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DSL vs Cable: Understanding the Differences

Close-up of a modem or router displaying status indicator lights labeled Power, LAN, DSL, Internet, and Sprache.
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DSL and cable are two of the most widely available Internet connection types in the United States. DSL is an older technology that makes use of existing telephone lines to provide internet service. Cable Internet, by contrast, is beamed via coaxial cable lines for a faster and more reliable internet connection. 

Cable internet offers top speeds of up to 500 Mbps, compared to 100 Mbps from DSL. The differences don’t end there, though. In this article, we’ll provide a detailed comparison of these two broadband Internet connection types. 

What is DSL Internet?

DSL is short for “Digital Subscriber Line.” DSL Internet makes use of the existing telephone lines to provide access to the Internet. The wide availability of this network makes DSL’s reach massive, and in certain rural areas, it may be the only internet option other than satellite (more on that later). 

DSL is significantly slower than Cable Internet, with speeds that top out around 100 Mbps. The quality and speed of a DSL connection can depend on how far the node (your home) is from the ISP hub. Also, like a telephone line, it’s subject to outages during storms.  

What is Cable Internet?

Cable Internet makes use of the same coaxial cable networks that are used for cable television. One of the key benefits of this type of cable is that it’s designed to transmit high data speeds. For Internet users, thxat means you get a fast and reliable connection, especially compared to DSL. Average Cable Internet plan speeds range from 50 to 500 Mbps. 

The Coaxial outlets you need for Cable Internet are likely attached to your home already, whether you’re currently using them or not. Hence, activating Cable Internet service can be as easy as getting your ISP to turn it on. One thing to keep in mind with Cable Internet networks is that they are subject to slowdowns during times of peak usage, like early evening. 

Cable vs DSL: Speed Comparison

If speed is your top concern when choosing an Internet plan, Cable is a better bet than DSL. As mentioned, DSL makes use of an older technology (telephone lines) to beam out signals, which in turn transmit slower speeds that max out around 100 Mbps. 

Cable, on the other hand, takes advantage of a faster coaxial cable network to send out speeds that generally top out at around 500 Mbps. This makes cable a better solution for the modern household full of Internet browsers, streamers, and gamers. 

Cable Internet Speed

  • Download speeds range from 10 Mbps – 500 Mbps
  • Upload speeds range from 5 Mbps to 50 Mbps

DSL Internet Speed

  • Download speeds range from 5 Mbps – 100 Mbps
  • Upload speeds range from 1 Mbps – 20 Mbps

What About Fiber and Satellite Internet?

Cable and DSL aren’t the only broadband Internet options—there’s also Fiber Internet and Satellite Internet to consider. 

What is Fiber Internet?

Fiber Optic Internet, as its name suggests, makes use of fiber optic cables to deliver Internet service. Since this connection travels literally at the speed of light (the “optic” part of fiber optic),  it’s capable of providing incredibly fast internet speeds up to 1 Gbps or more. 

Fiber networks are growing throughout the United States, but still fall shy of the reach of cable networks. As a result, Fiber Internet availability can be somewhat limited, depending on where you live. Fiber plans, not surprisingly, are among the most expensive on the market. Spectrum, Cox, Xfinity, AT&T, Verizon FiOS, and many other ISPs offer Fiber Internet plans. 

What is Satellite Internet?

Satellite Internet is literally beamed in from space. This makes satellite’s reach nearly global, and it’s often the only way folks in remote or rural areas can connect to the internet. The biggest satellite providers in the U.S. are HughesNet, ViaSat, and Elon Musk’s Starlink. 

As a result of the massive distances that satellite signals have to travel to connect to you, Satellite Internet can be relatively slow. What’s more, Satellite Internet is susceptible to weather outages and other types of blockages that the likes of cable and fiber avoid. On that note, satellite internet requires the installation of a satellite dish at your home, so the upfront costs associated with this connection type can be quite high—especially compared to DSL, cable, and fiber. 

DSL or Cable: What’s the Best Choice?

Both DSL and Cable Internet have certain things going for them. In the case of DSL, that includes low cost plans and wide availability. If you’re trying to save money—or you live in a rural area where Cable Internet isn’t even an option—then DSL is the way to go. 

Pros of DSL Internet:

  • Wide availability
  • Inexpensive plans

Cons of DSL Internet: 

  • Slow speeds that top out at 100 Mbps
  • Quality of connection can vary on distance from ISP hub
  • Subject to weather outages

If you’re after higher speeds and better reliability, Cable Internet is the answer. Cable Internet technology has improved in recent years, to the point that in some cases you may be able to achieve fiber-level speeds on your Cable Internet plan. Cable Internet plans are more expensive than DSL ones, generally speaking. 

Pros of Cable Internet:

  • Widely available 
  • Good variety of cable plans to choose from
  • High speeds
  • Bundling options

Cons of Cable Internet: 

  • Subject to slowdowns during times of network congestion
  • Lack of availability in rural areas

Note that both DSL and Cable Internet have equipment requirements. For DSL, that means a modem and phone line, but you may also need a router, ethernet cables, and filters or splitters. For Cable Internet, you’ll need a coaxial cable outlet, router, modem, and possibly splitters. You can purchase this equipment, or rent them from your Internet provider for an extra fee. 

How to Choose a DSL or Cable Provider 

With so many ISPs and Internet plans to choose from, it can be difficult to figure out which is the right one. With that in mind, here are 5 factors to consider when making your decision. 

  1. Availability in your area: Needless to say, you should make sure your prospective ISP actually offers the particular service you’re considering in your specific area. 
  2. Pricing: There may be ways to lower your bill through bundling and other deals. 
  3. Read the fine print: Make sure to read the fine print. It’s common practice for ISPs to give you an initial promotional price that expires after 12 months, at which point your costs can increase (sometimes dramatically). 
  4. Performance: Ask specifically about data caps and what you can expect in terms of downtime and performance.
  5. Service and support: Be sure to evaluate your prospective Internet provider’s customer support reputation before signing up for a plan. Technical support can be a lifeline when your service goes out. 

The Bottom Line

DSL and Cable Internet make use of existing wire networks to provide service. DSL is less expensive,—yet slower and less reliable—than Cable Internet. If you’re trying to save money and just need some sort of Internet connection, DSL may be something to consider. However, if you demand fast and predictable Internet service—if you work from home, for example—you’ll want to opt for a Cable Internet plan. 

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