Your ISP likely supplied you with a modem, Wi-Fi router, or both when you signed up for service. Here’s why you might want to return your ISP’s gear and use your own Wi-Fi router and modem instead.
First, Why You Might Not Want to Replace Your ISP’s Equipment
We are huge advocates of people using their own networking equipment in place of the equipment supplied to them by their Internet Service Provider (ISP)—and the rest of this article will extensively detail why.
But before we dig into why we favor off-the-shelf network hardware over ISP-supplied network hardware, let’s discuss why you may wish to use ISP-supplied gear despite the reasons outlined below.
For some people, there simply isn’t an overly compelling reason to upgrade. Maybe your ISP includes the Wi-Fi router in your internet package with no additional fees, and you might consider it good enough until you run into a situation where you need more features or Wi-Fi coverage.
If you only use your setup for a small number of devices that are used relatively close to the router, like the smart TV in your living room, your phone, and sometimes a laptop on your couch nearby, it probably isn’t a pressing concern to upgrade to a premium Wi-Fi router that can handle hundreds of connections and a multi-gigabit fiber internet connection.
There’s also something to be said for the renter/landlord model of “this isn’t my problem, this is your problem” in that if the modem, router, or both fail you’re not on the hook to repair or replace them. You can place a service call, have the company test your equipment, and ultimately swap them out with your ISP for a replacement.
So sometimes, especially in cases like being the tech support for a relative, it’s OK to use the basic ISP stuff and let it all be the ISP’s problem if anything goes wrong.
But we’ve used our own equipment for decades, and we think there are plenty of good reasons to skip the bargain-bin equipment your ISP hands out and go with something more sophisticated.
You Can Save Money By Purchasing Your Own Modem and Router
When the Television Viewer Protection Act of 2019 (TVPA) went into effect in the United States at the end of 2020, it made it illegal for ISPs to charge you an equipment rental fee even if you were using your own equipment.
Unfortunately, it didn’t make it illegal for them to charge you a rental fee for equipment they supplied, which means millions of people still pay anywhere from $5-20 a month on top of their regular internet fees to rent their modem, Wi-Fi router, or, more typically, a combo all-in-one unit.
Over the course of two years, fees in that range add up to $120-480, which is more than enough to buy an excellent budget Wi-Fi router on the low end and a premium Wi-Fi router or mesh router setup on the high end.
Be aware that, in some cases, you cannot buy your own modem and instead have to put the ISP-supplied modem/router combo in bridge mode to pass your internet connection through to your new Wi-Fi hardware.
Off-the-Shelf Routers Offer Better Range and Coverage
Some combination units from some ISPs aren’t awful, especially if you only use them for a small apartment without many devices. AT&T’s popular combination fiber gateway, modem, and Wi-Fi router, the BGW320, for example, is a perfectly serviceable Wi-Fi 6 router.
But even in cases, like the BGW320, where the gear might be OK for a small apartment with a modest network load, you’ll quickly find the router lacking in a larger home, a home packed with Wi-Fi devices, or both.
Off-the-shelf Wi-Fi routers have more powerful hardware and, in the case of mesh systems, are extensible, so you can position the individual Wi-Fi mesh nodes for optimal coverage. However many mesh nodes you need, you can buy them and blanket your home.
Some ISPs offer Wi-Fi extenders and mesh platforms, but you get stuck paying a rental fee or overpaying for hardware that isn’t as good as the stuff you could buy.
You’ll Get More Frequent Firmware Updates and Better Security
Saving money and getting better Wi-Fi coverage are sexy arguments that practically make themselves. We’ll admit that firmware and router security updates aren’t quite as exciting. But given how much we all do online now and how tempting of a target residential gateways are for people, router and home network security matters.
And in the network security department, ISP-supplied hardware doesn’t have a fantastic track record. While all routers will eventually become obsolete and stop receiving firmware updates from their manufacturers, at least the manufacturers of off-the-shelf routers do a better job of staying on top of things than ISPs do.
At a security talk at Defcon 25 in 2017, for example, security researchers revealed that they had found 26 different vulnerabilities with multiple attack vectors across Cisco, Arris, Technicolor, and Motorola hardware used by multiple major ISPs. Another example: In 2021, it was revealed that a vulnerability in the modems used by Virgin Media customers and the routers used by Sky customers both leaked customer data and had been doing so for over a year.
There is no guarantee that your off-the-shelf router will have every bug patched immediately, but the chances of a relatively new router getting routine security updates are much higher than that of hardware supplied to your by your ISP getting updates.
You’ll Have Improved Guest Network Settings
Guest networks are great. So great, in fact, that we think you should turn your router’s guest network on right now. They’re not just convenient. They also make your home network less vulnerable.
While more and more ISP-supplied Wi-Fi routers and gateways support guest networks, the guest network settings are usually barebones, if they are present at all. Further, most ISP-supplied routers often limit the guest network to only the 2.4Ghz band.
If you want a more advanced guest network experience to provide a better use experience for your guests and access advanced features to tweak the guest network (like allowing multicasting from the guest network to your streaming devices), you’re out of luck.
And while we’re talking about guest networks, when you set yours up for the first time on your upgraded router, be sure to follow these guest network best practices for a secure experience.
Off-the-Shelf Routers Have Better Support for Multiple SSIDs
Let’s say you want to set up your home network, so there is your primary network name, or Service Set Identifer (SSID), a secondary network just for your smart home and Internet of Things (IoT) gear, and then a guest network.
On ISP-supplied gear, you’re almost always out of luck and forced to use the 5Ghz and 2.4Ghz bands in a sub-optimal way. If you have a dual-band router with a separate guest network, you might be able to wrestle things into shape. But that will require taking the 5Ghz band for your primary SSID, the 2.4Ghz band for your secondary SSID, and then the guest network (most likely limited to the 2.4Ghz band). That’s not ideal, and it introduces a degree of inflexibility you won’t run into with off-the-shelf routers with more advanced settings.
Further, while tri-band routers used to be expensive, it’s quite common to find tri-band configurations in even modestly priced off-the-shelf routers. So not only can you set up multiple SSIDs but you’ll have the physical hardware to optimize the experience for everyone using the different networks.
You Get Features Like Quality of Service, VPNs, and More
ISP-supplied Wi-Fi routers are pretty barebones. They work (although based on general consumer grumbling nowhere near as well as people would like) but typically at a bare minimum level with no bells and whistles.
If you want advanced features like Quality of Service (QoS) priority-based routing, you likely won’t find it on a basic ISP router. The same goes for built-in Dynamic DNS support, home network remote access, VPN routing (either to VPN into your home network or connect your entire network to a remote VPN), or any of the advanced features you’ll find on thousands of off-the-shelf routers.
Even something as trivial as changing the DNS servers your router uses, a common thing people do for increased speed, privacy, or both, isn’t an option on the majority of ISP-supplied Wi-Fi routers.
Better Parental Controls
If you want parental controls, you’re almost always out of luck with ISP-supplied equipment. Search your ISP’s help files for “parental controls,” and you’ll usually find ultra-basic options like how to block individual domains or a link to buy a product or service to provide online monitoring for your children.
For parents who want router-based parental controls with the ability to turn off internet access to devices on a schedule, limit access to content, and so on, you need better hardware than your ISP offers.
You Have Total Control Over the Equipment
If you own your router and network hardware, you have total control over it. Your ISP can’t use your router as part of a “free Wi-Fi for customers” project— separate network or not, that doesn’t sit well with many people. They can’t access your home network or make any changes because you control all the hardware.
If you switch ISPs, you can simply slap a new modem on to link your existing router and Wi-Fi gear to the new provider—no threat of fees if you don’t turn your hardware in on time or wasting time reconfiguring your whole home network. And at the end of the day, you own the hardware and can resell it, give it to a friend or relative when you upgrade to a new Wi-Fi router, or do whatever you wish with it.
Speaking of upgrades, good luck getting an upgrade from your ISP—short of upgrading to a top-tier internet packager where your ISP has to give you new hardware to even make it work, you’ll often find upgrades are quite difficult to come by.
So while there’s a time and place for just using the gear your ISP gave you, we’ll always encourage people to consider using their own hardware for a more secure and superior experience.
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