CenturyLink offers excellent fiber internet, but it’s available only in limited markets. If you can't get fiber, you may be able to get a DSL connection but you'll pay nearly as much.
Spectrum offers speedy, reasonably priced cable internet service, and a strong budget plan. We wish there were fewer fees attached, though.
CenturyLink offers two types of plans, depending on your location. The more common option is DSL, which is relatively slow and offers inconsistent speeds. The other option is fiber, which is extremely fast and reliable.
Generally speaking, the DSL options are not a great value. The price is reasonable, but the speeds mean you’re likely to get more for your money elsewhere (this is true for many DSL providers). The fiber plans are a much better value—they offer much more speed for the money than CenturyLink’s DSL plans and are competitive with other providers’ fiber offerings. In fact, CenturyLink's 940 Mbps plan costs a little more than half of the national benchmark for similar plans. (1) We highly recommend CenturyLink fiber if you have it available.
Spectrum service offers a solid value—particularly at the lowest tier. There are only three plans to choose from, which could either be a plus or minus depending on your perspective. In this case, we feel it’s a good thing: the plans are straightforward and easy to understand.
The lowest-tier plan offers speeds up to 300 Mbps (wireless speeds may vary) at a decent price, according to government benchmarks (1). That's just $0.17 per megabit per second, with speeds that blow any DSL plan out of the water. The other two internet plans are less exciting, but still reasonably priced for the first year. After 12 months, your price could be up by $20 or more.
There’s a performance divide based on the type of service available. The CenturyLink DSL plans can range from 15 to 100 Mbps, which is a wide range. Additionally, 15 Mbps just isn’t great these days. It doesn’t even reach broadband speeds (25 Mbps or more). That said, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting the advertised speed—whatever plan you sign up for, you seem to get what you pay for with CenturyLink.
On the other hand, the fiber plans offer Gigabit speeds (up to 940 Mbps), which is excellent. Additionally, fiber internet offers synchronous download speeds and upload speeds, meaning you can game, video chat, or upload large files just as fast as you binge Netflix. Fiber also tends to be inherently reliable because of the way the technology works—the light signals in fiber optic cables can carry more information over longer distances than coaxial cables. We have no complaints about performance on these plans.
Spectrum offers speedy performance overall, with packages up to 1,000 Mbps available (wireless speeds may vary). The lower tiers are more exciting—almost every provider has a gig plan these days, but Spectrum’s lowest plan has speeds up to 300 Mbps, which is still excellent for all but the heaviest users. Additionally, there are no data caps on any of the plans, so you can use as much bandwidth as you like.
Speed is only half the equation, though—even the fastest connection is useless if it doesn’t work when you need it. Luckily, Spectrum is on par with its closest cable competitors here. It offers faster-than-advertised speeds most of the time, according to the US Federal Communications Commission (2), and earned the top spot for median speeds from Speedtest.net (3). Spectrum’s latency scores were a little higher than competitors Xfinity and Cox, but at just 25 ms, you’re still within the playability range for most online games.
CenturyLink installation is more or less on par with other providers in terms of installation procedures and costs. If your neighborhood is wired for only DSL with CenturyLink, you can have your internet service set up by a pro for somewhere between $129 and $300 based on the installation requirements. You can alternatively choose to do a self-install for $15.
If you live in an area wired for CenturyLink fiber, your pro installation and equipment rental are free, and you may be able to self-install for free. You could also wrangle unlimited data and an included mesh wireless network if you sign a contract, so be sure to ask. This is about on par with other fiber internet providers.
Find out whether you need a professional to come by or if you can handle setup yourself.
As for equipment, the CenturyLink modem and router are also pretty standard stuff. The company charges around $15 per month for equipment rentals for DSL customers. The gear is nothing to write home about, but it works. You can also buy the modem outright from CenturyLink for up to $200—whether this is a good deal for you depends on how long you plan to have CenturyLink as a provider.
We don’t particularly recommend buying your own router. Both the DSL and fiber services require a modem certified by CenturyLink to function, so you may as well save some money and use the built-in wireless router.
Spectrum’s equipment setup is a bit different than most—at least when it comes to fees. There is no charge for the modem, but there is a $5 monthly fee for the wireless router (waived on the gig plan). What this means is that Spectrum gives you a separate modem and router, instead of a combined gateway. It also means you can opt to bring your own wireless router if you prefer. Customers can also add Wi-Fi extenders, called Pods, for $3 each per month. If you use the Spectrum router, you can use the company's highly rated smartphone app to manage settings and parental controls.
Installation is straightforward and affordable. If you need a pro to come out, you can opt for a professional installation for $59.99. If you can handle the installation yourself, the self-install kit is about $25. We’d prefer free self-installation, but it isn’t the highest self-install fee we’ve seen, so we’ll take what we can get.
CenturyLink consistently scores slightly below average in customer satisfaction (2), largely due to complaints about a lack of responsiveness regarding customer service. The service also gets a lot of complaints from new fiber internet customers, but complaints are very common industry-wide.
CenturyLink hires techs and contractors from around the country, so some inconsistency is expected. It redeems itself slightly, though, with an easy-to-use support page.
The company is expanding and we hear that many new cities will have fiber internet hookups from CenturyLink within the next few years. If you can get only DSL, though, you may have a connection as slow as 3 Mbps or one as fast as 100 Mbps, with huge variation in latency depending on how far you are from the nearest access point.
We like that CenturyLink provides DSL to customers who may have no other option, but we don't recommend the DSL offering if you have access to cable or fiber internet from another provider.
We’ll just come right out and say it: Spectrum has a lot of fees. While you may never see most of them, it’s worth noting that they’re there. Here’s a sample:
These aren’t going to be on every bill, and you may never see most of them. However, when you do, it makes for a poor experience.
When you add second-year price hikes in the range of $20+, things aren't looking good for Spectrum customers. However, Spectrum customers seem to be about as satisfied with customer service as customers with competitors Cox and CenturyLink, and it's only slightly worse than average. (4)
If Spectrum is the only cable provider in your area and your home isn't wired for fiber internet, we recommend the service. Just set a calendar reminder to contact customer service in a year and see if you can negotiate the price down!