Types of Internet Connections: DSL vs. Cable vs. Fiber vs. Satellite

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Sean Jackson
August 20, 2020

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 vs. satellite 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. If you live in a primarily rural area, satellite may be your best option.

Compare High-Speed Internet Types

DSL Internet Cable Internet Fiber Internet Satellite Internet

What Type of Connection Do I Need?

When deciding on connection type, what you do online will play a pivotal role in how much speed you need. Below is a list of common internet activities and the speed required for them.

ActivityRecommended Speed
Streaming video in HD10-25 Mbps
Gaming25-40 Mbps
Checking emailUp to 5 Mbps
Surfing the web5-10 Mbps

DSL Internet

What is DSL internet?

You might be wondering, what does DSL even 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.

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%

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

STATECOVERAGE
Connecticut0.00%
Delaware0.00%
Hawaii0.00%
Maryland0.00%
Massachusetts0.00%
New Jersey0.00%
Rhode Island0.00%
West Virgina0.00%

Who is DSL internet best for?

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.

Pros and cons of DSL internet

Pros

  • Faster than dial-up
  • More availability than fiber
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Inconsistent speeds
  • Often too slow for high-bandwidth streamers and online gamers

Cable Internet

What is 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.

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%
D.C.97.81%
New Jersey98.96%
New York98.36%
Rhode Island97.25%

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 is cable internet best for?

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 overage—many cable companies limit how much data you can use each month, and overages can mean big fees.

Pros and cons of cable internet

Pros

  • Widely available
  • Affordable plans
  • Fewer outages than DSL

Cons

  • Slower speeds during peak usage
  • Delays are more common in data transmission
  • Sometimes subject to data caps

Fiber Internet

What is 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.

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 speeds—a 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
D.C.81.95%
Maryland62.42%
New Jersey67.75%
New York64.49%
Rhode Island84.57%

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 is fiber internet best for?

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

Pros

  • Consistently fast download and upload speeds
  • Very low latency (delays in transferring data)
  • No bandwidth caps
  • Less likely to experience outages

Cons

  • Limited availability throughout the U.S.
  • Delicate fiber-optic cables may require occasional replacement
  • Installation can be expensive

Satellite Internet?

As its name implies, with satellite internet you use a signal beamed from a satellite to connect to the internet. This service works similar to satellite TV in that you will need your provider to come to your home to install a dish in an area with a clear view of the sky. Once they have all the equipment installed, you would access the internet like you would by other means.

Satellite internet speeds

One of the big disadvantages to satellite internet service is you might not experience the same quick speeds as you would with cable or fiber optic. Depending on the plan and provider you select, along with where you live determines how fast your speed can be. In general, satellite internet providers offer download speeds between 12 to 100 Mbps. As a comparison, the FCC standard for high-speed connections is 25 Mbps.If you can get on the faster end, then satellite is a good option for larger households or gamers. However, if you cannot gain access to the faster speeds, then you might want to consider another option.

Satellite internet availability

Since satellite services can work pretty much anywhere with a clear sky, availability of services can be much higher than you would find with other internet connection options, specifically fiber optic. All states within the continental United States share the same availability, so here is a sampling of how widespread satellite internet is:

StatesAvailability
ConnecticutUp to 100%
OhioUp to 100%
FloridaUp to 100%
New YorkUp to 100%
KansasUp to 100%
NevadaUp to 100%
OregonUp to 100%

Who is satellite internet best for?

If you live in a rural area and don’t have access to other internet services, then satellite might be your only option. In saying this, with its high availability and pretty decent ranges of download speeds, it can accommodate smaller households who require only a few devices connected at the same time.

Pros and cons of satellite internet

Pros

  • High availability
  • Good range of speeds
  • Can be cheaper than some mobile hotspot plans

Cons

  • It’s expensive compared to other connection means
  • Imposes lower data caps
  • Weather can cause latency