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What is Cable Internet? How It Works, Pros and Cons, and Speed

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We all know what cable TV is and how it works, but what about cable Internet? Of all the currently available broadband Internet options today, cable Internet is the most common form of Internet connection in the US, accounting for over fifty percent of the market share, and with good reason. It's a fast, widely available, and reasonably priced way to get Internet at home.

In this article, we’ll define what cable Internet is and explain how it measures up on speed, availability, pricing, and more compared to other types of high-speed Internet such as DSL, fixed wireless, satellite, and fiber optic.

Definition of Cable Internet

In short, cable Internet is an Internet service that uses the same wires as cable TV to bring you an Internet connection. Compared to previous Internet services like dial-up or DSL Internet, cable Internet is much faster, more reliable, and can handle more users at the same time.

Cable Internet (and cable TV) both use what are called coaxial cables. Coaxial cables are designed to transmit electrical signals with minimal interference, reduce the loss of signal strength, and protect against electromagnetic interference from external sources. The benefit to you? Stronger, faster, more reliable Internet. 

Another benefit from using the coaxial cable network is is that it's a great way to efficiently transmit high-quality data and video signals. Compare coaxial cables to older broadband technologies like dial-up or DSL, which use telephone lines, and you’ll note that cable Internet offers significantly higher speeds. For activities that need high data rates, like streaming high-definition videos, online gaming, and downloading large files, cable Internet is among the faster options available today.

Another benefit when compared to an older technology like DSL is that the robustness and reliability of coaxial cables mean your cable Internet connections are less likely to suffer from signal degradation over long distances. This is what helps cable providers cover so much of America – with cable Internet, you don’t need to be right up next to the provider to get a good signal. 

Just note that while cable Internet can support a high number of users, sometimes network performance might be affected during peak usage times when many people are connected and using the service simultaneously. This is because you share bandwidth with your neighbors, which can lead to slower speeds during times of heavy demand, like if everyone’s trying to stream the season finale or a big game.

Cable Internet Speed & Performance

Cable Internet download speeds can range from 10 Mbps to 500 Mbps, while the upload speeds range from 5 Mbps to 50 Mbps. To put that into context, it would take you less than two minutes to download a two-hour movie in 1080p HD at 500 Mbps. At upload speeds of 50 Mbps, it would take you sixteen minutes to upload that same movie online.

Since US regulators determined that the standard for high-speed Internet includes services that offer download speeds of 25 Mbps or faster, the vast majority of cable Internet services fall within that definition. 

By comparison, DSL speeds range from download speeds of around 5 to 120 Mbps, and upload speeds of around 1 to 20 Mbps. 

However, it's worth noting that speeds can fluctuate during peak usage times due to the shared bandwidth in highly populated areas. The level of Internet plan you choose and who your ISP is can also affect your speeds.

Cable Internet Availability

One of cable Internet's strong suits is its widespread availability, especially in urban and suburban areas. Thanks to the extensive infrastructure laid out for cable television, extending services to include the Internet was a logical step. This makes cable Internet accessible to the vast majority of people, unlike fiber optic Internet, which is still catching up in terms of coverage. Some reports estimate that cable Internet is available to around 85 percent of American households.

Cable Internet Pricing

Pricing for cable Internet varies widely depending on the provider, plan speeds, and bundled services. As of the writing of this article, the average cost for an Internet plan of any kind is estimated to be just over $70 per month. Generally, for cable Internet, you can expect to pay somewhere between $20 on the lower (and slower) end of things and up to $100 per month for the more premium high-speed Internet plans.

The higher end of the spectrum usually includes premium speeds and bundled packages with cable TV and phone services. Keep an eye out for promotional rates, but be wary of price hikes once the promotional period ends.

Cable Internet Requirements - What You'll Need

To get started with cable Internet, you'll need a few key components:

  • Coaxial Cable Outlet: The physical connection point for cable Internet. You don’t have to worry about this; your ISP will set this up for you.
  • Modem: Converts digital data into a format compatible with cable networks. Cable providers will normally rent or sell you one, though you have the option to bring your own.
  • Router: Distributes Internet connectivity to various devices wirelessly or via Ethernet cables – AKA how you get wireless WiFi at home. Most modems include a router built in nowadays.
  • Subscriptions: A contract or agreement with a cable Internet provider.

Cable Internet Providers

There are over 400 cable Internet providers, so it can be difficult to find the right one for your needs. Many other companies will provide a ranked list of the best cable Internet providers, but the truth is it comes down to one factor: what cable company provides Internet in your area?

In many areas, you don’t have any choice at all and can only choose from the one available cable Internet company that services where you live. In that case, it may be worth looking into other options (for example, fiber Internet, DSL, 5G home Internet, or satellite Internet) if you want to have some options to compare and contrast.

A few providers stand out in some ways. For example, Comcast Xfinity is the largest provider, as well as the fastest in many areas. Spectrum Cable, the second-biggest provider, is typically known for its high speeds overall, though it’s less widely available than Comcast Xfinity. In rural areas, you might find that Mediacom is your only cable ISP option. While it’s not a standout cable provider in terms of speed, Mediacom reliably covers areas that Comcast Xfinity and Spectrum Cable don’t. Finally, WOW, or Wide Open West, is an up-and-coming provider that is known for its cheap prices – but it’s available in just six states.

If you do have multiple Internet providers to choose from, there are some key considerations to keep in mind which we detail below.

Cable Internet Plan Considerations

Before locking into a cable Internet plan, think about your Internet usage habits and the number of devices in your home that will be connected, like smart TVs, laptops, and cell phones. You should also think about whether it makes sense to bundle services for potential savings – many providers offer cell phone plans, Internet plans, and television plans together. Finally, consider the terms of the contract and any fees associated with early termination or equipment rentals. Some of these details are buried in the fine print, so take your time on this decision.

  • Price: Cable plans come in a wide range of prices. Don’t be afraid to compare prices across different providers and plans to find the best value for the speeds and features you need.
  • Speed (Download and Upload): Cable plans aren’t typically symmetrical in terms of Internet speeds – download speeds are normally much faster than upload speeds. Download speed is crucial for streaming videos, browsing, and downloading files, while upload speed is important for video conferencing, uploading large files, and online gaming. Consider both when choosing a plan depending on how your normally use the Internet.
  • Data Caps: Some cable Internet plans come with data caps, meaning you can only use a certain amount of data each month before incurring extra charges or experiencing reduced speeds.
  • Contract Requirements: Some plans may require you to sign a contract for a certain period, such as one or two years, possibly including early termination fees if you decide to cancel the service before the contract ends.
  • Included Extras: Look into any additional benefits that come with the plan, such as bundled phone service, cable TV, free subscriptions to streaming services, or equipment rentals like cable modems and routers. 
  • Equipment Rentals: Determine if you need to rent equipment (e.g., a modem or router) from the provider and the associated costs. Sometimes, buying your own compatible equipment can save money in the long run.

Alternatives to Cable Internet

What if you look at your cable Internet provider options and you don’t love any of them? In that case, you may want to look into other kinds of home Internet. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Fiber vs cable Internet: Fiber is faster, but typically less widely available and can be more expensive than cable Internet.
  • DSL vs cable Internet: DSL is typically slower than cable Internet, but can be more cost-effective. It’s also more widely available in remote parts of the U.S.
  • Satellite vs cable Internet: Satellite is typically slower and more expensive than cable Internet, and is mostly used by folks who are not in range of DSL or cable Internet providers.
  • Fixed wireless vs cable Internet: Fixed wireless Internet is typically slower than cable, but like satellite Internet, it can be a good option for more rural locations.

The Bottom Line

Cable Internet remains one of the best Internet options on the table today, offering speed, availability, and cost-effectiveness. While it might not be the absolute fastest Internet on the market, its reliability and widespread availability make it a practical choice for a broad spectrum of users.

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