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Cable or DSL Internet: Know the Differences

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We’ve got a lot of decisions to make these days. Whether it’s choosing between name brands and generic foods, electric vehicles and internal combustion engines, or whether to rent or purchase a home, these decisions have a big impact on the way we live our lives. As important as our internet connections have become in our modern lives, it makes sense that this is another decision that can have profound impacts.

When choosing whether to go with DSL or cable, there are some key differences that will help you make the best decision. Understanding the ins and outs of the two technologies is the best way to figure out which type of internet connection is best for you. 

Key Differences When Choosing DSL or Cable

If you’ve had the same internet service for a decade or more, you may be unfamiliar with the new technologies available to you and what the difference is between them. Internet service has come a long way over the past 20 years. Most of the important differences between the different types of internet connection revolve around the infrastructure they’re built on.

DSL 

DSL, or a digital subscriber line, is based on the same technology as landline phones. While fewer Americans are utilizing landline phones these days, most homes are still going to be wired with the type of equipment necessary to support DSL internet. Namely, phone lines run through the walls and accessible phone jacks. 

DSL differs from the type of dial-up phone line internet popular in the nineties in one very important way. Dial-up internet used the same signals to deliver both phone and internet services. That meant that we couldn’t use the phone and internet at the same time. It wasn’t ideal. DSL changed the game by utilizing different signals for phone and internet service. With this setup, both phone and internet could be used at the same time, and the lines were able to deliver faster internet speeds.

Cable

Cable internet is set up on the same infrastructure as cable television. Coaxial cables carry the internet signal to the house, which is decoded by a modem. Again, a high percentage of homes have the coaxial infrastructure running through their homes already. 

Cable television was introduced in 1948, and as it grew in popularity, it became the norm for contractors to wire homes for cable television. Even older homes were fitted as demand grew for variety in television watching options. The ability to receive internet signals through that same infrastructure has made cable internet an incredibly viable option that doesn’t require new equipment. That said, the availability of cable internet may depend upon where you live.

Where do you live?

Not all internet options are available in every region of the country. If you live in a very rural area, you may be limited in what kinds of internet are available to you. On the other hand, if you live in a densely populated area, most options will be available to you, or will be in the near future. Telecommunications companies are constantly expanding their networks to accommodate higher internet speeds and larger populations. You can likely find DSL or cable in these areas.

What do you use the internet for?

Another big consideration is what exactly you use the internet for. This will determine the type of speeds you need. DSL is slower, but still suitable for basic internet needs. If you require faster speeds for streaming or gaming, cable will be a much better option. If you’re unsure what kind of speeds you need, let’s break down some common internet activities and the types of speeds each requires.

Surfing the web and checking email

If your main use case with the internet involves web browsing, social media, and checking email, you can get by with slower speeds than you’d need for most other activities. Each of these activities require 10 Mbps (megabits per second) or less, so if this illustrates your typical usage, you can probably get by with a decent DSL internet plan.

Streaming video

For those who like to stream movies or video chat with friends and family, higher speeds will be required. You’ll need around 25 Mbps to stream high definition video and 20 Mbps for video calling. For streaming 4k video, think of upping that to 35 Mbps. If these are common occurrences in your household, you will require a faster connection. 

You’ll also need an increase for each additional device that will be streaming at the time. For example, if you’ve got four people streaming video at the same time, you’ll require over 100 Mbps. This applies whether you’ve got a DSL or cable connection.

Gaming

Online gaming is another activity that requires high speeds. For a seamless experience, expect to burn through 35 Mbps. These higher speeds are required to provide adequate responsiveness and seamless graphics processing. Add this to the other activities you engage in online and you’ll quickly eat up everything DSL has to offer.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

People often forget to figure in the data used by the internet of things. This includes things like appliances that connect to the internet and other devices like smart speakers and outlets. They don’t use a ton of data on their own, but the more IoT devices you have, the more they add up. If you’ve got security cameras, they’ll use even more, so don’t forget to figure your IoT devices into your usage calculations and opt for higher speeds before choosing to go with DSL or cable.

Uploads

If you find yourself uploading a lot of large files, this is an important consideration when choosing between DSL or cable. Neither service achieves the same upload speeds as download speeds due to asymmetric DSL and cable connections, so this falls into another speed bucket. 

If upload speeds are important to you, cable is the way to go. Coaxial cable offers much higher upload speeds than phone lines. What kind of speeds do DSL and cable offer? Let’s take a look.

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DSL vs Cable Speeds

Speeds are one of the biggest differences when choosing between DSL or cable. That’s because each type of internet service offers vastly different speeds. Let’s look at the speed ranges you can expect with each service.

DSL

If your internet experience revolves around basic searches and checking your email, you can probably get by with DSL. Expect your average maximum DSL speeds to come in between 5 and 35 Mbps for downloads, and 1 to 10 Mbps upload, depending on your service level.

Even as the technology improves, DSL lines max out at about 100 Mbps data transfer rate, so there’s a good chance your usage will eventually outpace the ability of DSL to provide a seamless internet experience. Even if DSL speeds will suffice for now, you’ll eventually need an upgrade.

Cable

Cable offers much higher speeds than DSL. If your internet connection serves as a source of entertainment, you may want to look into the faster speeds offered by a cable connection. You can expect max cable download speeds to fall in the range of 10 to 500 Mbps, and 5 to 50 Mbps upload speeds, depending on your service plan. 

If you’re streaming on multiple devices or are into online gaming, cable will be necessary for you to get the experience you’re after. Choose a plan that offers a little more than you calculate you’ll need, and that will ensure you don’t encounter any bottlenecks. Many providers even offer gig speed internet with cable, which means you could be set for the next decade or more.

Bandwidth

The maximum speeds you are able to hit will also rely upon bandwidth. Bandwidth relates to the total amount of data that can be passed along each line. Think of it like a hose. A firefighter’s hose allows much more water to pass through than a standard garden hose. Bigger bandwidth allows more data to flow through the pipeline much more quickly. You likely share that bandwidth with your entire neighborhood, so speeds can slow during peak usage hours.

DSL bandwidth is much lower than that offered by a cable connection. This is due to the differences between phone lines and coaxial cable. If you live in a densely populated area, your speeds could slow significantly during peak usage hours. This means that even if a DSL connection offers enough speeds for your needs, that could change when everyone arrives home for the evening.

DSL vs Cable Pricing

Another difference you’ll notice when browsing internet service plans is pricing. DSL service comes at a much lower price point, so you can save a bundle if it meets your needs. The average DSL plan currently ranges between about $30-60 per month, depending upon the plan you choose.

A cable internet connection will run you a bit more. These plans typically run between $45 and $130 per month. Again, the price you pay will depend largely upon the plan you choose. 

If you’re considering whether to go with the lower cost of DSL or cable at a higher price point, consider your current usage and your anticipated future usage. This will give you a good baseline and help you choose the most economical plan that works for you.

Providers Make a Difference

With all the differences laid bare, there is one last consideration before making your decision, and that’s your provider. The quality of your service will depend on it. Choosing a discount provider may net you the cheapest price tag, but you may be dissatisfied with your service. Going with a reputable provider will give you the best balance of quality internet service and reasonable pricing.

DSL or Cable: Which is Best for You?

Now that we’ve covered some of the key differences between the two, it’s time to look at how those differences translate into the best choice for you. Is DSL better than cable, or is cable better than DSL? 

DSL is fine if you have limited internet needs. However, most providers are updating their infrastructures to tilt more heavily towards higher speeds. This means that even if you’re fine with a DSL connection right now, you’ll be urged to upgrade in the future.

If you use your internet connection to stream movies and music, you’ll benefit from a cable connection. If you play games online or have multiple people in your household that log on at the same time, higher speeds will be even more important. In any of these cases, a cable connection is going to be your best bet. 

There is no inherent winner with DSL or cable. It all depends upon your usage habits, the number of other subscribers with which you share bandwidth, and the quality of your provider.

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