When shopping for high-speed internet, you may feel overwhelmed by the different options. You may not know what to think about upload speeds, download speeds, DSL, cable, fiber, and more. What does it all mean? What is best for you? This complete guide will help you understand the key differences between broadband services, internet plans, and more.
DSL vs. Cable vs. Fiber: The Basics
Most high-speed internet connections still go through some kind of cable. Wires are a sensible medium since they are very efficient and widely available. The most common high-speed internet connections are DSL, cable, and fiber.
- DSL (Digital Subscriber Line): DSL uses telephone landlines to deliver internet connection. Unlike dial-up service, it does not interfere with phone service. Speeds are better than the old dial-up system, but DSL is the slowest of the modern options.
- Cable: Instead of a telephone landline, cable Internet uses your home’s coaxial cable, which likely connects you to your TV service as well. Cable internet is widely available, and the connection speed is fast enough to satisfy most customers.
- Fiber (Fiber-optic Line): Fiber-optic is the fastest option on the market since it transmits data using light, not electricity. That means data is literally sent at the speed of light. Fiber speeds are very attractive, but fiber internet service is not widely available.
DSL vs. Cable vs. Fiber: Speeds Overview
The fastest option is not necessarily the best option for you. Instead, you should consider how much Internet speed you need. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recommends internet speeds of 12-25 Mbps for households with multiple Internet users or for frequent online streaming. Even gamers can enjoy a consistently good gaming experience at those speeds. If you work from home and frequently run large file transfers, it’s recommended you jump to 40+ Mbps.
Frankly, the FFC’s recommended speeds are a little low. The FCC bases its recommendation on the speeds that various popular companies like Netflix and Skype recommend to use for their services. It’s a good idea to go a little above and beyond these recommendations since internet speeds may perform slower at home than advertised. Plus, using multiple devices at the same time and other technical factors, like “peak use” times, can also slow down your connection.
What is the difference between download vs. upload speeds?
Think of download as data coming in and upload as data going out. The download speed is how fast data is transferred from your server to you; whereas, upload speed is how fast you can transfer data to your server. Download speed is most important for Internet users who mainly surf the Internet, download files, and stream videos or music. Upload speed is particularly important for people who frequently send emails and files to other people, have live video chats, or are into online gaming.
Typical Download and Upload Speeds for DSL, Cable, and Fiber
|Internet Connection||Download Speeds||Upload Speeds|
|DSL||5-35 Mbps||1-10 Mbps|
|Cable||10-500 Mbps||5-50 Mbps|
|Fiber||250-1,000 Mbps||250-1,000 Mbps|
As you can see, according to the FCC’s recommendations, most households should be able to get by on DSL internet service. But, in reality, most households would experience Internet lag, buffering, and even interrupted service with DSL. DSL is also not a good option for gamers or people who work from a home office since the upload speeds are lacking.
Cable internet is a safe choice for most households. Both download and upload speeds can easily accommodate the majority of households, even if multiple devices are being used at the same time. Cable can also comfortably support gaming and home offices.
Seeing the fiber speeds probably made your eyes bulge. At 250-1,000 Mbps, fiber offers speeds that are 10-40x faster than the recommended rate. You will never see a spinning loading circle or buffering bar again. Fiber is overkill for most internet users, but that doesn’t mean consumers don’t want it anyway.
Internet Connection 101: How Does Internet Service Connection Work?
Before going into more detail about the pros and cons of DSL vs. cable vs. Internet service, let’s run through a quick Internet 101 lesson. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t understand how the internet works or how it connects to our homes. There’s no need to understand than gritty details, but hopefully, this helps convey the basic idea.
Some try to compare the internet to a tree, but that’s too simplistic. Instead, visualize the human body. Picture the central nervous system, like the brain and the spinal cord, as the internet servers and main network. The brain is the Internet server, and the spine is the main fiber optic cables that transmit data between cities, countries, and continents.
Then, you have the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is the nerves that branch out and send signals to the arms, legs, fingers, and toes. In our metaphor, the internet service providers we choose are the nerves that send signals from the backbone to our neighborhoods, houses, and rooms. DSL “nerve signals” are a bit sluggish, cable “nerve signals” are healthy, and fiber-optic “nerve signals” are in their prime.
The backbone of the internet is carried almost exclusively over fiber networks. Once it reaches your city or your neighborhood, or what’s known as the “Last Mile,” the types of connections vary. The consumer Internet companies that provide DSL, cable, fiber, etc. are thus known as “Last Mile Providers.” These last couple miles between your house and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) can slow internet connection considerably depending on the type of connection.
DSL Internet Summary
DSL is typically the slowest of the three main broadband options. DSL uses your telephone landline but uses a separate frequency than your phone as to not interrupt phone service. DSL download speeds usually range from 5-35 Mbps. Some DSL providers offer DSL speed tiers as fast as 12 Mbps, 20 Mbps, and even 45 Mbps. However, the slowest, cheapest cable or fiber option usually outperforms the fastest, most expensive DSL service.
- Widely available, including rural areas
- Affordable compared with fiber optic or satellite service
- Only one step above dial-up internet
- Slower than cable or fiber
- DSL Providers typically over-advertise their download speeds
Cable Internet Summary
As the name suggests, cable Internet service uses cable wire to deliver your high-speed internet. Typically, cable Internet connects through the same coaxial cable your TV provider uses. Cable services are usually offered in speed tiers, with an overall range of 10-500 Mbps. Some providers, start their plans at 100 Mbps, which exceeds most household needs. Lower speed tiers are available elsewhere, but sometimes there is more value in the basic higher-speed plans.
Cable Internet Pros
- Faster than DSL
- Possibly faster than fiber-optic, depending on your plan
- Speeds are usually close to as advertised
- Widely available
- More expensive than DSL
- May only have one service provider in your area
Fiber-optic Internet Summary
Fiber internet technology uses light to deliver data instead of electricity. As a result, it can provide the fastest download and upload speeds. Though currently the fastest internet option, cable technology is quickly advancing and closing the gap.
Fiber has a huge range when it comes to speed and is mostly dependent on your geographic location. Download speeds range from 250-1,000 Mbps, which overlaps with cable speeds. Upload speeds are typically faster than cable, and some companies can match upload speeds to download speeds.
- Faster download speeds than DSL, and possibly cable
- Fastest upload speeds
- Speeds are usually close to as advertised
- Not widely available
- More expensive than DSL, and possibly cable
Other Internet Options
DSL, cable, and fiber are the three main broadband options for the internet. There are a few other viable options, though they are not as popular. These options include satellite, dial-up, tethering and hot spots, and mobile broadband.
Households with multiple internet users can stream, game, and run home offices using satellite internet. However, satellite internet service is generally slower and more expensive than cable and fiber. But sometimes satellite internet is the only option aside from dial-up that is available, especially in rural areas.
Believe it or not, dial-up Internet is not a thing of the past. Verizon, which now owns AOL, reported in 2015 that more than 2.1 million people still subscribe to dial-up. Dial-up may be ridiculously slow, but it could suffice for people who hardly use the Internet and don’t stream entertainment. Dial-up comes with a tiny price tag that could be as low as $7 per month.
Tethering and Hot Spots
Tethering and hot spots piggyback on your mobile phone service to connect to the internet. With tethering, you connect a USB cable from your phone to your computer. With a mobile hotspot, you can connect via a USB cable, Bluetooth, or WiFi. Using your cellular data connection is a viable option if you hardly use the internet. If you do more than send an occasional email or basic web browsing, you run the risk of exceeding your cell phone’s data plan.
Mobile broadband also connects to cellular networks, but not through your phone. Instead, it uses a separate mobile hot spot or wireless modem to connect your device to the internet. Mobile broadband packages are designed a lot like cell phone plans where you pay for a set number of gigabytes each month. Mobile broadband limits the amount of data you can use and can be quite pricey. But it can be nifty if you are traveling or if you want to take your internet wherever you go.
DSL vs. Cable vs. Fiber: Which Should I Get?
Once you figure out what internet providers (or provider) serve your area, you can then figure out what internet speed you need. Since you will likely only have one or two options, compare the different plans they offer. Remember, download speeds of 25-50 Mbps are sufficient for most households, including those with multiple users. If your area has cable or fiber-optic internet providers, their lowest-tier plan most likely exceeds this recommendation.
Another way to determine what speed you need is to test your current Internet speed or that of a friend’s. You can do this simply by doing an online search for “test my internet speed”. If you are unhappy with your internet, then you will know to bump up to the next tier than what you’re currently getting. If your friend’s internet use is similar to yours and they’re happy with their speed, then go with a comparable speed tier.
In summary, fiber and cable are the king and queen of the Internet and can serve you well. DSL connections are not the best, but they will get the job done better than the remaining options, such as dial-up. Unfortunately, a lot of the decisions will be made for you depending on what is available in your area. But at least you are now well informed of the choices that remain.