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Internet: DSL vs Cable Vs Fiber

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Internet: DSL vs Cable vs Fiber

When we look for internet access, most of us don’t pay much attention to the differences between DSL, traditional cable, and fiber-optic cable. We just want something that works. While all three can provide high-speed service, there are potentially critical differences, depending on your budget and how you use the internet. Let’s examine the differences here in light of what you need:

Cable:   It’s easy to confuse cable with fiber, since the basic technologies are similar. Both rely on the stringing of cable lines from a central facility to your home. Traditional cable internet service, though, uses electrically-conductive copper-wire coaxial cable, instead of the non-conductive glass fiber used in fiber-optic systems.

Most cable TV providers, such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and  Cox also offer cable internet service.

Cable internet service does not run on dedicated lines like DSL. The lines are shared by many subscribers, which makes cable internet somewhat less secure. The quality of the cable service, though, does not depend on the distance from the transmission facility to your home, so the cable provider can guarantee certain speeds. Cable internet speeds usually range from 3 to 12 megabits per second (MB/S), roughly 4 to 20 times faster than DSL, and a few cable providers have begun to offer much higher speeds lately. The higher speeds, and the infrastructure necessary to maintain them,  will be reflected in the price, so expect to pay considerably more for cable internet than for DSL.

Cable internet is somewhat more vulnerable to interference than fiber is, since the cable lines are conductive. Coming into direct contact with lightning, high-voltage equipment, or power lines can compromise or block the signal. Fiber is also capable of much higher speeds than cable is.

Fiber:    Available through Verizon, Qwest, and AT&T, fiber-optic internet service is superior in almost all respects to cable or DSL. Fiber can transmit much more data, over longer distances, at much higher speed.  Because the signal carrier is glass, and cannot conduct electricity, the fiber is immune to electrical interference, and because the fiber-optic lines are smaller and weigh less than coaxial cable, they cost less to maintain, and the lower cost is usually reflected in the price. For remotely similar speeds, fiber costs less than cable.

In most areas, fiber-optic internet speeds range from 12 to 50 MB/S. Google, though, has invested heavily in 1 gigabit per second (1 GB/S) service in Austin and a few other cities, and AT&T has offered 300 MB/S service, which it plans to upgrade to 1 GB/S,  in a few markets.

The great disadvantage with fiber-optic internet service has been availability. It is offered in only a few major urban markets now, but this will change rapidly.

DSL:    The Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) was the first broadband internet service, and it is a massive improvement in speed and reliability over dial-up service. As with dial-up, the DSL internet signal travels on existing copper-wire phone lines. DSL, though, does not tie up the phones lines like dial-up, so you can surf the web while your phone is working. DSL speeds, which usually range from 128 kilobits per second (KB/S) to 3 megabits per second (MB/S), may be adequate for casual internet users. Because DSL is on a dedicated line, it is somewhat more secure than cable internet service. DSL costs less than cable or fiber-optic internet, so it may be a better deal for the casual user.

DSL brings certain disadvantages. It is much slower than cable or fiber internet service, and the distance between the transmission facility and your home or office is critical. The farther the distance, the more the signal weakens, and the slower your internet service will be.

Which is best for you?    If your chief concern is saving money, and you use the internet only for casual web-surfing, then DSL may be your best option. Dial-up service is so slow and unreliable that we can’t recommend it for anyone, no matter how cheap it may be.

If you’re a heavy internet user, if you want to download music or videos, or if you play interactive games, then DSL will not be adequate for you. You’ll need cable or fiber.

If you want the highest speed possible, and fiber is available where you live, then fiber is what you should get.

(Editor’s Note: Find  the best internet service deals in your area through Bundle Deals: compare broadband internet: DSL vs Cable vs Fiber; then order any service with just one phone call.)