Tech Break – CenturyLink vs. Xfinity

People checking their mail lately have probably received some sort of promotional notice from the telephone company. The promo card likely mentioned $14.99 per month Internet access (with purchase of a phone line) and has a green color scheme, an aesthetic change representing recent transitions.

What was Qwest is now CenturyLink, a telephone company that has grown by acquisition from its rural roots to be third-largest in the US (behind AT&T and Verizon) in just a few years. These changes in promotion might lead you to think that CenturyLink’s underlying product is in some way different from what Qwest’s was six months ago. It is not, or at least not yet.

Those who check their mail may have also received notices touting “xfinity” Internet, TV, and telephone service, proving it does not take an acquisition for a company (in this case, Comcast) to change their branding. Comcast, thanks to a relatively advanced cable network, has upped speeds and prices for its line of communications products. Whether they offer good bang-for-the-buck is up for debate.

The real question, however, is how these two ISPs match up; off-campus students will want to get Internet service from one or the other so they can check Facebook, submit assignments to Blackboard and watch TV shows and movies via Hulu or Netflix. Should they choose the newly-repainted telephone company or the cable guys? The answer depends on location and how important fast surfing is to them.

CenturyLink is, in most cases, the least expensive option, and it is available in places that Comcast is not. CenturyLink advertises that they offer “Internet access as fast as their network can provide” at a customer’s location for $30 per month for the first six months that customer is with them; the service costs less if bundled with a landline phone, though that will appeal to few.

The $30 price makes two assumptions, however. First, customers need to buy their own modem and router ($60-$80 online); if they want to lease a modem from CenturyLink, it will be another $7 per month. Second, customers need to live with the speeds that CenturyLink provides to their location; in Golden, their top speed is advertised as 12 Mbps (megabits per second) down, 896 kbps (kilobits per second) up. Many areas are limited to 7, 5, 3, or even 1.5 Mbps for download speeds, with no decrease in price (though after the first six months are up, customers will be paying $40-$45 instead of $50 per month for Internet service). To add insult to injury, CenturyLink does not provision their ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) service high enough to deliver advertised speeds. Network overhead drops actual speeds by roughly 15%. This means that downloads on the fastest DSL in Golden will top out at around 10 Mbps, and uploads on any tier will sit around 700 kbps, not 896.

Comcast angles for the other side of the price-performance spectrum. Their standard “Performance” tier (12 Mbps down, 2 Mbps up) may be available for $20 per month to start out, but that price requires digital cable TV. Internet-only service is available at that tier for $40 per month for awhile, plus a $100 installation charge and the requirement to either buy a modem and router ($80-$140 depending on the tier picked) or lease both from Comcast for $8 per month, plus sales tax. The normal price for Performance is $60 per month, plus modem lease fees if needed.

The big advantage of Comcast over CenturyLink is speed and, in many cases, reliability. Comcast does sell a 1.5 Mbps down, 384 kbps up tier for $35 per month and a 6 Mbps down, 1 Mpbs up tier for $50 (the same speed that it offered at that price point three years ago). However, its focus is on much higher speeds (and prices). The Blast tier, which is heavily promoted these days, offers 20 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up for $70 per month, $10 over the cost of Performance. For those with money to burn, 50 Mbps down, 10 Mbps up service is around $120 per month and 105 Mbps down, 10 Mbps up is $200 (plus a $250 installation fee), though both tiers are significantly less expensive when bundled with TV. All of the above speeds are actual speeds seen on extended downloads; Comcast over-provisions their tiers to make sure of this. Comcast’s PowerBoost system kicks speeds up further on the first few seconds of a download or upload, making photo and video uploads a bit less painful.

The catch with Comcast’s residential tiers is that they have a 250GB cap. Going over once by a few dozen gigabytes will result in a call from Comcast. Another offense will require finding another ISP for the next twelve months. Comcast offers Business Class service with no caps, but the service tends to cost more for a given speed than its residential equivalent (the notable exception being the 12 Mbps down, 2 Mbps up service). Depending on the contract term (a contract is required), there may also be a hefty installation fee for business-class service. But for those who want high speeds with no caps, Comcast Business is the only choice (CenturyLink does not cap network usage but Comcast’s speeds pick up where CenturyLink’s leave off).

In summary, Comcast Internet is fast and expensive, while CenturyLink is slower and cheaper. The calculation changes a bit if one buys TV with Comcast or phone service with CenturyLink, but DSL with phone service is no faster than DSL without it. Performance seekers are dependent on the cable company at this point. This may change as CenturyLink upgrades infrastructure, deploying services via two phone lines instead of one, but these upgrades may take awhile to implement. In the meanwhile, customers should pick whichever ISP fits their needs and price sensitivity now. Neither provider requires contracts for Internet-only service, and students can always go on-campus for whiplash-inducing broadband speeds.

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