Xbox at E3 2021 Starfield trailer Square Enix E3 2021 Halo Infinite trailer E3 2021 schedule Millions more stimulus checks sent
CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

AT&T vs. Cox Communications: Two top internet providers duke it out

Trying to choose between AT&T and Cox Communications for your home internet service? Here's how to pick the right provider.

Listen
- 10:19
at-t-internet-vs-cox-communications-coverage-map
FCC/Mapbox

AT&T and Cox. Cox and AT&T. Two internet service providers enter, only one will leave.

OK, OK, so maybe this isn't quite as dramatic as a literal fight to the death, but there's still a lot to consider if you're comparing the two ISPs -- especially if you're choosing between them for your home's internet connection. In that case, it's absolutely true that only one of them can win -- but which one?

The short answer is, it depends. AT&T's fiber plans are some of the best deals you'll find on home internet -- but fiber isn't available everywhere AT&T operates, and AT&T's alternatives are much slower. Meanwhile, Cox's cable plans offer plenty of speed of their own, including gigabit plans available across Cox's entire coverage map -- but there's fine print to watch out for with respect to data caps and rising costs.

Keep reading for the longer answer, which includes a close comparison of each provider's plans, prices, terms, customer service track record and more.

At one point there were five AT&T trucks and technicians at my house installing fiber-optic broadband. It's been smooth sailing since then.

AT&T's fiber internet plans aren't available in all regions, but the company says that the service is continuing to grow.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Where do AT&T and Cox offer internet service?

AT&T is the wider provider here, thanks to its fairly extensive network of ADSL connections and its fixed wireless service, both of which reach a fair number of rural areas. Others across the service map, which covers 21 states in the South, West and Midwest, will find access to AT&T's fiber plans, which are much faster.

According to FCC data that was last updated at the end of 2019, AT&T fiber plans were only available across roughly 30% of the provider's footprint. AT&T wouldn't share more recent coverage specifics than that, but a company spokesperson tells us that the number has grown since then and is growing still.

As for Cox, the company sells the same cable internet plans wherever it offers service. Coverage is much more focused than AT&T and mostly limited to urban and urban-adjacent areas scattered across 19 states. Among other areas, coverage between the two providers overlaps in the following cities:

  • Fayetteville, Arkansas
  • Irvine, California
  • San Diego, California
  • Gainesville, Florida
  • Macon, Georgia
  • Topeka, Kansas
  • Wichita, Kansas
  • Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma

Plans, speeds and monthly costs

So what do AT&T and Cox charge for home internet service, and how do their selection of speeds and plans stack up? Let's take a look, starting with AT&T:

AT&T home internet plans

Plan Max download speeds Max upload speeds Monthly cost (first year) Monthly cost (after 12 months) Additional monthly fees
AT&T Fixed Wireless 10Mbps 1Mbps $70 $70 $10 equipment fee
AT&T Internet 10 10Mbps 1Mbps $45 $55 $10 equipment fee
AT&T Internet 18 18Mbps 1Mbps $45 $55 $10 equipment fee
AT&T Internet 25 25Mbps 2Mbps $45 $55 $10 equipment fee
AT&T Internet 50 50Mbps 10Mbps $45 $55 $10 equipment fee
AT&T Internet 100 100Mbps 20Mbps $45 $55 $10 equipment fee
AT&T Internet 300 (fiber) 300Mbps 300Mbps $35 $55 $10 equipment fee
AT&T Internet 500 (fiber) 500Mbps 500Mbps $45 $65 $10 equipment fee
AT&T Internet 1000 (fiber) 940Mbps 940Mbps $60 $80 $10 equipment fee

With AT&T, your monthly rate will range from $35 to $80 per month, depending on your plan and whether or not you're in your first year of service, when most plans come with a discount. Also keep in mind that you'll need to tack an additional $10 onto your bill to rent AT&T's modem/router gateway device, which is mandatory with all AT&T plans. That's a little lower than the industry equipment rental average, which is closer to $15, but it's still a bummer that you can't skip it altogether by using your own modem and router.

OK, one down -- now let's look at what Cox offers:

Cox home internet plans

Plan Max. download speed Max. upload speed Equipment rental fee Regular rate (no contract) Promo rate (with contract) Rate after one year Monthly data cap
Starter 25 25Mbps 3Mbps $12/month (skippable) $40/month $30/month (1 year) $45/month 1.28TB
Essential 50 50Mbps 3Mbps $12/month (skippable) $50/month $40/month (1 year) $66/month 1.28TB
Preferred 150 150Mbps 10Mbps $12/month (skippable) $70/month $60/month (1 year) $84/month 1.28TB
Ultimate 500 500Mbps 10Mbps $12/month (skippable) $90/month $80/month (1 year) $100/month 1.28TB
Gigablast 940Mbps 35Mbps $12/month (skippable) $110/month $100/month (1 year) $120/month 1.28TB

Cox plans range in price from $30 per month to as high as $120 per month, again, depending on the specific plan and whether or not you're still in your first-year promo period. The monthly equipment rental fee of $12 is a smidge higher than AT&T's, but Cox lets you skip it by using your own equipment, which is a nice option that can save you money over the long run. 

Just be sure to note the higher-than-average price jumps with Cox. When you sign up, you can choose the regular rate, or you can save $10 by choosing a promo rate that comes with a 1-year service contract. Either way, at the end of one year, your bill will go up -- sometimes by as much $26. On average, the Cox price jump from the promo rate to the after-contract rate is $21. With AT&T, the average price jump across all plans is $12 -- a $20 jump for fiber plans, a $10 jump for ADSL plans, and no jump at all for AT&T fixed wireless.

Is AT&T or Cox a better home internet value?

If AT&T's fiber plans are available at your address, you should strongly consider signing up, because they offer some of the best value on home internet from any provider we've evaluated. 

For instance, after adding in the mandatory equipment fee, AT&T's 300Mbps fiber plan costs just $45 per month during your first year (15 cents per Mbps) and $65 per month after that (22 cents per Mbps). Compare that with Cox and you'll see that there's really no comparison at all -- a 150Mbps Cox plan with half the download speed and a fraction of the upload speed costs $60 per month during the first year (40 cents per Mbps) and $84 per month after that (56 cents per Mbps), and that's only if you're able to skip the equipment rental fee. AT&T's 500 and 940Mbps fiber speed tiers offer similarly strong value relative to the competition.

If AT&T doesn't offer fiber plans in your area, then you'll have to settle for the company's fixed wireless service, or its ADSL plans, a hybrid technology that combines a phone-line-based digital subscriber line with copper wiring. Again, adding in the mandatory equipment rental fee, the fastest of these plans offers download speeds of up to 100Mbps for $55 per month during the first year (55 cents per Mbps) and $65 per month after that (65 cents per Mbps). In that case, the 150Mbps Cox plan I mentioned above would be the better value, with faster speeds for a lower price per Mbps.

Short answer: AT&T fiber is the best deal here by far, but Cox's cable internet offers slightly better value than AT&T's fixed wireless and ADSL plans, despite costing a bit more.

What sort of fees and terms should I expect from AT&T and Cox?

Ah, yes. Fees and terms. Terms and fees. Two will enter... wait, I already did that and it doesn't even make sense here.

Unfortunately, terms and fees are by no means mutually exclusive, and when it comes to home internet, they shall never, ever fight each other to the death. You'll find plenty of each with both AT&T and Cox -- here's the rundown:

Installation fees

Both providers charge a one-time fee of $100 for professional installation. Cox lets you skip the fee by requesting an Easy Connect self-installation kit, which guides you through the setup process without need for a technician. AT&T offers a free self-installation kit, too, but it isn't available everywhere, so you'll need to check online to see if it's an option at your address.

at-t-wi-fi-6-gateway

AT&T charges $10 per month to rent a modem/router gateway device. That device is mandatory, so you can't skip the fee by using your own equipment.

AT&T

Equipment fees

As mentioned before, both AT&T and Cox charge an equipment rental fee for use of their respective modem/router gateway devices -- $10 per month for AT&T's gateway, and $12 per month for Cox's Panoramic Wifi gateway. Cox lets you skip the fee by using your own, Cox-approved modem, but with AT&T, the company's gateway device and the rental fee for using it are mandatory.

Both providers offer optional range extenders that you can pair with the gateway to expand the range of your network. With AT&T, each one costs $50, but with Cox, they cost $130. Given that you'll also be paying $12 per month for the gateway, opting for a mesh router of your own is the much better way to go.

Something else to keep in mind about Cox's Panoramic Wifi gateway is that it will broadcast a second network separate from yours that other Cox customers can connect to as part of the company's network of public hotspots. The feature is enabled by default.

Cox says that it won't affect your home's internet speeds or data usage, but I still wouldn't blame you if you wanted to turn that network off. To do so, you'll need to log in to your Cox account and head to the privacy settings.

Contracts

AT&T doesn't enforce contracts with its internet plans, but Cox adds in a one-year contract if you opt for the promo rate when you sign up, which knocks $10 off your bill during that first year. If you cancel your service before that contract is up, you'll be charged an early termination fee of $120. If you go with one of Cox's unlimited data bundles, you'll need to accept a mandatory two-year service contract. In that case, cancelling your service early will cost you $240.

Data caps

Both providers enforce them, but with a couple of key differences.

With AT&T, the fiber plans don't come with any sort of data cap at all, but the ADSL and fixed wireless plans do. Specifically, the cap is set at 1TB (1,000GB) of data per month, and if you use more than that, you'll be charged an extra $10 for each 50GB of excess, up to a maximum monthly penalty of $100.

Cox, meanwhile, enforces a data cap on all of its plans, and the penalties are the same as AT&T -- $10 for every 50GB of excess data usage, up to a maximum of $100. However, Cox sets its data cap higher than AT&T at 1.28TB (1,280GB), and the company will give you a mulligan and waive all of your penalties the first month you exceed it. That makes Cox's caps a bit more manageable than AT&T's -- and it also means that Cox's unlimited data bundles, which remove the cap for a semi-inflated additional fee that includes other services at full price, probably aren't worth it for most customers.

isp-customer-satisfaction-2020

According to the ACSI's yearly survey, AT&T is one of the top internet providers for customer satisfaction, trailing only Verizon. Cox comes in several points lower, and a few points below the industry average.

American Customer Satisfaction Index

How do AT&T and Cox stack up in terms of customer service?

Internet providers have never been popular, but among them, AT&T consistently ranks near the top. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, AT&T finished 2020 with a score of 68 out of 100, a few points above the category average of 65 and second only to Verizon, which led all providers with a score of 73. Meanwhile, Cox came in with a below-average score of 61, though this was a point better than the year before. When the ACSI releases scores for 2021, we'll update this post.

Meanwhile, JD Power ranks internet providers for customer satisfaction across four separate regions in the US -- and AT&T was the top-rated provider in each of the three regions it was included in, earning category-leading scores of 769 out of 1,000 in the South and 742 in both the West and North Central regions. Cox was a more uneven finisher in the three regions where it was scored, earning below-average ratings of 713 in the East and 734 in the South, and an above-average rating of 721 in the West.

And the winner is...

If AT&T fiber is available at your address, consider it your top option (and consider yourself lucky). With excellent value, fast speeds and strong customer satisfaction scores, those fiber plans are some of the best in the industry, and you won't need to sign a contract or worry about a data cap.

That said, AT&T's fixed wireless and ADSL plans are much less competitive, especially when you compare them with the fast download speeds available from a cable provider like Cox. Though Cox's plans are the slightly more expensive option, you'll be getting a much faster connection, along with data cap restrictions that are more manageable than what AT&T enforces with those fixed wireless and ADSL plans. All of that makes it the superior choice if fiber isn't an option.