DSL vs Cable vs Fiber: Comparing Internet Options

The bottom line: Fiber is the best Internet option if you can get it. Most households choose cable internet, since it is widely available. If you can’t get either, DSL is a workable backup option.

The internet is an opportunist. It can travel by radio waves, phone lines, cable networks, and even the electrical wiring in your house.

For now, most data travels between computers using physical wires.

Because wires are so efficient and widely available, most high-speed internet connections come via some sort of cable. Common types are:

  • Landline telephone lines (DSL). DSL utilizes your telephone lines, but it doesn’t interrupt your phone use. It’s a step above dial-up internet, but it’s still the slowest of all other modern options. DSL vs. cable internet isn’t much of a competition.
  • Cable TV lines (cable). Cable internet reaches your home through the same coaxial cables that your TV service likely uses. It also offers an improved connection speed over most other internet options. One major perk is that it is widely available — unlike fiber internet.
  • Fiber-optic lines (fiber). Fiber optic cables are a truly impressive development for data transfer. Fiber internet utilizes these optic lines that are made of many small fibers of glass. With this method, data is actually sent at the speed of light, since it is not electricity that is being sent through the lines, but light. Unfortunately, fiber internet isn’t readily available.

DSL vs Cable vs Fiber: Speeds Overview

wires carrying data
DSL vs Cable vs Fiber: what's the difference, and which is best?

For help understanding what speeds you need for different activities, see our bandwidth calculator or our guide to how much Internet speed you need.

Here is a general speed overview of fiber, cable, and DSL internet service:

  • Fiber optic internet speed: Fiber optic internet speeds are the fastest available.
  • Cable speed: Cable internet speeds are very fast and can rival fiber’s download speeds. The downside to cable cs. fiber internet is that upload speeds can’t reach the same highs.
  • DSL speed: DSL internet speeds are the slowest and usually max out around 35 Mbps. A DSL vs. fiber comparison is almost not worth making as fiber can reach speeds 400 times faster than DSL.
  • DSL Internet Summary

    DSL (digital subscriber line) internet generally offers download speeds in the 5–35 Mbps range. Upload speeds are usually in the 1–10 Mbps range.

    DSL is provided by phone companies like AT&T internet and CenturyLink, and often bundled with home phone service. It isn’t as fast as cable or fiber internet. However, it is often cheaper.

    In rural areas, DSL is often the only wired Internet option. (See our guide to rural Internet options if this applies to you.)

    • DSL delivers Internet via copper phone lines
    • DSL has 90% coverage nationwide
    • DSL has higher latency & lower bandwidth than cable
    • DSL speeds vary depending on your distance from provider’s local office

    Cable Internet Summary

    Cable download speeds are usually in the 10–500 Mbps range, while upload speeds are 5–50 Mbps. Some providers offer more in select areas, but these ranges are the norm you can expect to get using home WiFi.

    Cable isn’t as fast as fiber internet, and the speed will sometimes slow down during “peak use” times. This means you can expect a 20%+ slowdown when all your neighbors get home from work and turn on Netflix.

    The companies that sell cable internet are often TV providers like Xfinity, Spectrum, and Cox. They offer lower-cost “bundle plans” for customer that subscribe to both TV and Internet service.

    • Delivers Internet via copper coaxial television cable
    • 89% coverage nationwide
    • Bandwidth generally shared with neighbors
    • Speed often slows 20–40% during evenings (due to bandwidth sharing)
    • Higher speeds & lower latency than DSL in most cases

    Fiber Internet Summary

    Fiber internet download speeds can be anywhere from 250–1,000 Mbps. Unlike cable and DSL, fiber providers usually offer “symmetrical” service, meaning the upload speeds are the same high speed.

    Fiber internet is a relative newcomer to the home broadband market. Fiber is provided by companies like Verizon Fios and Google Fiber, who invest in running expensive high-speed fiber-optic lines all the way to customer addresses.

    While the price is commonly a bit higher than cable or DSL, it’s almost always worth choosing fiber if you can get it. The high speeds make streaming high definition video to multiple devices easy on a fiber connection.

    Another interesting thing about fiber internet compared to DSL or cable is that it won’t slow down no matter how far you are from your ISP. If the fiber reaches you, you will most likely get something extremely close to your advertised speeds, unlike cable or DSL.

    • Delivers Internet via fiber-optic cables
    • 25% coverage nationwide
    • Reliable and future-proof technology
    • Speeds not affected by distance from ISP

    DSL vs Cable vs Fiber: Which Is Best?

    Here’s the big picture on the DSL vs cable vs fiber dilemma:

    Here’s the big picture on the DSL vs. cable vs. fiber dilemma:

    • DSL is best for rural customers who otherwise are stuck with satellite internet.
    • Cable internet service is the best choice for people who don’t have access to fiber or have no use for lightning-fast speeds. It is also a great option for TV-viewers who can benefit from cost-cutting “cable bundle” plans.
    • Fiber is the best option for heavy internet users, especially for gamers or those who plan to stream videos on multiple devices simultaneously.
    • If you feel there aren't enough internet options in your area, you aren’t alone. If cable or fiber connections aren’t available to you yet, know that services are expanding every year. In addition, new technologies such as next generation low Earth orbit satellites may soon be able to provide robust connections to rural consumers. Hopefully, within the next few years, high-speed internet will be nearly universally available.

      How Do Internet Service Connections Work?

      hand demonstrating how a cable carries light
      How does the internet work?

      It’s difficult to visualize the Internet. (See The Internet Mapping Project for amusing examples of people attempting to draw what it might look like.)

      To understand where the Internet is coming from, you can imagine the Internet as a tree. Your neighborhood is a twig, and the core of the tree is the “backbone” of the Internet.

      The “Internet Backbone is Made of Fiber Optic Cables”

      The backbone of the Internet (the part that transmits data between cities, countries, and continents) is mostly made of fiber-optic cables. These networks are sprawling and complex. The main thing to understand is that they’re basically bundles of fiber-optic cables that carry data over huge distances — across continents, and under oceans between them.

      Consumer Internet Companies Are “Last Mile” Providers

      DSL, cable, and fiber connections all have one thing in common: connecting consumers to the “backbone.” For this reason, Internet services sold from ISPs to consumers are called “last mile” technologies.

      Even with a lowly dial-up connection, most of the journey data travels between your computer and servers happens over fiber on the Internet backbone or carrier fiber networks.

      However, those last couple miles between your house and the ISP can slow things down considerably, because the data switches over to older copper cables.

      Pros and Cons of DSL Internet

      Pros

      • Affordable
      • Widely available
      • Dedicated connection

      Cons

      • Slower speeds
      • Prone to storm damage
      • Long contracts

      So what does this mean for the consumer? Well, DSL Internet has a few advantages and disadvantages in comparison with cable and fiber.

      The main selling point of DSL is widespread availability; telephone infrastructure is already deployed basically everywhere, so it doesn’t take much setup to get most folks connected by DSL, especially in rural areas where cable is less likely to be an option.

      The second advantage is in how the connection reaches the end user: while cable connections are essentially shared within neighborhoods, DSL connects directly from ISP to consumer.

      While cable provides faster speeds, it can get bogged down at peak times (e.g. 6-9pm, when everyone in the neighborhood wants to stream Game of Thrones while their kids broadcast on Twitch upstairs). Because of this, the DSL connections can seem more consistent, even if they are overall slower than cable.

      The big downside of DSL is the phone cable itself; telephone cables usually top out at around 40 Mbps down, while cable can deliver closer to 100 Mbps under ideal conditions. (However, shared bandwidth and unmaintained infrastructure often results in equivalent effective speeds for either technology much lower than 40 Mbps).

      Distance between ISP office and residence is also a factor with DSL connections, as residences farther from the central office generally receive slower speeds and higher latency than those closer to the office.

      Because telephone cable is thinner in diameter than coaxial television cable or fiber, it requires “repeaters” every couple miles to keep the signal from degrading more than 3-5 miles from the ISP office where the fiber “backbone” meets the copper “last mile.”

      Pros and Cons of Cable Internet

      Pros

      • High Internet speeds
      • Affordable TV bundles
      • Widely available

      Cons

      • Limited rural availability
      • Speeds slow during peak use times

      Cable solves some of the problems associated with DSL service (low bandwidth, outdated infrastructure) but comes with its own host of potential failure points.

      The biggest con when it comes to cable is higher cost, largely a product of lack of competition among cable providers — cable infrastructure is more expensive than telephone, so many Americans only have access to one provider if they want true broadband Internet.

      The other problem point with cable is bandwidth sharing. Since bandwidth is shared within neighborhoods, oftentimes cable will be slowed to the same speed (or lower) than DSL during peak use times.

      Pros and Cons of Fiber Internet Service

      Pros

      • Gigabit speeds
      • Fast upload rates
      • Reliable service

      Cons

      • Higher price
      • Limited availability

      From the consumer’s perspective, fiber’s big advantage is simply speed and resilience. Fiber is by nature unaffected by electromagnetic interference like copper, making it much more resilient to outside factors — like proximity to other infrastructure and weather.

      Overall, fiber has few faults outside of cost and limited availability. For the time being, it’s the most advanced form of data transmission available (outside quantum Internet) and represents the future of Internet access in the developed world.

      The Takeaway: Fiber Is King, but Isn’t Widely Available

      While fiber has yet to become readily available to consumers on the same scale as cable and DSL, it’s already the dominant internet infrastructure from a “big picture” perspective. It handles the majority of data traffic outside the “last mile” familiar to broadband customers.

      The internet is a “network of networks,” and the mix of types of internet connections will likely be a part of our society for years to come.

      We can expect that fiber will continue to grow to the point that it will, one day, be as available as cable internet. As our society increasingly relies on high-speed internet, the thirst for faster internet will likewise grow.

  • Author: BroadbandNow Team
  • Last updated: 9/5/2019

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