Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Should I upgrade my DSL modem?

We always hear people talking about upgrades/updates for RAM, programs,
BIOS, etc., but what about DSL modems? Do they ever need upgrades? How long
does a modem typically last? Do they give any warning signs when they’re about
to fail? What does a $75.00 modem do that a $40.00 modem won’t? What should one
look for when buying a first modem or replacing one that has failed? If an ISP
provides a modem as part of the install package, is that modem ISP specific or
can any modem be used?

Lots of questions about a topic that we rarely think about. But it is kind
of interesting. Does it ever make sense to replace or upgrade a DSL modem?

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

In my experience the answer is a fairly clear “no”. The modem is one of
those pieces of equipment where “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” clearly
applies.

A upgraded DSL modem won’t impact your throughput – that’s set by your ISP.
No matter how fast or snazzy a new modem might be, it’s still only going to
transfer data as fast as your line is configured for.

“The only time you’ll want an upgrade or replacement is if your modem fails,
or if your ISP says you do.”

The only time you’ll want an upgrade or replacement is if your modem fails,
or if ISP says you do. That may happen if the ISP changes characteristics of
your line, including, perhaps, the speed or underlying technology.

A DSL modem is like any other piece of networking equipment – if operated in
a proper environment (well ventilated with no temperature extremes, and kept
free of dust), it should easily last years. But also like any other piece of
hardware, stuff happens. My own DSL modem suffered a catastrophic failure and
stopped working completely one day. (I’d suspect this is the most failure
common scenario – it just stops working.) Why did it fail? It’s hard to say –
it could have been as simple as a power surge or perhaps a manufacturing defect
that finally gave in.

All DSL modems are most definitely not created equal. Make sure to check
with your ISP for specific modem brands and models that will be compatible with
your DSL. In my case, for various reasons, my telephone company has me on a
fairly old type of technology called “Frame Relay”. (More current technology is
called “ATM”). The upshot was that when I went looking for a replacement modem,
new models were not available. My only option was to find an exact match for my
modem on eBay. Dirt cheap, but still somewhat time consuming to come by. (I’ve
since purchased a second as backup.)

My case was simple – I was able to simply drop in the replacement modem, but
not all situations are that easy. Depending on how your ISP has configured your
line, your DSL modem may need to support login and authentication protocols –
in other words your modem might need your account name and password in
order to connect. In addition to Frame Relay versus ATM, there are other
characteristics of DSL lines that are controlled by your ISP and the telephone
company providing the physical connection.

Similarly, some DSL modems also act as NAT routers. That can get confusing
if you then install a second NAT router behind your modem – some types of
internet protocols do not work well across what’s called “double NATting”. When
replacing a modem you’ll need to make sure that you have the same features and
functionality as the old one. Again, this is an area where you should get
guidance from your ISP.

And that, perhaps, is the real bottom line here. While you are probably not
required to get your modem from your ISP, you’ll certainly want to talk to them
about compatibility. Most will provide you with a list of specific modems that
should work for you, and will tell you whether additional configuration is
required once the new modem arrives.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

9 comments on “Should I upgrade my DSL modem?”

  1. Funny that you mention ventilation. When I got my first DSL line in 1998, there were a lot of problems getting it provisioned. But when it was finally all set up properly, I still couldn’t connect to the Internet.

    Why? When the installer came out, he put the modem on the carpet under my desk. The modem’s ventilation slots were on the underside and it needed to be on a hard surface to have enough clearance to get proper airflow. Being on the carpet basically plugged the ventilation slots and while I was fighting with Pacific Bell to get the line provisioned correctly, the modem fried itself. 🙂

    They sent out an installer two days later, swapped out the modem, and put it on a table. During the next 14 months, I never had a problem with the modem. PacBell’s oversubscribed network was another story, though.

    Reply
  2. When it comes to cable modems the answer may be different. My ISP is Cablevision’s Optonline. They are one of the most technologically innovative ISPs. They recently upgraded their standard account to 15 MB/s and they added a premium account at 30 MB/s. To take advantage of either of these speeds I had to upgrade my old Motorola modem which topped out at about 10 MB/s.

    Reply
  3. I have run the MS upgradeadvisor for Vista and it tells me that the 2-Wire DSL modem will not work with Vista. What is the process to replace this unit since I am putting together a new computer?
    Thank you!

    Reply
  4. —–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
    Hash: SHA1

    Could you post the exact message. I’ve never heard of this. I would
    expect it’s complaining about a specific model of modem, not all DSL
    modems.

    Leo
    —–BEGIN PGP SIGNATURE—–
    Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (MingW32)

    iD8DBQFFz7mOCMEe9B/8oqERAseLAKCG/DDsrc4V3zX7ASvJTEHZ0IfQHwCeLCji
    E6Cn02dIpL3vqfFNOpmNeUY=
    =TIND
    —–END PGP SIGNATURE—–

    Reply
  5. In the past 4 years we have gone through about 3 or4 Intel dial up modems. Is this normal? I have spoken to other people and they say that should be lasting longer then that. Could it be that we are in the country and the phone line is lame?
    Thanks Jamie

    Reply
  6. My friend just recently purchased a combi dsl modem wireless router, he’s really getting wound up with it not working.

    Basically, he was using a usb modem supplied by his ISP, but he needed wireless networking for his other machine. We think we registered the address of the router/modem and after many attempts we seemed to get this to work, but when trying to use IE we had no internet connecton.

    Should he call his ISP to check the compatiblity of the modem? or does it need to be registered with them? thanks.

    Reply

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.