AT&T vs. Spectrum: Which is best for your home internet connection? – CNET

We’ve got a couple of options for getting online here in Louisville, Kentucky, but two of the top providers for people to choose between are AT&T and Spectrum. Derby City isn’t alone in this regard — AT&T and Spectrum are two of the nation’s largest home internet providers, and coverage from the two companies overlaps throughout much of the South and Midwest, as well as in parts of Texas and California.

All told, each provider offers service to more than a third of the US population, so that means that there are an awful lot of us choosing between AT&T and Spectrum for our home’s internet connection. If that sounds like you, and you’re looking for a quick breakdown of how the two providers stack up, you’re in the exact right place — keep reading for a look at each company’s coverage map, plans, prices, terms, fees, customer service track records and more.

Ry Crist/CNET

If they’re available in your area, AT&T’s fiber plans are pretty hard to beat, value-wise. Even with AT&T’s equipment fee factored in, you’d be paying less per megabit each month for each of the company’s three fiber plans in Year Two, after the price has gone up, than you’d pay for the corresponding Spectrum plan in Year One, when you’re still getting the promo rate. That impressive value is a big part of the reason why we named AT&T as our top overall fiber internet provider for 2021.

Read our AT&T home internet review.

Ry Crist/CNET

If AT&T Fiber is unavailable at your address, Spectrum is likely to offer the better value. None of Spectrum’s plans will cost you more than 38 cents per megabit after the first year. For comparison, AT&T’s ADSL and fixed wireless plans have a much higher price per megabit. The AT&T Internet 100 plan, which tops out with download speeds of 100Mbps, is the only one that keeps the price per megabit below $1 after the 12-month promo period ends. You’ll also have a lower equipment fee with Spectrum, which includes a modem at no extra cost and charges only $5 per month to rent a router.

Read our Spectrum home internet review.


Where do Spectrum and AT&T offer home internet service?

Though they aren’t available everywhere — well-established satellite providers like Viasat and HughesNet are the only ISPs that can make that claim — both AT&T and Spectrum offer coverage in multiple regions throughout the US. 

On AT&T’s end, the map stretches through 21 states, with service focused across the Gulf Coast and up through the Great Lakes, as well as much of California. With Spectrum’s sprawling cable empire, you’ll find service available in parts of 41 states — all of them, except for Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Utah (as well as Washington, DC). Note that Hawaii isn’t on that list — Spectrum does, in fact, provide internet service to the Aloha State.

Plans, speeds and monthly costs

Time for the nuts and bolts. Both AT&T and Spectrum offer a variety of plans throughout their respective coverage areas. Spectrum’s offerings are pretty straightforward, so let’s start there.

Spectrum Internet Plans and Pricing

Plan Max download speeds Max upload speeds First-year promo rate Standard rate (after 12 months) Additional monthly fees
Spectrum Internet 200Mbps 10Mbps $50 $75 $5 equipment rental fee (skippable)
Spectrum Internet Ultra 400Mbps 20Mbps $65 $95 $5 equipment rental fee (skippable)
Spectrum Internet Gig 940Mbps 35Mbps $105 $135 $5 equipment rental fee (skippable)

As you can see, you’ll find three plans to pick from with Spectrum, with download speeds ranging from 200 megabits per second up to 940Mbps (in roughly 15% of its coverage area, the entry-level speed will be 100Mbps, Spectrum says). Note that the upload speeds are much slower — that’s a quirk of cable internet, which usually doesn’t offer matching, concurrent upload and download speeds like a fiber connection will.

Spectrum plans don’t require any contracts, but your monthly price will go up by $25 or $30 after the first year, which is a pretty steep jump. On the plus side, Spectrum’s internet plans don’t come with many additional fees, save for the relatively low $5 equipment rental fee, which you can skip altogether if you’re using your own router.

AT&T Internet Plans and Pricing

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

The list of AT&T plans is a lot longer, because AT&T uses a mix of technologies to deliver different plans in different parts of its coverage map. At the end of 2019, the FCC listed AT&T as providing a high-speed fiber connection to about 30% of its customers. An AT&T spokesperson tells CNET that the company’s fiber footprint has grown since then, but wouldn’t share a more up-to-date figure. 

For regions where fiber is unavailable, AT&T offers a much slower DSL hybrid service called ADSL that augments the traditional phone-line approach with copper cabling. AT&T also offers fixed wireless service in some parts of the country.

That methodological mix means that AT&T’s speeds, plans and prices will vary wildly depending on your location. If AT&T fiber is available in your area, you could sign up for concurrent upload and download speeds of 300Mbps for $35 per month during the first year of service. That’s half as much as you’d pay for AT&T’s fixed wireless plan, with download speeds that top out at 10Mbps and uploads that only hit 1Mbps. Meanwhile, AT&T ADSL subscribers will start at $45 per month regardless of the actual speed that’s available at their address. Depending on the location, that speed could be anything from 10Mbps to 100Mbps.

Like with Spectrum, AT&T internet plans don’t require contracts, but the price will go up after 12 months. The jump is less severe than you’ll see with Spectrum, though — expect to pay an additional $10 per month after the first year for an AT&T ADSL plan, and an extra $20 per month after the first year for AT&T fiber. Another point of note: Though you’re free to plug your own router into it, you must use AT&T’s modem/router gateway device, and that means you can’t skip the $10 equipment rental fee.

What other terms and fees should I expect?

I already mentioned the equipment rental fees, but I’ll resummarize them in case you’re skimming: Spectrum plans come with a free modem, but you’ll need to pay an extra $5 per month to rent a router that lets you connect wirelessly over Wi-Fi. You can skip the fee if you swap in a router of your own. Meanwhile, AT&T charges an extra $10 per month to rent out a combination modem-router gateway device — and you have to use it, meaning you can’t skip the fee at all.

Beyond that, here’s a quick run-through on the rest of the fine print.

Installation and activation fees

Spectrum temporarily suspended in-home professional installation due to the pandemic, so the typical installation fee of $50 (or an eyebrow-raising $200 for the already-pricey Internet Gig plan) doesn’t currently apply. Instead, new customers can request a self-installation kit for $10. There’s also an additional, one-time Wi-Fi activation fee of $10, which feels arbitrary.

AT&T charges $99 for professional installation, though the company often waives this fee as part of its promotions. You can also request a self-installation kit, but it isn’t available at every address, so you’ll need to check for eligibility.

Data caps

Spectrum doesn’t enforce data caps on any of its plans, so you can surf, stream and download to your heart’s content without fear of incurring a fee or seeing your speeds throttled. Give Spectrum a gold star for that, I say — especially since data caps are definitely a thing with other cable internet providers, namely Comcast Xfinity and Cox.

As for AT&T, the company boasts unlimited data with its fiber plans, which is great — but ADSL and fixed wireless customers aren’t so lucky. With those plans, AT&T enforces a data cap of 1 terabyte (1,000GB). Once you use more data than that in a given month, you’ll start incurring charges of $10 for every 50GB of excess, up to a maximum penalty of $100.

The good news is that there are ways to dodge this data cap. Your first option is to pay an extra $30 per month to upgrade your plan with unlimited data. The second (and for most customers, better) option is to get unlimited data at no extra charge by opting for AT&T’s home internet and TV bundle. I’m not handing out a gold star sticker for that, but it’s something.

AT&T gets strong marks in customer satisfaction from the ACSI.

American Customer Satisfaction Index

How do AT&T and Spectrum’s customer service records compare?

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which runs yearly surveys across a variety of product and service categories to gauge — you guessed it — customer satisfaction, the ISP category is trending in the right direction, overall. On the whole, customer satisfaction with their internet provider came in at 65 out of 100 in 2020, which was up 3 points from the year before. 

So how did our two providers of note finish? AT&T earned an above average score of 68, which was second only to Verizon. Spectrum, meanwhile, came in just below average with a score of 63. That’s four points higher than the company’s score in 2019, which might indicate some positive momentum, but there’s still a bit of work to do, it seems.

Separate customer satisfaction data from JD Power & Associates seems to back that up. In the company’s 2020 study of ISP satisfaction, Spectrum finished with a below average score in each region polled. Meanwhile, AT&T finished with the top score among all ISPs surveyed in the North Central, West and South regions, and an overall average of 751 out of 1,000. Spectrum’s best finish was in the South, where it earned a score of 732, just beneath the regional average of 738.

Summing it all up

AT&T and Spectrum both offer home internet service to a significant percentage of the US population, and their footprints overlap in several regions. If you’re choosing between the two, be sure to check whether or not AT&T offers fiber connections at your address. If it does, those will offer you the best upload and download speeds at the best price. If not, you’ll likely be better off with Spectrum, as AT&T’s ADSL and fixed wireless plans aren’t a great value, and come with a monthly data cap to boot.