CenturyLink vs. Cox: Which ISP Is Better for Your Home?

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If you’ve read any of CNET’s other ISP comparisons or checked out our breakdown of internet connection types, then you’ve probably picked up on the idea that a fiber connection is preferable to cable internet, and cable is a better option than DSL. That rule of thumb largely holds true when comparing home internet service from CenturyLink and Cox. CenturyLink’s fiber internet would be my pick over Cox and its cable network, but I’d have to go with Cox if CenturyLink’s DSL service were the only other reasonable internet option in my area.

That said, there may be a scenario where CenturyLink’s simple, low-cost DSL service makes more sense for your home than Cox. Or perhaps Cox, with its many plan options and unique add-on for online gaming, is the better choice over the limited high-speed internet options that come with CenturyLink’s fiber service. I’ll cover all the specifics of each provider below, including availability, plans and service details like contracts and data caps, to help you decide which is the best internet provider for your home. 

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CenturyLink offers two fiber plans: 200Mbps starting at $50 per month or gig service starting at $65 per month. Both plans are a better value than comparable plans from Cox, and give much faster upload speeds. 

Unfortunately, less than a quarter of households in CenturyLink service areas are wired for fiber service, according to the latest data from the Federal Communications Commission. Everyone else will have to rely on CenturyLink’s copper, aka DSL, network. As a DSL service, CenturyLink is faster than most, capable of delivering download speeds up to 140Mbps in select areas, but actual speeds will depend on your address.

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Read our CenturyLink review.



Cox Communications

As a cable internet provider, Cox can essentially offer the same plans in all service areas, though exact speeds and pricing may vary slightly from one market to another. Either way, Cox typically has five or six plans to choose from along with lots of bundle options if you want to get internet and TV together. Speed tiers generally include three slower plans  — 25Mbps, 50Mbps and 150Mbps — followed by a jump to 500Mbps and then to gigabit service. 

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Compared to other major cable internet providers, Cox pricing skews a bit high, even more so if you opt for no contract, as the lowest promotional pricing comes with a one-year service agreement.

Read our Cox internet review.


Cox Communications

Map of the US showing coverage of CenturyLink and Cox

CenturyLink boasts a significantly larger coverage area (orange) than Cox (blue). 


CenturyLink and Cox serviceability

Despite being the third largest cable internet provider in the US, Cox has a relatively small coverage area with service mostly reserved to a few cities. CenturyLink has a significantly larger coverage area than Cox, but serves as more of a suburban and rural internet provider via its DSL network. 

Though CenturyLink and Cox generally operate in different regions, there are a few locations where serviceability overlaps between the two, including:

  • Phoenix, Arizona
  • Fayetteville, Arkansas
  • Fort Smith, Arkansas
  • Topeka, Kansas
  • Wichita, Kansas
  • Lafayette, Louisiana
  • Omaha, Nebraska
  • Las Vegas, Nevada

Again, less than a quarter of CenturyLink’s network is fiber-optic, but if you’re going to be eligible for fiber internet, it’s likely going to be in a city where the greater population density can deliver a better return on the high cost of installing fiber lines. Consequently, if both ISPs are available at your address, there’s a decent chance you’ll be deciding between Cox’s cable and CenturyLink’s fiber plans. 

CenturyLink versus Cox plans and pricing

Cox’s cable network gives it the flexibility to offer a number of speed tiers, including a decent prepaid internet plan. While fiber-optic lines present the same speed potential or better, CenturyLink’s fiber service does not offer quite the same speed or plan variety as Cox. Options are further limited for CenturyLink DSL customers, who may only have one speed available.

CenturyLink internet plans

Plan Starting monthly price Max speeds Equipment fee Data cap
Simply Unlimited (DSL) $50 140Mbps down, 40Mbps up $15 (skippable) 1TB
Fiber 200 $50 200Mbps down, 200Mbps up $15 (skippable) 1TB
Fiber Gigabit $65 940Mbps down, 940Mbps up None 1TB

CenturyLink doesn’t do promotional pricing, so there’s no guaranteed price increase after 12 months or other predetermined period. That’s not to say your price won’t ever go up, but there isn’t a looming price increase to look forward to down the road.

Another thing to note with CenturyLink, particularly the DSL service, is that available speeds vary by location. So while 140Mbps is the max offered, your address may only be eligible for speeds of say, 40Mbps. 

Only around 28% of households can get CenturyLink DSL speeds of 100Mbps or higher. Roughly a third may not even be eligible for speeds that could be considered broadband (25Mbps down, 3Mbps up). Unfortunately, the starting monthly price is the same regardless of the available speed at your address.

Cox internet plans

Plan Starting monthly price Standard rate (after 12 months) Max speeds Equipment fee Data cap
Starter 25 $30 $45 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up $13 (skippable) 1.25TB
Essential 50 $40 $66 50Mbps down, 3Mbps up $13 (skippable) 1.25TB
Preferred 150 $60 $84 150Mbps down, 10Mbps up $13 (skippable) 1.25TB
Ultimate 500 $80 $100 500Mbps down, 10Mbps up $13 (skippable) 1.25TB
Gigablast $100 $120 940Mbps down, 35Mbps up $13 (skippable) 1.25TB

Cox plans come with a one-year contract if you want the lowest introductory pricing (listed above). While you can opt for no contract, Cox will charge an extra $10 or more each month for the first year, adding to rates that are already somewhat high.

Compared with rival cable internet providers Spectrum and Xfinity, Cox has a higher overall cost per megabit per second — an indicator of what you get versus what you pay — than both. Cox internet plans have an average cost per Mbps of 53 cents in the first year and 80 cents after standard pricing kicks in. Xfinity plans average at 25 cents in year one, 39 cents with standard pricing and Spectrum is even lower at 15 cents in year one, 25 cents thereafter.

But how Cox compares with other cable internet providers on pricing doesn’t really matter — we’re here to compare Cox and CenturyLink. Compared with CenturyLink’s fiber service, Cox’s average cost will be higher (53 cents compared with just 16 cents with CenturyLink). There’s also the price increase to consider, as Cox plans are guaranteed to go up after the first year while CenturyLink’s may not.

As for Cox versus CenturyLink’s DSL service, you’ll likely find Cox to be the better value. DSL plans from CenturyLink average out to a dollar per Mbps — not bad for DSL service, but obviously higher than the average pricing with Cox. That said, if your home is eligible for CenturyLink’s fastest DSL plans of 100Mbps or higher, the starting price of $50 per month may be a better deal than Cox’s three lowest speed tiers, especially after the first year of service.

Keep in mind, that’s just a comparison of average cost per Mbps between the two providers. If you want the absolute cheapest internet connection possible, you’ll get that with Cox’s Internet Starter or Essential plans, both of which come with a lower starting price point than CenturyLink. 

Comparing CenturyLink and Cox service details

Pricing and speeds are certainly the two most important factors when comparing ISPs, but you’ll want to be mindful of what else comes with service before committing to one over the other. Here’s what to expect as far as added fees, contract requirements and data caps from each.

Wi-Fi equipment and fees

Both providers offer equipment rental and will provide a gateway device suitable for your plan and connection type. Cox’s equipment rental fee comes in a bit cheaper at $13 per month compared with CenturyLink’s fee of $15, but it’s worth noting that CenturyLink includes equipment at no extra cost with its gigabit plan.

Both providers give you the option to use your own compatible equipment and skip the monthly fee. Just know that doing so could mean limited technical support from your provider, not to mention the upfront costs of purchasing a new router if you don’t already own one.

Contracts and data caps

You don’t have to sign a contract with either provider, but whereas CenturyLink simply doesn’t require contracts at all, Cox requires customers to sign a one-year contract to get the lowest introductory pricing. If you do sign a one-year service agreement with Cox and cancel service before it’s up, expect an early termination fee of $120, regardless of how long is left in your contract when you cancel. 

You can also expect overage fees from Cox for exceeding your data allowance. All Cox plans come with a monthly data cap of 1.25TB, which is actually a lot of data — during a period of the pandemic the average home used less than half of that, around 435GB per month. But with heavy HD and 4K streaming, along with connecting numerous devices, that 1.25TB limit is certainly within reach. Should you go over more than once (the first incident is free of charge, courtesy of Cox), you’ll be charged $10 per 50GB block of data you go over, up to a max of $100.

CenturyLink plans also come with a data cap, 1TB per month, but there is no fee for going over. You’ll still want to be somewhat mindful of your data usage, however, as frequent or excessive overages could violate CenturyLink’s terms of service and excessive use policy.

Chart of ISPs by customer satisfaction with AT&T, Verizon Fios and Xfinity (Comcast) as the top three

American Customer Satisfaction Index

Customer satisfaction numbers are average at best

What do actual CenturyLink and Cox customers think of their service? American Customer Satisfaction Index scores indicate the two providers fare about the same, and slightly below the industry average. In 2021, Cox had the slight advantage with a 63/100 compared with CenturyLink’s 62, but CenturyLink outscored Cox the previous year 63 to 61. Call it a draw.

JD Power also shows some back and forth in customer satisfaction between the two providers. In 2021, Cox led CenturyLink in the South region with a score of 707/1,000 compared with CenturyLink’s 674, but in the West region, CenturyLink fared better with a score of 708 to Cox’s 696. 

Either way, both providers fell below the industry average with both the ACSI and JD Power, so it seems both providers have room for improvement. 

CenturyLink vs. Cox recap

When comparing CenturyLink versus Cox, the better provider for your home will probably come down to which CenturyLink connection type is available at your address. If that’s fiber, CenturyLink will offer more speed for the money along with the inherent advantages fiber-optic has over cable, such as superior reliability and symmetrical upload and download speeds. On the other hand, if your address is only available for DSL service, Cox will be your best bet for speeds over 100Mbps and better value overall. Just be prepared to sign a one-year contract to get the lowest pricing.

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