Getting a New Cable Modem

[Bright House Networks is the near-monopoly provider of “high-speed” internet in the Brevard County, Florida area. This article may or may not apply for other regions or providers.]

A few years ago, Bright House Networks started charging monthly rental for cable modems. It started out as $2 per month, and last I heard it was $4 per month. This has motivated some people to buy their own modem to avoid the monthly charge. It will probably take a couple of years to reach payback on the modem at that rate, but the monthly rental may go up and is unlikely to go down.

Motorola Arris SURFboard SB6141
Motorola Arris SURFboard SB6141

The† other reason to think about a new modem is that some of the modems out there are old and erratic. If you have internet problems that seem to come and go with no pattern, you may need a new modem. If your connection goes down and rebooting (power-cycling) your existing modem fixes it, it may be time for a new one. See this post about the trials and tribulations that can result from having a problematic cable modem.

If you are having modem problems, and the modem belongs to your provider, you don’t have to buy a new one — they should replace it for you. For some reason, Bright House Techs seem reluctant to do that on a service call. However, you can simply disconnect your modem, and take it in person to the Bright House office during business hours, and they will take your old modem and give you a different one. The one you receive might be newer or better or it might not.

You should not buy a new cable modem expecting to get tremendously faster speed. The speed of your connection is determined by the policy of your provider and the speed tier you pay for. If you buy the latest, high-speed cable modem, the most you can expect is to get the speed you are paying for.

Cable modems typically do not include WiFi. You probably need a separate WiFi router for that, if you don’t already have one.

You Must Choose A Compatible Modem

If you buy your own modem, make sure it is compatible with your internet provider. Brighthouse has a list of compatible modems.

I chose the Motorola Arris SURFboard SB6141. If you have telephone service through your cable company, be aware you will need to choose a different model. The slightly less expensive SB6121 would work just as well. The extra money just buys you a little bit of future-proofing, in that you will be ready for higher speeds should you decide to pay for them.

Ethernet, Cable and Power connections
Ethernet, Cable and Power connections

You Must Notify Your Provider of the New Modem

Make sure you know the tech support number of your provider before you disconnect the old modem because your internet will not work with the new modem until you call and tell them that you have a new one. You may have to tell them some numbers that are printed on the box or on the modem, so save the box. When I told the tech I had the SURFboard, he indicated that I had made a fine choice. Of course, you must return Bright House’s modem to them. You can turn it in at the office. Make sure you get a receipt for turning it in, and keep the recipt.

Check Your Bill — Is the Rental Fee Gone?

I’ve had my own modem since August 2014. When I first got it, Bright House was having problems adjusting the billing. The first month I owned my own modem, I got a bill as usual for the modem rental. Oops. We called, and they gave us a credit for the overcharge. The next month, the same thing. The rep we talked to said that this procedure was the best they could do — they couldn’t make the rental charge go away permanently. We would have to call and complain every month. My wife wrote a letter to the corporate headquarters, and the person that responded was able to make the billing problem go away.


Road Runner Performance Saga

This is a vintage repost from 2009. (Thanks, and Wayback Machine !)† MacMAD has had a lot of discussion at our meetings about cable modems lately, and this article is still relevant.

Beginning some months ago [2009] , I started noticing poor performance on my internet connection. Primarily I noticed that videos wouldnít play without stopping. I subscribe to Road Runner from Bright House Networks. On the ďstandardĒ plan I expected up to 0.5 Mbps upload and 7.0 Mbps download. But when I measured my throughput, I was sometimes getting less than 2 Mbps down. Sometimes it was better, sometimes worse. After checking my own equipment, it was time to call Bright House.

The technician came out and made some minor changes to my outside wiring. He also replaced a splice I had made in the line where a contractor had broken my cable with a shovel. My splice was pretty good, I thought, but hey, heís a pro. His tests looked good, and he declared victory.
Things were good for a while, but the problem was back in a month. The next tech was very knowledgeable and professional. He replaced some connectors done by the previous guy. But he declared that the real problem was with the wiring inside my house. I needed a new ďhome runĒ, and Bright House would send out someone to do that.

It looked pretty tough to me, because of the construction of our 2-story†house, but I figured this guy would be a pro. In a week or so, the home-run guy comes out to the house, takes one look, and says, ďSorry, thereís no way to do it on this house.Ē

So, I lived with the problem for a while. Performance was sometimes better, sometimes worse. Finally, I decided I needed to solve the problem with my house wiring before my internet connection failed completely. And, I did believe that the wiring in my house was old and tired.

Older houses have RG-59 TV cable, which is not up to broadband requirements, especially when it gets old. RG-6 coaxial cable is the new standard. My router and most of my computer equipment has always been upstairs, and I just couldnít see a way to get a new cable run up to that room. So, I used Wi-Fi to set up a wireless network extension from a downstairs closet to upstairs. (More about that in another post.)

I still needed to replace the old RG-59 cable between the service entrance and the closet. After spending Saturday digging a piece of pipe under the sidewalk, climbing in the garage attic, fishing a wire through the stair landing and crawling under the back porch, I had a brand-new piece of RG-6 between my closet and the service entrance. Throw in a hundred bucks for an Airport Express, and my cable modem was now downstairs attached to an impeccable piece of cable.

I declared victory ó performance improved immediately and seemed better for some weeks. However, the problem has been nothing if not intermittent. Soon it came back the same way: sometimes worse, sometimes better. But now, at least I was in a good position for a visit from the Bright House tech. They couldnít blame my old wiring anymore.
So, I called Bright House. The girl on the phone suggested using, which I had been using anyway. [2015 Update: I prefer the HTML5-based test now.] She had me do the usual tests, bypassing my router, and then when things were still bad, she said she would reset my cable modem remotely. She did, and now performance was perfect ó just shy of 7 Mbps. I was happy ó they fixed it over the phone. I figured maybe the modem did need a kiss from the mothership after being moved from a location with poor signal to one with good signal.

Alas, it didnít last. Same problem again. Soon I was calling Bright House again, and again they sent a technician. Again he seems pretty competent and confident. He replaces all the cable ends he can find that were attached by anybody but him. (Iím seeing a pattern here ó each tech thinks heís the only one who can possibly put a connector on a cable properly.) But, he decides that the problem is the long run of cable from the pole to the house. Reasonable, since thatís the only cable left to replace. So, he starts replacing it. Itís an all-day job. He eventually gets a helper, and the two of them dig about 100 feet of trench with shovels, working in the rain, stopping only for some nearby lightning strikes. Thatís dedication. I donít know why Bright House doesnít equip them with a more modern trenching tool than a shovel.

Again, Bright House declares victory. I asked the tech if he could swap out the cable modem just for completeness, and he would have done it, but he didnít have one of the right kind in the truck. But anyway, performance is back where it ought to be, and the techs drive off into the sunset.

It didnít last a week. Once again, download performance is back down around 2 Mbps. Sometimes. I could understand if it were bad in the evening when everyone is at home using the internet, but it didnít seem to follow any such pattern.

I called Bright House again. The guy I talked to this time was the only really unhelpful person at Bright House yet. He seemed to be reading from a script suggesting that it must be my problem. He was talking down to me, trying to educate me on the finer points of networking, which I could tell, I knew way better than him. However I didnít try to explain that to him, I just kept listening. He explained that the problem was almost certainly not the cable modem and gave some mumbo-jumbo reasoning for this. However, he let slip one pearl of information: A customer could take their own cable modem to the office for an immediate exchange. But heís sure thatís not the problem.

Iím pretty sure at this point that the cable modem is the problem. Itís the only thing left. Aside from the Road Runner network itself, everything else has been replaced or eliminated as the problem. I put the cable modem in the car, and went straight down there, and sure enough, they swapped it for another one ó few questions asked. So, itís been about six weeks now, and everything is fine. Iíve been testing the network every couple of days, and I always see download speed of around 6.85 Mbps ó extremely consistent. Iím now [2009] getting the bandwidth Iím paying for. But it was not easy.

I wonder how much of this effort and expense for both me and Bright House could have been averted if they had swapped the cable modem earlier?

Bright House is really not horrible. They obviously have taken to heart the poor reputation cable companies have had for customer service. They are doing a lot of things right to try to correct that. They have good techs, and conduct customer service surveys regularly. They know what a Macintosh is, and donít give Mac users a hard time.

But, Iím not thrilled to be paying the prices I am for mediocre network performance. Upload speed is particularly bad. Iím looking forward to availability of some true broadband in the area, such as Verizon FIOS. I noticed some trucks laying network cable in my neighborhood recently, and I hope that foreshadows some competition in the internet marketplace.

[2015 Update: The problems never recurred. I used the new modem until they started charging monthly rental. I bought† my own cable modem in 2014. My internet speeds, on the same plan, are now 1 Mbps Up/18.5 Mbps down (because Bright House has upgraded the plan). I was in Kansas City recently, visiting an AT&T customer. They were getting 200+ Mbs Up and Down, with direct fiber to the house. I’m sure the true speed was faster than I could measure over WiFi. No doubt this is due to the competition since Google Fiber came to Kansas City.]

Help! I’m Out of Memory

I often hear beginners say that their computer is out of memory. This is often a clue that they are beginners. Computers contain two different types of “memory” and you need to carefully distinguish between them. I could give a detailed technical explanation, but it would be obsolete in a few years, and wouldn’t be all that helpful. Instead, I’ll describe how they are used, what the symptoms are when you run short and finally, what to do about it.

RAM vs. Storage

Current computers contain two main types of memory, RAM (Random Access Memory) and non-volatile storage. This is true for Macs, PCs, iPads and iPhones, etc. Confusion arises because these very different things are both measured in the same units, Megabytes and Gigabytes. If someone says their computer or phone has 16 Gigabytes, you should be thinking: “16 Gigabytes of what”?

Storage (Hard Drive Space)

Storage is what old-timers think of as their hard drive. Since iPhones and some Macs really don’t have hard drives, Apple simply uses the term Storage, which I think is a really good choice. So, what is storage? Storage is where things go when you save them, close them or download them. Things stay in storage until you delete them. Storage has a firmly limited size, and when you try to exceed it you will get a definite message. If you see a message on the Mac about a specific device (probably Macintosh HD) being out of space, this refers to storage.


RAM is where things go while you open them, edit them, view them or play them. RAM is lightning fast, but it is temporary. Things usually don’t stay in RAM long, and it is all erased when the device is powered off.† Apps and documents flit in and out of RAM as you navigate between them. The operating system of your computer or device works hard to make sure you don’t run out of RAM. If everything doesn’t fit, it will compromise by keeping things that should be in RAM in slower storage temporarily. So, you probably won’t ever see a message about being low on RAM. Instead, things will just slow down, usually dramatically. The worst slowdowns are likely to occur when running a single memory-hog program like a video or photo editor. Running a guest operating system like running Windows under Parallels will use up your RAM quickly.

Gigabytes of Advertising

Apple’s marketing definitely de-emphasizes RAM. It is not mentioned at all for iOS devices, and for Macs, it’s down in the fine print, where it is called “memory”. When shopping for an iPhone 6, say, you will see a 16 GB, 64 GB, and 128 GB model. Those are Gigabytes of storage, not RAM. iPhones have RAM, and newer models may have more RAM than older ones, but Apple never mentions it.

How to Check

On the Mac, you can see how your RAM and Storage stack up by going to the Apple Menu, and selecting About This Mac. In the Overview pane, you will see† your computer’s installed RAM where it says Memory. You will also see an item at the top, Storage. Next to that you may or may not see one that says Memory. The Memory item only appears on computers with memory slots that allow additional RAM to be installed. If you don’t see that, your Mac already has all the RAM it’s ever going to have. That’s the way most of them are now, especially the laptops.

About This Mac Overview Dialog
About This Mac Overview

The Storage pane of About This Mac show an overview of how much storage you have, how much is being used for what and how much remains free. You should try to keep at least, say, 15% of your storage free. If it ever gets full,† your computer can become almost completely unusable.

About This Mac Storage dialog
About This Mac, Storage Pane

The memory pane of About This Mac shows your options for upgrading RAM. This pane only appears on Macs with upgradable RAM.

Memory pane of About This Mac
Memory pane of About This Mac

I’m Out of RAM!

First of all, you’re probably not out of RAM. Most beginners are very unlikely to need more RAM than their computer has unless the computer is several years old. If you really are low on RAM, you can do one of three things. First, install more RAM if that’s possible in your computer. It’s not possible on iOS devices. Second, if your RAM isn’t upgradable,† upgrade to a whole new device with more RAM. Third, you can limit your RAM usage. First, quit all applications that you are not using. Consider if you can reduce the size of the documents you are working with. Can you edit that giant novel in separate chapters, one at a time? Can you work with lower-resolution photos or videos? Maybe you could split up your photo library into smaller sections. Those type of things are likely to reduce demands on your RAM.

If you are worried about needing† more RAM on the Mac, you should open Activity Monitor and visit the Memory tab. The Memory Pressure feature in Yosemite has done a lot to reassure me that I’m in little danger of running out of RAM.

Activity Monitor Memory Pressure
Activity Monitor Memory Pressure

I’m Out of Storage!†

This is all too common. Your first thought should be to delete something you don’t need. Your Downloads folder is a good place to start. Things tend to pile up in there. They all came from the Internet anyway, so if you find you need them, you can always download them again. Empty the trash. Storage belonging to trashed files isn’t freed until the trash is emptied. Empty the trash in applications, like iPhoto, that have their own trash.

While scanning your folders for stuff to be deleted, sort by size. Finding and deleting the biggest files first will save you a lot of time.

Another option is to add external storage. This is not possible for iOS devices, usually, but it is easy for Macs. You should move some of those big files to an external hard drive.



Bluetooth Mouse Disconnect Problem

Are you having a problem with your Apple Bluetooth mouse disconnecting frequently from your Mac? The battery is fine, but you have to keep clicking to get it to connect again? The solution is so easy. Get your cell phone away from your mouse!

The cell phone emits enough radio noise to jam the Bluetooth signal from your mouse. Smartphones are just packed with radio transmitters. Besides its own Bluetooth transmitter, a phone has a WiFi transmitter (2.4 or 5 GHz), a cell network transmitter and maybe a NFC transmitter. The cellular transmitter is used periodically to maintain contact with the cell site even if you are not making or receiving a call.

That cellular transmitter is powerful — it has to reach a cell site a mile or so away. That’s probably the one that kills your mouse (or keyboard).

It is so easy to sit down and put your phone right next to the mouse without thinking. Moving it just a couple of feet away is probably enough to eliminate the problem.