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Cable vs. DSL vs. fiber internet: which is best?

by | Oct 6, 2021


A broadband connection lets you send and receive data online, post on social media, and video chat with family or colleagues. Depending on your location and service provider, internet access comes to your home through DSL, cable, or fiber optic technology. Understanding the difference between these technologies can help you determine which internet service plan is best for you.

What is the difference between DSL, cable, and fiber internet?

Cable, DSL, and fiber internet provide network connections of varying speeds and reliability. Let’s look at the differences between DSL vs. cable vs. fiber internet.

DSL (digital subscriber line) uses a pair of copper wires within your telephone lines to transfer data and connect you to the internet. Because DSL transmits at a different frequency than your voice service, it won’t interfere with your home phone service, so you can use your phone and the internet simultaneously.

Cable internet runs on copper coaxial cable lines that deliver cable TV to your house. Although cable typically provides faster internet than DSL, cable internet users are more likely to be exposed to bandwidth issues during peak hours when network traffic is at its highest.

Fiber internet uses fiber-optic cables made of thin glass strands. Light transmits information through the wires at incredibly high speeds. The result is a lightning-fast, reliable network that allows multiple users and devices to stream, game, or browse simultaneously without lag or lost connections.

Couple gaming on a gaming laptop

Comparing cable vs. DSL vs. fiber speeds

Internet speeds are based on Megabits per second (Mbps), the standard unit of measurement used by internet service providers. Each Mbps represents the capacity to transfer 1 million bits per second (roughly one small photo image per second).

When choosing an internet service, you also need to consider your download speed (how quickly incoming data gets received) and upload speed (how quickly data gets sent to other devices or servers). Unless you have fiber internet service, which offers symmetrical upload and download speeds, your upload speed will be significantly lower than your download speed. That’s because cable networks are fundamentally designed as a medium to broadcast television signals into your home, not from it.

Download speed is essential for streaming TV and movies, listening to music, and downloading software and apps. However, if you’re a gamer, frequently post on social media, or send large files and videoconference for work, you need to rely heavily on your upload speed. With more people working from home and attending classes virtually, upload speeds are becoming increasingly important.

Couple using the internet at home together

Internet speeds vary based on your location and service provider, but you can typically expect these speeds:

  • DSL internet usually offers download speeds of 5 to 35 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 to 10 Mbps. However, depending on your location, you may be able to get DSL speeds up to 100 Mbps. DSL is suitable for basic activities like web browsing and email, which only require speeds of 1 Mbps per device.
  • In comparing cable internet to DSL, cable typically offers download speeds of 10 to 500 Mbps and upload speeds of 5 to 50 Mbps. Cable speeds can usually support activities such as videoconferencing and downloading large files, which typically require a minimum of 6 Mbps and 10 Mbps, respectively.
  • If your household has multiple users on multiple devices, fiber optic internet is your best bet.  Fiber is fast—really fast—with symmetrical download and upload speeds between 250 and 1,000 Mbps. And as the technology behind fiber optics expands, these fast speeds will get even faster. If you want to stream HD 4K videos, game without lag, fill your home with smart devices, and support multiple users at once, fiber is the clear choice.

Man using laptop to determine DSL vs. fiber

DSL vs. cable vs. fiber: which one is right for me?

When selecting an internet service, you may think the fastest choice is your best option. After all, who doesn’t have the need for speed when it comes to streaming, gaming, or surfing the web? Fiber-optic internet leads the pack when it comes to overall speed and reliability. But if you’re considering fiber, you need to check that it’s available in your area. While fiber internet is becoming more popular and widespread, it’s currently only available in certain locations. If you live in a rural area with more limited internet access, your best option may be cable or DSL vs. fiber internet.

Fiber internet is by far the best option for speed, bandwidth, reliability, and security—but it’s also not as affordable as cable or DSL. If you generally only use the internet for light online browsing and emailing, DSL will give you the speed you need. Cable will provide you with an added boost. However, suppose you have a household full of streamers, gamers, bloggers, video chatters, and remote workers. In that case, you’ll need the incredible speed, extensive bandwidth, and built-in security you can only get with fiber internet. With lightning-fast speed, no lag or broken connections, and the peace of mind of knowing your data is secure, investing in fiber internet is well worth it.

Before deciding on an internet plan, find out what CenturyLink internet options are available near you using our availability tool. And be sure to explore the CenturyLink blog for more information on your options and what internet speed you need. Whatever you decide, rest assured you’ll receive the finest in customer service and round-the-clock support from CenturyLink experts.

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