Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY
Question: My Internet provider is increasing the rental fee for a cable modem. What are my alternatives?
Answer: This question comes up every time a cable operator bumps up its monthly rate to lease a cable modem. This time around, it's Time Warner Cable. It began informing subscribers late last month that its fee would go from $3.95 to $5.99 a month, not even a year after it began charging rent on modems it had been handing out for free.
TWC, whose role in a weeks-long retransmission-fee dispute with CBS already made it unlikely to win any "America's Favorite Cable Company" awards,has been getting pounded for the move.
Sadly, though, $6 isn't even the most expensive cable-modem rental fee. Comcast charges $7 a month, while Cox charges $6.99 for a combination modem and router.
But you don't have to pay any of those charges. While a good 15 years of trying have yet to result in cable-TV viewers being able to buy their own boxes, we do have a standard for cable modems, DOCSIS (short for "Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification").
All you need to do is consult the list of modems supported by your cable company, buy one, plug it in, have your cable company activate it, and return the model you've been renting.
For example, TWC lists 12 models compatible with its basic and standard Internet plans. Motorola's SB6141 - the current pick at gadget-review hub The Wirecutter - costs just under $90 at Amazon, Best Buy and elsewhere. You'd recoup the purchase price after about 15 months.
The payoff period could come faster if you buy a used or refurbished model - or if next year brings another rental-rate increase.
And, realistically, you probably won't fire your Internet provider anytime soon. In most U.S. markets, the only alternative to cable is slower DSL - Verizon has not only stopped expanding its fast Fios service but now markets cable Internet in non-Fios areas.
Buying your own modem can also boost your connection's speed if it replaces a sufficiently old model. You do give up the ability to call the cable company and have them send you a replacement if the modem breaks - but when's the last time you saw one malfunction?
There aren't many telecom decisions this straightforward; about the only scenario in which renting makes solid financial sense is if you're probably going to move out of town within the next year.
And yet about most TWC users still rent: The percentage of subscribers who opt out and buy their own modems is "in the single digits," wrote PR director Judy Barbao on Thursday.
In some cases, however, there's no point to buying your own. Cablevision folds the cost of a modem into its charge for Internet service, and Charter switched to that system last summer. Most DSL services don't break out the cost of a modem (Frontier's $7 a month is a rare exception), and FiOS customers get a wireless router included.
Tip: A guest Wi-Fi network can help secure your computers
Newer wireless routers often include an option, not enabled by default, to create a second network that only provides access to your Internet connection while walling off any computers, printers, backup drives or other devices on your network.
On Apple's AirPort routers, for example, you can create a guest network with a few clicks in its Airport Utility program. You may need to mouse around a little more in the Web-based configuration interfaces of other routers - on my Asus model, it's right there on the home page, but D-Link puts it behind an "Advanced" category.
Give the network a name that makes its guest-access purpose somewhat obvious; since your guests won't have access to your own files, you don't need to choose an incredibly complex password.
If you don't want to bother with a password and do want passersby to know they're welcome to borrow a little bandwidth (assuming your Internet provider doesn't ban that), name your network "openwireless.org." That address points to the site of the Open Wireless Movement, a group of tech-industry organizations that advocates sharing Wi-Fi - and has posted some handy cheat sheets about configuring many routers for guest access.