DSL vs. Cable vs. Fiber: Which Internet Option Is the Best?
Picking out an internet provider for your unique work and personal needs can be challenging, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the different connection types. Connecting to the internet requires data to travel via radio waves, phone lines, cable networks, satellite dishes, or electrical wiring. Digital subscriber line (DSL), cable, and fiber-optic are the most common internet connections, and they differ in download and upload speeds, prices, and amount of bandwidth. They’re known as “last mile” technologies, bridging the internet “backbone” and users’ residences.
Bandwidth is defined by the volume of information that can be sent over a connection in a measured amount of time: megabits per second (Mbps). On the other hand, speed is how fast that information is received or downloaded. These are both reliable measurements of connection quality when picking your internet provider.
Nevertheless, each connection type has different download and upload speeds. It varies for each person, but most of us download more than upload, so providers give more bandwidth to the former.
In this guide, we compare DSL, cable, and fiber internet to help you find the right service for your home.
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Comparing DSL, Cable, and Fiber Speeds
One key difference between DSL, cable, and fiber internet is speed. Look at the table below to see which download and upload speeds align with your internet needs.
|Connection type||Download speed range||Upload speed range|
|DSL||5 to 35 Mbps||1 to 10 Mbps|
|Cable||10 to 500 Mbps||5 to 50 Mbps|
|Fiber||250 to 1,000 Mbps||250 to 1,000 Mbps|
DSL Internet: Slow, but the Most Affordable
DSL internet in the U.S. operates on local phone lines to connect to the internet. It’s lower bandwidth (check the bandwidth calculator to see how much data you need) and the slowest option, but it’s sufficient for a single user with basic usage, such as surfing the web and streaming in standard definition. DSL is the most widely available and cheapest option of the three types of connection we cover here. It’s also easy to set up and doesn’t typically require professional installation or fees. CenturyLink has a DSL plan with no data caps, which is always ideal. DSL is the better alternative for users who live in rural areas and don’t want to stick with satellite internet, which can be slower and have high latency. It’s not as widely available in rural areas as satellite internet though.
- Wide coverage
- Slow speeds
- Unreliable connection the farther away you are from the provider
Cable Internet: Best With TV Bundles
Residential cable internet uses cable wires to provide a high-speed internet connection and TV service. With download speeds of up to 500 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 50 Mbps, cable internet can power a household with multiple devices. Cable providers also offer bundles that include TV, phone, and internet service for a lower price than buying each individually. Some cable providers, such as Spectrum, have plans with speeds almost as fast as fiber internet. It’s not the fastest, but cable internet is much faster than DSL. It’s a good choice for people who want a consistent and reliable connection but don’t need lightning-fast internet. This is a common connection type in cities like Dallas.
- Wide availability
- Affordable TV bundles
- Multiple speed and price ranges
- Higher costs for internet-only plans
- Slow speeds during peak use times
Fiber Internet: Fastest, but Limited Coverage
Fiber-optic residential internet is the newest technology in the broadband market, and it’s powered by expensive, high-speed cables made of fibers and glass that reach residents’ homes. Its high speeds make streaming HD videos and joining Zoom calls with numerous people efficient and easy. It’s the best option for heavy internet users, such as gamers or a family that streams on multiple devices simultaneously. AT&T Internet offers fiber plans that can reach up to 5 Gbps. Fiber is commonly used in major cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles.
- Available with major providers such as Verizon Fios, Google Fiber, and AT&T
- Fast and reliable speeds
- Really expensive
- Limited coverage
DSL vs. Cable
DSL uses telephone lines and is the slowest option, whereas cable transmits data over copper TV lines, works faster, and carries more bandwidth. DSL is widely available because almost every part of the country has access to phone service, so it’s a great option for people in rural areas who don’t want to choose satellite internet. Cable is ideal if you stream on multiple devices, hop on a lot of video calls, or download large files, while DSL is better if you only check your email every once in a while and casually surf the internet.
Cable vs. Fiber
Fiber internet provides a high-bandwidth connection and speeds up to 1 Gbps. Cable speeds can be as fast as fiber, but they slow down during peak use times when all your neighbors get home from work and watch Netflix or a big game. That said, cable covers about 88 percent of the U.S. at an average speed of 10 to 500 Mbps. Fiber is great for competitive online gamers or someone who wants the fastest speed available and lives in larger cities where it’s available. If you want extremely fast internet, then AT&T Internet is a top contender.
DSL vs. Fiber
DSL and fiber are complete opposites when it comes to speeds and coverage. Fiber is new, so it has less coverage than DSL, but fiber expansion projects are under way. DSL usually runs over pre-existing lines, making setup easy. On the other hand, fiber requires professional installation services to run the fiber-optic cables to your house. Internet providers such as CenturyLink offer both DSL and fiber plans.
The Main Takeaway: Fiber Is the Fastest Internet Option
Fiber internet is your best bet for fast and reliable internet (outside of quantum entanglement technology). It can reach speeds up to 1 Gbps and endure severe weather conditions, which helps minimize outages. Fiber internet makes it possible to connect multiple tablets, laptops, and phones at once with minimum lag. In short, it offers optimal performance for anything that would require fast and efficient internet.
Fiber, however, isn’t the cheapest or most widely available. Service is still very limited, which means people who live in metropolitan cities have a better chance of finding it than those living in rural areas. If you can afford fiber plans and you’re all about fast and reliable connections, then fiber is your best option. That doesn’t mean cable isn’t a solid choice, considering its speeds can reach up to 940 Mbps.
Which internet connection is best? It depends, but, at the end of the day, your best option will always be what you think serves your needs and budget.
Frequently Asked Questions About DSL, Cable, and Fiber Internet Options
How do I get fiber Internet?
Search for fiber internet providers in the U.S. to find out whether any offer service in your area.
Can you get Wi-Fi with cable internet?
Yes, you will need a modem and router in order to get Wi-Fi via cable internet.
Who still uses DSL internet?
Approximately 89 percent of the U.S. has access to DSL. It’s an affordable, albeit slow, option.
Is DSL more reliable than fiber and cable?
DSL isn’t as reliable as fiber or cable internet because it still uses phone lines and requires residents to be near the ISP. The farther away you are from the provider, the spottier your connection will be.
Why are fiber internet prices so high?
Fiber internet plans provide top speeds, so they typically cost more. It’s also the latest in broadband technology, so the costs are higher.