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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 line, cable networks, and even the electrical wiring in your house. For the most part, data travels between computers using physical wires.

Because wires are so efficient (and widely available), most Internet connections come via some sort of cable. The prevalent options are:

  • Landline telephone lines (DSL)
  • Cable TV lines (cable)
  • Fiber-optic lines (fiber).

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.

DSL Internet Summary

DSL 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 and CenturyLink, and often bundled with home phone service. It isn’t as fast as Cable or Fiber Internet. However, it is often cheaper. Outside of urban and suburban 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 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.

  • 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:

DSL is best for rural customers who otherwise are stuck with satellite Internet.

Cable is the best choice for TV viewers who can benefit from the “cable bundle” plans.

Fiber is the best option for Internet users, especially those who plan to stream their entertainment via Netflix or a similar streaming service.

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”

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 con 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 be readily available to consumers on the same scale as cable and DSL, it’s already the dominant Internet infrastructure from a “big picture” perspective, handling the majority of data traffic outside the “last mile” familiar to broadband customers.

The Internet is a “network of networks,” and improvisational use of older technologies has always been a part of broadband deployment.

We can expect that fiber will continue to grow alongside increasing reliance on high-speed broadband Internet for work, play, and communications. However, so long as copper remains viable for consumer’s bandwidth needs, ISPs are sure to continue using it to deliver Internet “on a budget.”

  • Author: BroadbandNow Team
  • Last updated: 7/16/2018

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