A broadband connection allows you to send and receive data on the internet. It lets you post on social media and video call your family or colleagues. Depending on your location and internet service provider, internet access comes to your home through one of three types of broadband technologies: DSL, cable or fiber optics. These three unique technologies depend on physical infrastructures like DSL lines over copper wires, coaxial cables, and fiber optic cables. Understanding the types of broadband technology can help you decide what internet service plan is right for you. Continue reading to find out more about broadband internet options.

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The difference between cable, DSL, and fiber

Cable, DSL, and fiber-optic internet all provide fast speed and a reliable network connection. However, the design of each type of network affects how internet access comes to your home. DSL, also known as digital subscriber line, exclusively 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 doesn’t interfere with home phone service, allowing you to be on your phone and use the internet at the same time.

Cable internet, on the other hand, runs on the copper coaxial cable lines that deliver cable TV to your house. Cable internet is available in most areas that support TV service. Although cable can often deliver faster internet than DSL, cable internet users are more likely to be exposed to bandwidth congestion during peak hours when network traffic is at its highest.

Fiber internet uses fiber-optic cables made of thin glass strands. Light transmits information along these cables and moves data at incredibly high speeds. Because the fibers transmit data so quickly, it leads to a powerful internet network with high bandwidth and lower latency. Although there are many benefits of fiber internet, including faster speeds and a more reliable connection, only certain areas currently have access to fiber optic infrastructure.

A young man uses his laptop to connect to WiFi internet, cable, or DSL.

Cable vs. DSL vs. fiber speeds

Internet speeds are one of the main differences between cable, DSL and fiber internet. Megabits per second (Mbps) are the standard unit of measurement utilized by internet service providers. It represents the speeds that their internet service(s) are capable of achieving. Each Mbps represents the capacity to transfer 1 million bits each second, or roughly one small photo per second. Unless you have internet service, like fiber, that offers symmetrical upload and download speeds, your download speed may differ from your upload speed. That’s because cable networks are fundamentally designed as a medium for broadcasting TV, which is very much to the home, not from it. While advancements have been made with DOCSIS protocol, upload speeds are still often slower than download speeds on cable internet.

Download speed is important for streaming TV and movies, listening to music or downloading software and apps. How quickly you can post on social media, play online games and send large files depends on your upload speed. Speeds can vary based on your location and internet service provider, but generally, you can expect these speeds:

  • Typically, DSL internet has download speeds of 5 to 35 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 to 10 Mbps. However, DSL can sometimes offer speeds up to 100 Mbps depending on location. Activities like web browsing and email only require speeds of 1 Mbps per device.
  • Typically, cable has download speeds of 10 to 500 Mbps and upload speeds of 5 to 50 Mbps. Cable speeds can support activities like videoconferencing, which needs 6 Mbps per device and downloading large files using 10 Mbps.
  • With fiber optic internet, you can get the fastest speeds. Currently, fiber internet has symmetrical download and upload speeds between 250 and 1,000 Mbps. As the technology behind fiber optics expands, speeds are increasing and speeds of 10G, 25G and 50G will be available in the future. If you plan on streaming HD 4K video, which needs a minimum of 25 Mbps, or need to support multiple devices at once, fiber provides optimal speeds.

With more people working from home and attending classes virtually, upload speeds are becoming more and more important. Without sufficient upload speeds, you may find it difficult to upload large files such as pictures and videos to social media or documents for work. Slow upload speeds can also negatively impact performance when videoconferencing or gaming online.

A couple watches a movie on the couch on their laptop using cable or DSL.

DSL vs. cable vs. fiber: which is best?

When selecting the type of broadband connection you want, you may think the fastest is the best option. Although fiber-optic internet generally delivers the best speeds, it may not be the most suitable choice for your needs. The first factor that determines the best internet option for you is your location. While fiber internet infrastructure is rapidly being built, it’s currently only available in certain locations. In rural areas where internet access is more limited, DSL may be your best option.

Another factor to consider when choosing your internet is price. Fiber internet service usually costs the most and may not be necessary depending on what you use the internet for. If you only use the internet for light online browsing and emailing, DSL internet services provide more than enough speed. However, if you plan on streaming HD videos regularly or live in a household that uses multiple devices simultaneously, fiber may be the best choice. Ultimately, all three internet options will provide fast speeds and a reliable connection, but depending on your location and internet needs, you may want to spend more.

Before selecting an internet plan, find out what broadband internet options are available near you using our availability tool. Explore the CenturyLink blog to find more information on internet options and what internet speed you need.

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