I’ve had high speed Internet for about as long as anyone in my ZIP code–as soon as DSL was available, I signed up and paid through the nose for it. It took a while for fiber optics to become an option, but I switched once I did. I’ve been a Southwestern Bell/AT&T customer for a good 20 years. Over the years I weighed AT&T vs Spectrum Internet. And for a while, I switched.
I switched to Spectrum in 2016, then back to AT&T in 2018. There are pros and cons to each of them, so I thought going through them might be helpful. Keep in mind Spectrum encompasses several legacy companies. Charter Communications started re-branding itself as Spectrum soon before it acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Of the three, only Bright House Networks had a good reputation. Hence the use of the new name.
AT&T vs Spectrum Internet: Speed
Spectrum advertises top speeds of 200 megabits in some areas, a gigabit in others, with the intent to roll gigabit out to its entire service area by the end of 2018.
AT&T’s offering can vary widely. from old-school DSL that tops out at around 11 megabits, to the former AT&T U Verse offering that offers speed ranges from 3 to 25 megabits, and AT&T Fiber, which offers speeds at 5, 50, 300, and gigabit. AT&T has recently rebranded all of this as AT&T Internet, although the specifics can vary.
I found that AT&T generally delivers 90-95 percent of its advertised speed most of the time. Charter Spectrum delivers closer to 80 percent. When Charter offers 200 megabits in your area and AT&T tops out at 25, the difference doesn’t matter. When both companies are competing on even ground or close to it, AT&T delivers more speed for your dollar.
There’s one more important distinction with AT&T Fiber. It’s the same speed in both directions, unlike earlier AT&T offerings and all of Charter’s offerings. With AT&T’s gigabit service, I can actually upload at speeds over 900 megabits. It’s amazing.
In my case, AT&T offers gigabit service in my neighborhood while Spectrum only offers its old 200 megabit service. The price is within $5, but the two don’t compare.
One caveat: There’s not a lot of point in shopping around if you end up buying a bigger, faster connection than you need. Here’s some advice on sizing your Internet connection. Both of them are likely to try to upsell you on connection speed, so it helps to go in with some idea how much you use.
Advantage: AT&T if Fiber is available. Otherwise, Spectrum.
AT&T vs Spectrum Internet: Data Caps
ISPs are immensely profitable, but they’re always looking for more. One way they look for more is by charging extra for certain ways of using the Internet, which is what net neutrality is all about. The other way is by charging extra for using it more, by imposing data caps.
AT&T has had data caps for years, but didn’t start enforcing them until 2016 and didn’t include a tool to measure your usage until after they started enforcing them, which is what drove me to talk to Spectrum in the first place.
AT&T’s data caps magically disappear if you buy TV service from them, or if you go with their gigabit tier. That should tell you what they’re trying to do–they don’t want you to be buying an Internet only plan and service from Netflix instead of buying TV service.
In the past, the cap was 300 GB, which is easy to break. Today, it’s 1 TB. During the summer when the whole family is home and streaming video or music most of the day and I’m VPN’ed into work, we can use over 300 GB. It would take a lot of work to bust that 1 TB cap. We’d have to stream a lot of 4K content, but I don’t think even that would do it.
Charter’s regulatory approval to merge with TWC prohibits data caps until 2023 or so. By then, the game may have changed. Or it’s possible Charter will merge again and extending that prohibition will be part of the deal. In the meantime, it’s an advantage. But not the advantage it once was.
AT&T vs Spectrum Internet: Throttling
Spectrum makes a big deal of saying they don’t throttle their Internet service. Maybe they don’t intentionally throttle. But in my experience, Zoom teleconferencing and streaming baseball with MLB.tv work so badly as to be nearly unusable. I don’t know what it is about those two services and why Charter’s infrastructure doesn’t like them, but they work much better on AT&T, even lower-speed AT&T services.
AT&T vs Spectrum Internet: Running a server
Charter’s terms of service on its home Internet plan prohibit running a server on a home account. AT&T blocks port 25 but other than that, it doesn’t care. If you want to run any kind of server, you’ll have to get a business account from Spectrum, which is more expensive, though not prohibitively so. But AT&T is much more reliable, and if you’re running a server, reliability is pretty important.
Plus, if you can get AT&T Fiber, having symmetric upload/download streams helps a ton with running a server.
AT&T vs Spectrum Internet: Reliability
In theory, AT&T should be more reliable since U-Verse and Fiber cables are underground, where they are better protected from the elements. In practice, a bad installer can ruin any inherent advantage.
That said, I had U-Verse for years and if I had any outages, they were brief enough that I didn’t notice them. In my first month with Spectrum I had an outage several hours long due to a storm. Then, in the spring of 2017, long outages became a weekly occurrence, even in nice weather. Even when I’m not seeing service trucks in the area, I’ve had to get used to frequent short outages (a few seconds in length). If it happens while I’m reading the newspaper, it’s no big deal. If it happens while I’m VPN’ed into work, it might be. Spectrum Business’ speed may be business grade, but its reliability isn’t. In mid-2018, Spectrum had an outage that affected much of the St. Louis area for nearly 24 hours and had no answers for me when I called. I mentioned I could get gigabit service from AT&T, and Spectrum still wouldn’t tell me what they planned to do to avoid a repeat.
There were a lot of things about U-Verse that I was unhappy about, but it was reliable. Its reliability put Charter to shame. U-Verse had become obsolete, but its fiber offering puts AT&T back in the game.
If you can get fiber from AT&T, it’s no contest. AT&T wins the AT&T vs Specrum Internet reliability battle by a landslide. If the fastest you can get from AT&T is 25 megabits, and reliability is paramount, you may want to settle for the slower speed from AT&T, especially if you work from home. There’s that much of a difference.
I actually went with a dual setup, with the fastest service I could get from one and the cheapest from the other, to get around Spectrum’s atrocious reliability.
AT&T vs Spectrum Internet: Customer Service
ISPs are legendary for providing terrible customer service. Time Warner Cable customers looked forward to the Charter merger because Time Warner Cable and Comcast provided the worst customer service in the country, not just the industry.
I’ve never been enamored with AT&T support. In the past, getting AT&T to admit to a problem was very difficult. Today their main saving grace is that they have a self-service support page that lets you take care of almost anything you could need yourself. And the service is reliable enough that you won’t need support very often.
Charter’s customer service is better than average, and I’m not talking ISP average. It’s better than average in general. When I’ve called them, they’ve done what they said they would, and once they notice that I seem to know what I’m talking about, they’ve generally been willing to put down the script. Their hold times are short. And when it takes them more than a few minutes to find an answer they apologize. They’re a long way from AT&T. Unfortunately, sometimes there’s nothing their customer service can do but apologize, and that’s pretty maddening.
When considering AT&T vs Spectrum Internet, not needing customer service is usually preferable. And I needed AT&T customer service about once every three years or so in the past. I needed Spectrum customer service about once every three months, and toward the end, they were increasingly powerless to help me. I’ll give the edge to Spectrum here, since I’m measuring support and I already gave AT&T credit for its reliability.
AT&T vs Spectrum: Phone
AT&T has a cheaper VOIP plan than Charter, but if you actually ever use your phone, you can expect to run into overages on the $20/month service. The two companies’ $30/month plans are more or less equal. Charter pushes their home phone service hard because it’s immensely profitable; if you want landline-like service I recommend you get an OBI 200 and connect it to Google Voice. You’ll save a fortune.
AT&T vs Spectrum: TV
I don’t make a lot of use of cable TV packages. My favorite baseball team is out of market so to watch them, I have no choice but to stream baseball through MLB.tv. I also prefer watching Netflix rather than tethering myself to someone else’s schedule.
You have to buy a traditional TV package to get out of AT&T’s data cap, or get its gigabit service. If you were going to buy a TV package anyway, this gets your AT&T’s more reliable service. Which company offers the better package is up to you to figure out though, as it can vary from area to area and there’s a lot of personal preference involved. If you’re thinking of using AT&T’s $35 DirecTV Now service to try to get your data cap eliminated, sorry. It doesn’t count. I looked into that. But if you get gigabit plus DirecTV Now, the overall value is better than what you get from Spectrum.
AT&T vs Spectrum: Installation fees
Neither company charged me an installation fee in 2016 or 2018. I had to pay a pretty hefty installation fee for AT&T U Verse way back when, but that was a number of years ago. Be sure to ask about installation fees, but as long as Charter Spectrum keeps shedding customers and AT&T smells blood, installation fees will probably stay off the table for both.
AT&T vs Spectrum: In conclusion
When both companies are bringing their A game, AT&T has clear advantages. AT&T’s gigabit service is faster than Spectrum’s gigabit service, and AT&T gives you that speed in both directions.
The problem is that neither company brings their A game, or even their B game, to all of their service areas. In mid-2018, for example, AT&T’s gigabit service is competing against Spectrum’s 200-megabit service. But I have friends whose choices are 200-megabit Spectrum vs 25-megabit AT&T. And some can only get sub-par Spectrum service, or sub-par AT&T service.
When all things are more or less equal, AT&T beats Spectrum, and beats it rather handily. But AT&T’s 25-megabit service is a hard sell against Spectrum’s 200-megabit service. I’d consider it, but I’d second-guess myself a lot. And AT&T’s 25-megabit service is a no-go against Spectrum’s gigabit service. You’ll curse Spectrum during its outages, but you’ll resent slow speeds all the time.
If the speeds are even close, get AT&T because the AT&T speeds will be better than they sound and the reliability will be rock solid. If AT&T doesn’t seem like it’s trying, go with Spectrum. But check again in six months. You might be glad you did.