Caveat emptor: After introducing its Flex streaming box back in March for $5 per month (not including subscriptions), Comcast seemed to change its tune in September about charging for the equipment. It decided that a cut of the subscriptions from its cord-cutting, internet-only users was better than nothing. Now its offering the box for "free," only it isn't free as in beer.

Last month, Comcast began offering its internet-only customers a streaming TV box for free. The problem is, to get the device, called Flex, customers must rent the provider's xFi Gateway modem/router combo, which runs $13 per month. Those who have their own networking solutions have to give those up and use Comcast’s hardware to get the box.

At the time of the announcement, a Comcast spokesperson said that the modem rental requirement would be eliminated “in the coming weeks,” which is rather vague wording. Now over a month later, nothing has changed. As The Verge notes, the equipment stipulation is heavily emphasized on the Flex checkout page.

What’s worse is that there is no mention of this condition in the company’s FAQ regarding Flex service. The only place that it is actually mentioned prior to attempting to sign up is in tiny print at the bottom of the sales page. Don't bother getting your magnifying glass. Here is what it says:

"Restrictions apply. Requires a post-pay subscription to Xfinity Internet (25 Mbps or above) service and compatible xFi Gateway and Xfinity Flex device. 1 device included at no extra charge [emphasis mine]."

Of course, it really comes as no surprise since Comcast is well known for charging hidden (or quietly disclosed) fees and increasing them regularly.

Comcast is not alone in doing this. Technicians and representatives from virtually every other provider will try to convince customers that company-provided (at a cost) hardware is necessary. Of course, they usually back down when confronted by someone with a modicum of IT knowledge.

However, many subscribers believe what they are told and pay the $156 per year in equipment fees. At that rate, a store-bought modem/router will pay for itself in the first year or two.

When contacted again about the equipment required, a spokesperson would only say that the ability to use a non-Comcast router was “coming imminently.” Yet again, intentionally vague wording that could mean from now until never.

It originally launched with a $5 attached fee and had very limited viewing options. So it is clear that that didn’t fly. The only option left is to offer it for “free,” with conditions, of course.

It is no wonder that Comcast is trying to foist its box on uninformed customers, though. Most Smart TVs now have built-in apps, including Roku, making Flex a virtually worthless option for streaming.