CenturyLink vs. Comcast Xfinity: Which Is Better for Your Home Broadband?
CenturyLink's fiber and DSL home internet plans are available to just under one-fifth of the US population. Meanwhile, Comcast Xfinity's cable internet services are an option for more than a third of us. Setting aside satellite internet, which is available pretty much everywhere, CenturyLink and Comcast are two of the five largest internet providers in the country -- and they're competing for your business in more than half of all US states.
If you're trying to pick between the two, the most important thing you need to understand is what, specifically, is available at your address. CenturyLink's fiber plans are some of the best values you'll find in high-speed home internet, but they're only available in select regions. The rest of the footprint is left with CenturyLink's DSL plans, which come with much slower speeds and a lot less bang for your buck. Meanwhile, with Comcast, you'll connect via cable hookup regardless of where you live -- but plans, prices and contract terms vary from region to region.
We're here to help you make sense of it all. Keep reading for the details on what each provider offers, including plans, prices, terms, speeds and customer satisfaction track records.
CenturyLink and Xfinity coverage maps overlap
As mentioned above, both providers offer internet service throughout significant swaths of the US, with Comcast Xfinity available in 39 states and CenturyLink available in 37. Coverage between the two overlaps in a majority of those states, including parts of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.
Metro regions with the most significant overlap between the two providers include Albuquerque, New Mexico; Denver, Colorado; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; Salem, Oregon; Salt Lake City, Utah; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Seattle, Washington; Spokane, Washington; Tallahassee, Florida and Tucson, Arizona. If you live near one of those cities, then the odds are good that both CenturyLink and Comcast are available in your area -- you can use the tool below to check and see what, exactly, is available at your address.
CenturyLink features DSL and fiber connections, while Xfinity is mainly cable internet
CenturyLink connects its customers using a digital subscriber line, or DSL, a relatively slow mode of the internet that passes traffic through telephone lines. However, some locations also have fiber internet plans, which use a ground-laid fiber-optic cable to pass data at much higher speeds. According to data shared with the Federal Communications Commission in 2020, those faster plans were available across about 38% of the company's coverage map, up from 24% the year before. CenturyLink says that it's currently working on expanding fiber access to additional regions, as well.
"Quantum Fiber is currently available in about 50% of our footprint, including Denver, Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Springfield, Missouri," with additional cities planned throughout 2022, a spokesperson for CenturyLink parent company Lumen said.
With Comcast Xfinity, you'll connect to the internet using a coaxial cable hookup. Cable connections like those can hit download speeds that are on par with what fiber's capable of -- but the downside is that it's an asymmetrical connection. That means that your upload speeds will be much, much slower, which might factor in if you're videoconferencing or uploading large files to the web.
How CenturyLink and Xfinity's plans, speeds and prices measure up
Things get a little bit complicated with each provider's plans. Let's start with CenturyLink, which offers two fiber plans plus a variety of DSL plans.
A few things in that list of plans jump out at me. First and foremost are the two fiber options at the bottom -- $50 per month for top speeds of 200 megabits per second or $65 per month for near-gigabit speeds of 940Mbps. Each is an excellent value -- notably the $65 Gigabit plan. For comparison, a gigabit fiber plan from Verizon will cost you $90 per month with upload speeds that are a bit lower than CenturyLink's. Meanwhile, a gigabit fiber plan from AT&T will cost you $80 per month.
Also of note: CenturyLink doesn't use promo pricing at all. That means that you won't find any one-year discounts designed to tempt you into signing up, but it also means your bill won't arbitrarily rise after 12 months. CenturyLink internet plans are priced competitively, to begin with, so the straightforward approach to your monthly charge is honestly pretty refreshing here, especially given that none of CenturyLink's plans come with a data cap or a contract.
That brings us to the DSL plans. There's a lot of them, and the confusing part is that you'll probably only see a handful available in your region. That's because DSL speeds are distance-sensitive -- the closer your home is to whatever infrastructure you'll be connecting with, the faster your connection will be. So, the specific plans available to you will reflect what's technically possible at your address. Whatever speeds and plans are available, expect to pay $50 per month for CenturyLink DSL home internet.
Got it? Good. Now here's the rundown on Comcast Xfinity.
As the trio of charts would indicate, Comcast Xfinity offers different plans for each of the three regions it operates in: West, Central and Northeast. The speed tiers are more or less consistent across the board, but the prices are not.
"We're a regional provider and market and price our products based on individual local market dynamics," a Comcast spokesperson explained when we asked about Xfinity's variety of plans. "That's why our costs can be different on a market-by-market basis."
Regardless of which region you live in, Comcast's cable internet plans will range in price from approximately $20 to $109 per month, with download speeds of up to 1,200Mbps. Comcast also offers a Gigabit Pro plan that uses fiber-to-the-home hookups to deliver symmetrical upload and download speeds of up to 3,000Mbps (3Gbps), but it's not available for all homes. You'll need to request a site survey to see if it's even an option at your address. Don't bank on that -- according to data shared with the FCC, fiber only comprised 0.02% of Comcast's footprint as of late 2020.
Regardless of which plan you go with, expect to live with a data cap of 1.2 terabytes (1,200GB) and potentially a service contract, too. More on that in just a bit.
Across both providers, the best value is CenturyLink's Gigabit plan, which nets you matching upload and download speeds of 940Mbps for just $65 a month, with no contract, no data caps, and no price increase after 12 months. Value-wise, that plan comes out to just 7 cents per Mbps of download speed, which is virtually unmatched by any other ISP. If that Gigabit plan is available at your address, I'd recommend signing up and not thinking twice about it.
As for Xfinity, the average value across the regular rate of all of the company's cable internet plans comes out to about 39 cents per Mbps. That's middle of the pack compared with other major cable providers. Spectrum's cable plans, for instance, average out to about 25 cents per Mbps after the promo period ends, while Cox's regular rates average out to a steep 80 cents per Mbps.
The best value among all of Xfinity's plans would be the 1,200Mbps Gigabit plan, as priced in the Central region ($70 per month for the first year, $109 per month after that). After that first year of discounts, the regular rate comes out to about 9 cents per Mbps.
CenturyLink vs. Xfinity on terms, fees and contracts
There's more to home internet service than plans, prices and speeds -- you always want to be sure to understand the fine print, too. Let's see how the two providers stack up in that department:
CenturyLink leases customers a combination modem and router gateway device, and the monthly fee for using it is $15 per month. You can skip that monthly fee by using your own, compatible equipment, or by purchasing the CenturyLink gateway outright for a one-time fee of $200.
It's a similar story with Xfinity. Comcast charges $14 per month to rent its own modem-and-router device, the Xfi Gateway. If you have your own, compatible modem and router, you can use those and skip the equipment fee altogether.
Comcast also sells plug-in Xfi Pods designed to amplify that Xfi Gateway's range. They cost $119 each, or two for $199, which is pretty pricey for a range extender. I'd recommend looking into other, less expensive range extenders first, or investing in a good mesh router.
Comcast charges $40 for professional, in-home installation -- but you can also skip the technician visit and opt for free self-installation instead. If you go that route, Comcast will ship you a Getting Started kit with your equipment, and you'll need to follow the instructions in the Xfinity app to get everything up and running on your own.
With CenturyLink, the fees are a bit higher and trickier to avoid. Professional installation ranges from $99 to $125 depending on your region and plan, and while you can skip that fee by opting for self-installation, that option isn't available at all addresses. You can also expect to pay a one-time broadband activation fee of $20 when you first start your service.
I sure did. Specifically, that'd be the 1.2TB data cap enforced by Comcast across all Xfinity internet plans (except the Northeast). Use more data than that in a given month, and you'll incur a $10 charge for every 50GB block of excess data, up to a maximum fee of $100. If you're worried that you'll break the cap more often than not, you can opt for unlimited data for an additional $30 per month.
Data caps are no fun, but 1.2TB is a pretty ample amount of data. In 2020, the average American home's data usage surged to a peak of about 400GB per month, so most homes shouldn't have too much trouble staying under Comcast's cap.
As for CenturyLink, the company doesn't enforce a data cap at all, so you can surf, stream and download to your heart's content without fear of incurring extra charges.
With specific Xfinity plans, you'll need to agree to a service contract of either one or two years. The term agreements vary from region to region, so make sure to understand the specific options available in your area. For instance, the 300Mbps Fast plan comes with a one-year contract in Comcast's Central and West regions and a completely different name (and no contract) in the Northeast.
Canceling your Xfinity service before your contract is up will result in an early termination fee. With a one-year contract, the cost is $110, but it goes down by $10 each month. Similarly, the early termination fee for a two-year contract is $230, which drops by $10 after each month of service.
Meanwhile, CenturyLink doesn't enforce contracts at all. Between that and the lack of data caps, it's the more appealing provider of the two as far as terms are concerned.
Customer satisfaction numbers tilt toward Xfinity
Give Xfinity the edge here. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks -- you guessed it -- customer satisfaction, Comcast earned a rating of 67 out of 100 in 2021. That's not great for something like a history exam, but it's relatively solid among ISPs, which never rank highly for customer satisfaction. Xfinity's 2021 score is a point better than the year before, slightly above the industry average for internet providers, and good enough for third place overall. It trails only AT&T and Verizon. On the other hand, CenturyLink earned a score of 62 out of 100 in 2021. That's slightly below the industry average of 65 and one point worse than the year before.
J.D. Power runs studies on ISP customer satisfaction, as well. Its 2021 report seems to echo the ACSI's findings. Comcast Xfinity averaged an overall score of 726 out of 1,000 across four separate regions. The company finished in second place in the South, third place in the other three areas and above the industry average in all four. Meanwhile, CenturyLink earned scores of 674 in the South and 708 in the West, both of which were slightly below the industry average. That makes it more of a middle-of-the-pack performer than Comcast as far as customer satisfaction goes.Now playing:Watch this: Millions lack broadband at a time when they must have...14:41
And the overall winner is... CenturyLink
If CenturyLink's fiber plans are available at your address, then the winner might as well be you because the company's Gigabit plan is one of the best deals in fiber internet, period. I give CenturyLink lots of credit for expanding its fiber footprint to bring those faster speeds to more people, but the majority of the footprint only has access to much-slower DSL speeds, so I can't call CenturyLink the outright winner here.
If that's the case for you, and DSL is all that CenturyLink can offer at your address, then Comcast Xfinity is the stronger alternative, even with the data cap you'll need to contend with. With cable, you'll enjoy download speeds that are much, much faster than DSL, and that means you're getting a lot more value for your internet dollar. Just be mindful of those contracts -- if fiber ever arrives in your area (from CenturyLink or any other provider), then you'll be wise to make the switch.