DSL vs. Cable vs. Fiber: Comparing Internet Options

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Whether you’re scrolling social media or playing online video games, you need to have internet speeds that can keep up with you. You’ll need to know which types of internet offer speeds and bandwidth to meet your needs. When it comes to DSL vs. cable vs. fiber internet, what you choose will have an impact on your internet browsing and streaming experiences.

DSL and cable are more common and can give you fairly fast speeds for casual web browsing and streaming, but if you’re a high bandwidth user or have a lot of people in your household using the internet, you’ll want to know more about fiber.

Here’s an overview of DSL vs. cable and fiber vs. cable (and the DSL meaning) to help you find the internet type for you.

High-speed internet types

DSL (digital subscriber line)

You might be wondering, what does DSL mean? A digital subscriber line (DSL) uses your telephone line to transmit data from point to point using dedicated public network access between an internet service provider (ISP) and your home. DSL often requires a DSL modem and, while high-speed connections are available, speeds can decrease as you get farther away from the closest telephone provider.

Cable internet

Cable internet is another common type of internet service that uses a cable modem and a coaxial cable that runs underground. Cable typically provides a faster experience than DSL, so online gaming and heavy streaming are better suited to cable, though it’s become a closer race in recent years. Even though cable internet is using the same cables as your television, you can still use the internet and watch TV at the same time.

Fiber internet

Fiber-optic internet is the latest in internet technology and uses fiber-optic cables to transmit data using light. It is the fastest form of internet available today, offering residential speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps). Performance varies based on location and types of connections available. Though fiber internet is ahead in speed, it still has a long way to go in availability, with only about 30% of U.S. households having access to fiber as of early 2020.

What is DSL internet?

DSL internet speeds

DSL is capable of reaching download speeds of 100 to 140 Mbps, but normal speeds typically hover around 24 Mbps for the average U.S. household. Some areas can see faster speeds of 50 Mbps to 140 Mbps, but these speeds are rare and not available in many areas.

In response to popular usage, residential DSL often prioritizes faster speeds for downloads over uploads. This is good news for users who are mostly streaming or browsing, but can be a problem for users who upload regularly like online content creators.

DSL coverage and availability

The latest reports from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December 2018 show that in the U.S., only 20.58% of the population have DSL coverage.

Some states are better connected for DSL than others and offer faster speeds. The following states have the most DSL coverage:

U.S. states with the highest availability of DSL speeds up to 100 Mbps

StateCoverage
Arizona41.47%
Colorado42.59%
Illinois35.6%
Utah38.07%

Several states have no coverage, and a few more have just minimal availability:

U.S. states with the lowest availability of DSL speeds up to 100 Mbps

StateCoverage
Alaska0.03%
Connecticut0.00%
Delaware0.00%
D.C.0.00%
Hawaii0.00%
Maryland0.00%
Massachusetts0.00%
New Jersey0.00%
New York0.05%
Pennsylvania0.06%
Rhode Island0.00%
West Virginia0.00%

Who should use DSL internet?

DSL is an excellent fit for smaller households with light internet usage. It won’t be enough to support high-bandwidth online gaming and streaming for a full family, but if you and your housemate just plan to check emails, browse the web and stream movies, DSL should be sufficient. It’s also typically more affordable than cable or fiber, with DSL plans starting at $29.99 for providers like Frontier.

Pros and cons of DSL internet

ProsCons
  • Faster than dial-up
  • More availability than fiber
  • Affordable
  • Inconsistent speeds
  • Often too slow for high-bandwidth streamers and online gamers

What is cable internet?

Cable internet speeds

Cable internet is one of the most reliable and accessible forms of internet, with speeds that range from 20 Mbps to 500 Mbps. However, if you live in a populated area with high internet usage, you could suffer from slower speeds due to the shared bandwidth of your network.

Cable coverage and availability

When deciding between DSL vs. cable, it may come down to your location. Cable is highly available in the U.S., with the majority of the country able to select from at least one cable internet provider. Over 86% of the country has access to cable internet with speeds of 100 Mbps or more.

Cable is most prevalent in the following states:

U.S. states with the highest availability of cable speeds up to 100 Mbps

StateCoverage
Connecticut99.11%
District of Columbia97.81%
New Jersey98.96%
New York98.36%
Rhode Island97.25%

These states have the least access to cable internet:

U.S. states with the lowest availability of cable speeds up to 100 Mbps

StateCoverage
Arkansas55.15%
Mississippi58.02%
Montana61.95%
North Dakota64.00%
South Dakota61.50%

Who should use cable internet?

Cable is better equipped to handle the high speeds needed for heavy streaming, video calls and online gaming. Because the coaxial cable runs underground, it’s less susceptible to outages than DSL, but you can still suffer from slower speeds during peak times of usage in your area. Beware of data overagemany cable companies limit how much data you can use each month, and overages can mean big fees.

Pros and cons of cable internet

ProsCons
  • Widely available
  • Affordable plans
  • Fewer outages than DSL
  • Slower speeds during peak usage
  • Delays are more common in data transmission
  • Sometimes subject to data caps

What is fiber internet?

Fiber internet speeds

Fiber internet offers the fastest speeds for internet access today. Using light to transmit data, fiber-optic cables are capable of reaching speeds of up to 10 Gbps for both download and upload. However, most residential fiber-optic providers offer download speeds of up to 1,000 Mbsp (1 Gbps) with matching upload speedsa far cry from the limited upload speeds of cable internet. When it comes to fiber vs. cable, you’ll find far better speeds with fiber.

Fiber coverage and availability

The FCC shows that only 34.81% of the country has access to fiber-optic internet, with the following states having the most coverage:

U.S. states with the highest availability of fiber speeds up to 100 Mbps

StateCoverage
District of Columbia81.95%
Maryland62.42%
New Jersey67.75%
New York64.49%
Rhode Island84.57%

These states have the least access to fiber-optic internet:

U.S. states with the lowest availability of fiber speeds up to 100 Mbps

StateCoverage
Alaska7.08%
Idaho11.66%
Maine4.32%
New Mexico10.09%
West Virginia4.32%

Who should use fiber internet?

The average family doesn’t usually need super fast speeds, but large households, online gamers and content creators like YouTubers will no doubt enjoy the lightning-fast download and upload speeds of fiber-optic internet. It’s ideal for those who work from home, too, with greater capability for video conferencing, streaming high-definition videos and file sharing.

Pros and cons of fiber internet

ProsCons
  • Consistently fast download and upload speeds
  • Very low latency (delays in transferring data)
  • No bandwidth caps
  • Less likely to experience outages
  • Limited availability throughout the U.S.
  • Delicate fiber-optic cables may require occasional replacement
  • Installation can be expensive

DSL vs. cable vs. fiber: Which is right for me?

Fiber-optic internet undoubtedly provides the best performance with lightning-fast speeds and low latency. Still, cable is a popular and dependable option in the U.S., often more available than DSL, meaning it may sometimes be the only internet type available in an area. DSL is popular since it is fairly accessible and ready to go through your telephone line. For many, the decision will depend upon which options are available in their neighborhood.