CenturyLink vs. Comcast Xfinity: Which is better for your home internet?


Ry Crist/CNET

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.

Fortunately, we’re here to help you make sense of it all. Keep reading for all of the key details on what each provider offers, including plans, prices, terms, speeds and customer satisfaction track records.

CenturyLink and Comcast Xfinity each offer home internet service in a majority of US states.


FCC/Mapbox

Two coverage maps with lots of 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 state.

Metro regions with the greatest 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.

What kinds of connections does each provider offer?

CenturyLink connects its customers using digital subscriber line, or DSL, a relatively slow mode of internet that passes your internet traffic through telephone lines. However, some locations also have access to fiber internet plans, which use ground laid fiberoptic cable to pass data at much higher speeds. According to data shared with the FCC in 2020, those faster plans were available across about 38% of the company’s coverage map last year, which was up from 24% the year before. CenturyLink tells CNET that it’s currently working to expand 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 2021,” a spokesperson for CenturyLink parent company Lumen tells CNET.

With Comcast Xfinity, you’ll connect to the internet using a coaxial cable hookup. Cable connections like those are capable of hitting 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.

Plans, speeds and prices

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:

CenturyLink home internet plans

Plan Max speeds Monthly cost Equipment fees Data cap
Simply Unlimited 20 20Mbps download, 2Mbps upload $50 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None
Simply Unlimited 40 40Mbps download, 5Mbps upload $50 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None
Simply Unlimited 60 60Mbps download, 7Mbps upload $50 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None
Simply Unlimited 80 80Mbps download, 10Mbps upload $50 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None
Simply Unlimited 100 100Mbps download, 12Mbps upload $50 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None
Simply Unlimited 120 120Mbps download, 30Mbps upload $50 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None
Simply Unlimited 140 140Mbps download, 40Mbps upload $50 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None
Quantum Fiber 200 200Mbps download, 200Mbps upload $50 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None
Quantum Fiber Gigabit 940Mbps download, 940Mbps upload $65 $15 for modem/router rental (optional) None

There are a few things in that list of plans that 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 — particularly the $65 Gigabit plan. For comparison, a gigabit fiber plan from Verizon will cost you $90 per month, and with upload speeds that are a bit lower than CenturyLink’s, to boot. Meanwhile, a gigabit fiber plan from AT&T will cost you $60 per month during the first year of promo pricing, but that price jumps up to $80 after your first 12 months.

Speaking of which, that’s the next point of note — CenturyLink doesn’t use promo pricing at all. That means that you won’t find any year-one discounts designed to tempt you into signing up, but it also means that 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 bill 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:

Xfinity home internet plans (West division)

Plan Max speeds First-year promo rate Regular rate (after promo period) Equipment fee Data cap Term agreement
Performance Starter Plus 50Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $20 $50 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 1 year
Performance Select 100Mbps download, 5Mbps upload $35 $55 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) None required
Performance Pro Plus 200Mbps download, 5Mbps upload $50 $70 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) None required
Blast! Pro Plus 400Mbps download, 10Mbps upload $65 $80 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) None required
Extreme Pro Plus 800Mbps download, 15Mbps upload $75 $90 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) None required
Gigabit 1,200Mbps download, 35Mbps upload $85 $100 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) None required
Gigabit Pro 2,000Mbps download, 2,000Mbps upload N/A $300 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 2 years

Xfinity home internet plans (Central division)

Plan Max speeds First-year promo rate Regular rate (after promo period) Equipment fee Data cap Term agreement
Performance Starter 50Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $25 $56 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 1 year
Performance 100Mbps download, 5Mbps upload $40 $76 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 1 year
Blast! 200Mbps download, 5Mbps upload $50 $86 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 1 year
Extreme 400Mbps download, 10Mbps upload $50 $96 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 1 year
Extreme Pro 800Mbps download, 15Mbps upload $60 $106 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 2 years
Gigabit 1,200Mbps download, 35Mbps upload $70 $116 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 2 years
Gigabit Pro 2,000Mbps download, 2,000Mbps upload N/A $300 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 2 years

Xfinity home internet plans (Northeast division)

Plan Max speeds First-year promo rate Regular rate (after promo period) Equipment fee Data cap Term agreement
Performance Starter 50Mbps download, 3Mbps upload N/A $65 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) None required
Performance 100Mbps download, 5Mbps upload N/A $40 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) None required
Performance Pro 200Mbps download, 5Mbps upload $55 $96 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) None required
Blast! 400Mbps download, 10Mbps upload $60 $101 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 1 year
Extreme Pro 800Mbps download, 15Mbps upload $70 $106 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 1 year
Gigabit 1,200Mbps download, 35Mbps upload $80 $111 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 2 years
Gigabit Pro 2,000Mbps download, 2,000Mbps upload N/A $300 $14 gateway rental (optional) Yes (1.2TB) 2 years

As the trio of charts would indicate, Comcast Xfinity offers a different set of 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 $50 to $115 per month, with download speeds of up to 1,200Mbps. Comcast also offers a $300 Gigabit Pro plan that uses fiber-to-the-home hookups to deliver symmetrical upload and download speeds of up to 2,000Mbps (2Gbps), but it’s only available in select regions, and 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 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.

So which is the best value?

Across both providers, the best value is clearly 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 West region ($85 per month for the first year, $100 per month after that). After that first year of discounts, the regular rate comes out to about 8 cents per Mbps.

Tell me more about those terms and fees

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:

comcast-xfi-advanced-gateway-wi-fi-6-router

You’ll need to pay $14 per month to rent Comcast’s Xfi Gateway, which combines a modem and router into one device. You can add range-extending Xfi Pods for $120 each, or you can skip the equipment fee altogether by using your own modem and router.


Comcast

Equipment fees

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.

Installation fees

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 a bit 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.

Did I mention a data cap?

I sure did. Specifically, that’d be the 1.2TB data cap enforced by Comcast across all Xfinity internet plans. 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 — or 1,200GB — 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.

Comcast might hold you to a contract, too

With certain Xfinity plans, you’ll need to agree to a service contract of either one or two years. The contracts vary from region to region, so make sure to understand the specific options available in your area. For instance, the 800Mbps Extreme Pro plan comes with a two year contract in Comcast’s Central region, a one year contract in the Northeast and no contract at all in the West.

Cancelling your Xfinity service before your contract is up will result in an early termination fee. With a one year contract, the fee 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 clearly the more appealing provider of the two as far as terms are concerned.

Comcast Xfinity is ranked in the top three for customer satisfaction among internet providers, as per the ACSI. CenturyLink comes in a little below average for the category.


American Customer Satisfaction Index

What about customer satisfaction?

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. In fact, 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. Trailing only AT&T and Verizon. CenturyLink, on the other hand, 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.

JD Power runs studies on ISP customer satisfaction, as well. Its most recent report, from 2020, seems to echo the ACSI’s findings. Comcast averaged an overall score of 731 out of 1,000 across four separate regions. The company finished in second place in three of those regions, and in third place in the fourth region, the West. Meanwhile, CenturyLink earned scores of 704 in the South and 716 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.


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And the winner is…

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 still 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 that you’re getting a lot more bang for your internet buck. Just be mindful of those contracts — if fiber ever arrives in your area (from CenturyLink or from any other provider), then you’ll be wise to consider making the switch.

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