CenturyLink Versus Spectrum: Which Is the Better ISP?

Spectrum is a solid choice nationwide. CenturyLink's value will depend on where you live.

If you're shopping for home internet in your area, then there's a decent chance that you'll find either CenturyLink or Spectrum among your options. In some areas, you might find both available at your address. The two are among the largest providers of their connection type in the US -- CenturyLink is a DSL and fiber ISP that ranks behind only AT&T and Verizon (barely) in coverage; meanwhile, Spectrum is a top cable ISP with a slightly smaller customer base than Xfinity

As such, the two are bound to share some service areas. In fact, CenturyLink and Spectrum coverage areas overlap in 27 states, though some states, like Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin, will have more households serviceable for both than others.

If CenturyLink and Spectrum are available at your address, how do you know which is the best ISP for your home? They're both fairly straightforward when it comes to pricing and service terms, but CenturyLink's speeds can vary widely by location whereas Spectrum's are consistent throughout nearly all service areas. Consequently, the better option will likely come down to the CenturyLink speeds and service type available at your address. What exactly does that mean, and what else do you need to know? This page will cover it all.

Locating local internet providers

Sarah Tew/CNET
Price range $55 per monthSpeed range 10 - 140MbpsConnection DSLKey Info Unlimited data, no contracts

As with any provider that uses a fiber and DSL network, the fiber side of CenturyLink's service is much more desirable than DSL, with faster speeds, better reliability and higher overall value. That said, CenturyLink's DSL service is by no means particularly bad -- speeds of 100Mbps or higher are available to more than a quarter of CenturyLink DSL service areas and two-thirds of households can get 25Mbps or higher -- but you'll get faster speeds for the same starting price with Spectrum.

Read our CenturyLink review.

Sarah Tew/CNET
Price range $30- $90 per monthSpeed range 100 - 1,000MbpsConnection CableKey Info Unlimited data, simple pricing, no contracts, modem included, free access to nationwide Wi-Fi hotspots

Spectrum keeps it simple with three plan options and transparent pricing, no data caps, no contracts and a low equipment fee. Cable internet isn't completely without fault, however. Upload speeds are generally slower than a fiber-optic connection -- Spectrum's top out at 35Mbps -- and a cable network is more susceptible to slowed speeds due to network congestion, especially during peak usage times. All of which is to say that Spectrum's cable connection isn't quite as good as a fiber one, but it's still leaps and bounds better than DSL.

Read our Spectrum internet review.

CenturyLink versus Spectrum availability and tech

CenturyLink's DSL network, which makes up roughly three quarters of its coverage area, primarily serves suburban and rural areas. You'll find fiber service in larger cities such as Denver, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Seattle -- but these areas are mostly or completely unserviceable for Spectrum. There are, however, some locations that are serviceable for CenturyLink Fiber and Spectrum, including:

  • Grand Junction, Colorado
  • Missoula, Montana
  • Fayetteville, North Carolina
  • Mansfield, Ohio
  • Mount Vernon, Ohio
  • Medford, Oregon
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Cheyenne, Wyoming
  • Jackson, Wyoming

There are undoubtedly more places where CenturyLink's fiber network and Spectrum overlap, but many will only be eligible for DSL from CenturyLink. You'll have to run a serviceability check to see which version of CenturyLink service is available at your address. If it ends up being DSL, you can stop reading now and know that Spectrum will be your better option (or you can read why below). On the other hand, if CenturyLink's fiber service is available, you'll want a closer comparison of speeds, pricing and service details.

Locating local internet providers

Comparing CenturyLink and Spectrum internet plans

If there's a common knock against both providers, it's that neither offers a particularly wide range of plans. CenturyLink DSL customers will essentially have one option while fiber customers will have two: 200Mbps or gig service. Spectrum also offers a 200Mbps and a gig plan along with a nice middle-ground 400Mbps plan. Here's a look at those plans.

CenturyLink internet plans

Plan Starting monthly priceMax speeds (Mbps)Equipment rentalData cap
CenturyLink Simply Unlimited (DSL) $50 140 down, 40 up$15 (skippable)1TB
Fiber 200 $50 200 down, 200 up$15 (skippable)1TB
Fiber Gigabit $65 940 down, 940 upNone1TB

Spectrum internet plans

Plan Starting monthly priceStandard price (after 12 months)Max speeds (Mbps)Equipment rentalData cap
Spectrum Internet $50 $75 200 down, 10 up$5 None
Internet Ultra $70 $85 400 down, 20 up$5 None
Internet Gig $90 $115 940 down, 35 up$5 None

With CenturyLink DSL, you will receive the fastest speeds available at your address. Speeds max out at around 140Mbps, but you're much more likely to get speeds in the 20Mbps-to-100Mbps range. That's not bad, especially for rural areas where satellite internet is the only other option, but if Spectrum is also available, it'll be the better choice. With Spectrum, you'll get max speeds of 200Mbps for the same monthly price, plus a lower equipment fee.

As for Spectrum versus CenturyLink's fiber service, both providers have an entry-level plan with max speeds of 200Mbps starting at $50 per month. Same speed, same price, but there are some subtle differences. 

The fiber connection you get with CenturyLink is capable of delivering symmetrical download and upload speeds, so you'll get faster upload speeds for video calls, uploading files, gaming online and other tasks that require fast upload speeds. Spectrum will potentially be the cheaper internet service, however, at least for the first year before the standard pricing goes into effect. Spectrum's lower router rental fee will save you $10 per month compared with CenturyLink, but that's only if you rent equipment. Both providers allow you to use your own compatible device and skip the equipment fee

Entry-level plans from CenturyLink Fiber and Spectrum are pretty evenly matched, but if you're looking for faster speeds, CenturyLink will be your best bet. Gig service is your only other option with CenturyLink, but at $65 per month and no additional equipment costs, the plan is cheaper than Spectrum's gig plan. It's also cheaper than Spectrum's midtier plan, which offers max speeds of 400Mbps compared with the 940Mbps download and upload speed potential you'd get with CenturyLink. 

Fees, contracts and the fine print

What else should you expect to pay for service from CenturyLink or Spectrum? Not much, actually. Both providers are fairly reasonable when it comes to added fees, contracts and data caps.

CenturyLink's equipment rental fee for DSL service and its 200Mbps plan is a little higher than most at $15, but again it is skippable when using your own equipment. And if you go for gig service, CenturyLink waives the fee altogether. Spectrum includes your modem but not a router, which is what you need for Wi-Fi. Renting a router will only set you back an additional $5 per month.

Neither provider requires a contract, so no commitments or early termination fees to worry about. Spectrum also has a contract buyout offer, up to $500 toward termination fees with another provider, but you'll have to sign up for an internet and TV bundle to qualify for the deal.

You won't have to fret over data caps, either. While CenturyLink does advertise a monthly data cap of 1TB, there is no fee for going over. Also, that's a lot of data. The average household uses less than half of that per month. Spectrum is completely unlimited, meaning there is no hard or soft data cap and no fee for going over a certain limit.

American Customer Satisfaction Index

Spectrum has a slight edge in customer satisfaction

Customer satisfaction numbers are typically not pretty when it comes to internet service, but there's nothing particularly alarming about how either provider stacks up. The American Customer Satisfaction Index gave Spectrum a 63/100 in 2021 and 2020, just a couple of points below the industry average of 65. CenturyLink fared about the same, coming in at 62/100 in 2021 and 63 in 2020. 

J.D. Power indicates a bit more favor toward Spectrum. Spectrum led CenturyLink in the North/Central, South and West regions with scores of 703/1000 to 641, 725 to 674 and 711 to 708, respectively. Kudos to Spectrum there, but again, neither provider's customer satisfaction numbers are impressive or dismal enough to sway me one way or the other.

CenturyLink versus Spectrum recap

If your address is only eligible for CenturyLink's DSL service and Spectrum is your alternative, I'd recommend going with Spectrum. Comparing CenturyLink's fiber service with Spectrum internet is a bit more tricky. For the absolute cheapest service, at least for the first year, Spectrum's entry-level plan will save you a bit on equipment fees. For high-speed internet, CenturyLink's gig plan will be lower-priced and faster than Spectrum's midtier and gig plans. Ultimately, neither provider requires a contract or other restrictive service terms, so if you're on the fence, feel free to try them out essentially risk-free.

Updated May 19, 2022 11:02 a.m. PT

Written by  David Anders
CNET staff -- not advertisers, partners or business interests -- determine how we review the products and services we cover. If you buy through our links, we may get paid. Reviews ethics statement
David Anders Senior Writer
David Anders is a senior writer for CNET covering broadband providers, smart home devices and security products. Prior to joining CNET, David built his industry expertise writing for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. In his 5 plus years covering broadband, David's work has been referenced by a variety of sources including ArcGIS, DIRECTV and more. David is from and currently resides in the Charlotte area with his wife, son and two cats.
Expertise Broadband providers, Home internet, Security Cameras
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