems are more than sufficient, and serve as a gateway for your own personal router or VOIP phone service. But did you know you could purchase your own cable modem, and that by purchasing your cable modem, you could save some money while potentially increasing your bandwidth?

First, here's a short primer on those bandwidth speeds. Cable broadband modems use the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification or DOCSIS standard, developed by a consortium known as CableLabs, in 1997, with contributions from well-known providers such as Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Midcontinent Communications, Rogers, Shaw, and Time Warner Cable, to name just a few.

When a cable modem is CableLabs Certified (CLL, as most are), it has passed compliance tests for the DOCSIS standard and has met certain required levels of upstream and downstream traffic. DOCSIS 1.0, for example, which debuted in 1997, had a bandwidth of 38Mbps down and 9Mbps up. Compare that to the DOCSIS 3.1 bar set in 2013, with 10,000Mbps down and 1,000Mbps up, and you can see how far the industry has come. DOCSIS 3.1 speeds are typically what you see with fiber optic connections.

There is a caveat to all that blazing speed. Just because you have a cable modem that supports DOCSIS 3.0 or later doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever see those speeds. Incoming speed is set by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and you typically pay a surcharge when the speed is upgraded—the FCC currently says that broadband only needs to meet the standard of a minimum of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. That’s even lower than the DOCSIS 1.0 standard. So, why would you want a cable modem with a DOCSIS 3.0 or higher rating? Because if you do pay for a higher tier of service, you want the fastest speed allowed.

Most service providers charge a small monthly fee for renting the modem from them—when you vacate your humble abode, you have to return the cable box and modem. In some cases, that fee may be as little as $3 or as much as $5-$6 per month; over the course of a year, that’s $72. If you’ve rented the system for at least three years, you’re talking about having spent $216 for a modem that may be working on an outdated standard.

You could just buy a modem outright, like the TP-LINK TC-7610 DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem. It’s downwardly compatible with DOCSIS 1.0 – 3.0, and is CableLab certified to work with major suppliers like Comcast, Time Warner, Brighthouse, and Cablevision. It costs less than a year’s worth of renting the modem, and it delivers up to 343 Mbps download and 143 Mbps upload speeds (depending on your provider’s service, of course).

The TC-7610 also offers a technology called channel bonding, which may help to increase your bandwidth speeds even if you’re not at the top tier of your ISP’s bandwidth allocation. Channel bonding lets you combine or “bond” channels together to form one big thruway of bandwidth. Most older modems, and almost all used by cable providers, only utilize one downstream and one upstream channel, and that channel is predetermined by the cable company. The TC-7610 uses eight downstream and four upstream channels, and is engineered so that eight of those channels can be used for bonding. If you live in a high-congestion area where Internet access is clogged with users, channel bonding may increase your speeds significantly. It also supports IPv4 and IPv6 dual stack, so you can run the older IPv4 network parallel with the newer IPv6 network, and switch between them according to your device’s needs.

"Channel bonding lets you combine or “bond” channels together to form one big thruway of bandwidth."

In a real-world test, these are the numbers. Using Testmy.net as the testing website, I ran a test of download and upload streams while lining up seven different 1-2GB torrents in my queue. Using an Intel® Core™ i7 quad core desktop with 16GB of RAM, my current modem (a Surfboard voice modem from Optimum, a subsidiary of Cablevision), I saw the speeds range from downloads of 8.4 Mbps and uploads of 2.4 Mbps—well below the advertised numbers quoted by my cable provider. Without the torrents downloading, my streams were 10 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, still well below the average.

With the TC-7610 online and activated (new modems have to be activated by your cable company, since they have no way of bringing Internet service to your computer unless the modem is registered with them), I immediately saw an improvement. Download was 9.1 Mbps and upload was 4.5 Mbps, but without the torrents, regular streams were 13.5 Mbps down and 7.3 Mbps up.

The real improvement was in the channel bonding. Downloading several torrents at once was usually a “set it and forget it” affair. I would queue up the torrents and come back an hour later to check on their progress. With the channel bonding feature, all of my transactions were lightning quick; the five torrents finished downloading in less than 15 minutes. That’s five at a time, and a significant increase in download speed, even if the test numbers only show a slight bump.

A couple of caveats before you go out and purchase a modem: if you receive your telephone VOIP service through your cable provider, then you need a voice modem. The TC-7610 is not a voice modem. You have to activate your modem through your ISP, and once you add a third-party modem, be prepared for your ISP to be very hands-off in dealing with any problems you may have after that. Their first line of defense will be to blame your third-party modem. Many ISPs have a specific list of modems they endorse, and even then, they don’t guarantee 100% compatibility. Also, if you use a VPN, you may see a difference in your download and upload streams. VPNs reroute your service through a proxy (of sorts) and bounce your signal through several different channels.

All in all, between the channel bonding and the uptick in streaming, the TC-7610 does what it promises and delivers a much appreciated boost in speed. If you’re paying for higher tiers of Internet service, make sure you’re using a DOCSIS 3.0 modem and get the most out of your ISP’s bandwidth.

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Many cable providers offer reference info on compatible modems. For example, the following is the page that Comcast offeres listing compatible modems: http://mydeviceinfo.comcast.net/

Thanks for the additional info! Remember to periodically check with oyur cable company, though - these compatability lists change quite often.

Re: "...a small monthly fee... that fee may be as little as $3 or as much as $5-$6 per month; over the course of a year, that’s $72."  WOW! (Wide Open West) in Chicagoland just raised mine to $7 per month; I don't VOIP, or torrent, or download/stream any HD content, yet. It could be because I don't bundle other services with them (free ota ATSC FTW!), and, occasional modem resets aside, their service has been rock-steady, but still... fees bad!

I heard that the fee is even higher for some smaller companies, which makes buying your own modem even more attractive. Since I've returned this review unit and gone back to my cable company standard unit, I've seen my upload and download times bog down considerably. It has to do more with the 8-channel bonding than with the DOCSIS 3.0, but still.

Does this work with the NetTalk Duo VOiP service? I'd like to purchase my own modem, yet some of the ones provided by ISP's & can be purchased, Arris (formerly Motorola) is said not to be compatible. I don't know what was changed, since many of the models are the same, yet some with VOiP devices says these are poor choices, even if on the approved list. 

This unit I reviewed does not have VOIP or a dedicated voice line like most cable provider's standard modems do. This is a better choice for those who do not use a bundled package of Internet, cable and VOIP. Your modem must have a dedicated phone jack to connect a phone. The workarond is to get a modem, pay for Internet and TV, and find a separate provider for your phone (or use your cel phone as your primary phone).

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