This isn’t a simple question to answer. There are a number of factors to consider in making a decision about which is the right service for you:
Cable service for the internet is a service that allows you to hook up your computer to a local cable television line and transmit and receive data over a cable modem into your computer through the wired or wireless ethernet card. Because the cable leading to your house and into the cable modem is coaxial cable, your service is known as “cable”.Through a device known as a “splitter” the frequencies of your cable signal are divided into television and computer signals and routed appropriately. (But too many splitters can degrade the signal, making it slower, see more about this below.) There is also a service known as Digital Cable Service, primarily for television, which provides a higher quality picture.
DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line (originally “Loop”). DSL is a family of technologies that provide digital data transmission over local telephone lines. DSL typically works by dividing the frequencies on a single telephone line into two primary “bands”. The internet data is carried over the high frequency band (25 kHz and above), while the voice is carried over the lower frequency band (4 kHz and below). The user typically installs a DSL “filter” on each voice phone line, which filters out the high frequencies, allowing the phone’s limitation for phone use. The high frequency is transmitted through a DSL modem, where it can be fed to the computer through a wireless or wired ethernet card, same as cable. All DSL is provided over a single telephone line, is “always on”, has high speed access compared to analog telephone lines, and has some limitations based on the distance from the telephone provider’s switchgear (a maximum of about 3 miles (actually an 18,000 foot “loop”); the shorter the distance, the faster the networking). There are three types of DSL:
First is Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (“ADSL”), designed to support the typical home user (who frequently downloads large amounts of data from web sites and P2P networks, but uploads relatively less often) by allocating a majority of the available telephone line frequencies for communication of “downstream” traffic. ADSL is technically capable of speeds up to 6 Mbps, but in practice delivers about 2 Mbps or lower for downloads and up to only 512 Kbps for uploads. [There is also a sub-category of ADSL known as RADSL (“Rate Adaptive Asymmetric DSL”) which configures at start-up to test the telephone line and adjust the data rate; however, RADSL typically operates at rates even lower than standard ADSL.]
[You can skip this explanation of DSL, and continue on, unless you’re really interested in DSL.] The next higher type of DSL service is Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line (“SDSL”), which provides approximately equal bandwidth for both uploads and downloads, at speeds approaching 4 Mbps (3,088 Kbps). Originally developed in Europe, this was one of the earliest forms of DSL not to require multiple telephone lines.
The highest speed DSL is VDSL (“Video DSL”; sometimes also called VADSL, BDSL or even Very-High-Speed-DSL). This was developed to support exceptionally high-bandwidth applications such as high-definition television (HDTV), rather than computers. It achieves rates up to 51,840 Kbps, making it the highest available form of DSL.
O.K., if you’re considering FIOS, you can start reading again here:
FIOS. Recently, starting in 2004, Verizon has began the first large scale deployment of fiber optic service (“FIOS”). By using fiber optic (glass) cables to transfer data via pulses of light [instead of copper or coax cable] at, well, the speed of light. FIOS is capable of very high transmission speeds. FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) service can range in speed from 5 to 50 Mbps downstream and 2 to 5 Mbps upstream, subject to conditions, of course. But it’s not available everywhere, at least yet. And it still connects to the copper wiring in your home, slowing the transmission somewhat.
SATELLITE. You’ve probably seen those TV commercials for HughesNet or WildBlue satellite internet. If you happen to be one of those people who live far beyond the availability of either cable or DSL, other than plain old telephone service (“POTS”), your only choice for high-speed internet may be through a satellite connection. It will not be nearly as fast as the other choices described here, and the installation and service for the satellite disk will be more expensive, but you really have no choice. Between 2010 and 2012, however, second generation satellites were launched, making the speed more competitive with cable and DSL. (You’ll still have problems with weather-related reception problems, such as snow on your satellite or impenetrable cloud cover during storms, however.) We mention it by way of completeness for this discussion, but for most of us, satellite broadband is not a viable option if other services are available.
[*ANTENNA. Believe it or not, there are still external home TV antennas available to receive free UHF/VHF channels on your HDTV. Companies like TVAntennaSale.com offer mountable antennas with 36dB gain and 150 mile range. No monthly fees, somewhat limited reception and channels, but a good free alternative if that’s all you want. Unfortunately, there is no internet component to these antennas, so they’re not part of this discussion.]
O.K., so we know the difference between cable, DSL and FIOS. How do we evaluate them on common grounds? By applying the following factors:
Speed – In theory, cable boasts faster speed than DSL, if speed is measured in bandwidth (so-called “raw speed”). Cable technology supports about 30 Mbps of bandwidth, whereas most forms of DSL (known as ADSL or SDSL) don’t even reach 10 Mbps. (FIOS may be faster than even standard cable or DSL.) However, in practical usage, the gap may be narrower. Why? Cable’s speed can be reduced in practice by several factors: First, cable is like the old party-line telephones – service speed can slow down significantly if many people in your neighborhood access the internet simultaneously. Also, some cable providers put “speed caps” (artificial speed limits) or “throttling” on their residential customers. [See, Laws link, Net Neutrality.] They may do this to accommodate more customers, to level the playing field for each customer, because they don’t believe that a residential customer requires more bandwidth or because they may desire to charge more for higher levels of bandwidth. In addition, your computer or home network may not be able to match the highest speed of your internet connection, due to age or hardware limitations. And finally (for both DSL and cable) the performance can vary from one minute to the next, depending on usage and traffic levels on the net.
Overall Popularity – In the U.S., cable internet has traditionally been more popular than DSL, but over the past few years DSL is rapidly challenging cable. (FIOS is a recent introduction, and isn’t generally available enough to be factored in yet.) In 2007, cable had approximately 23.7 million subscribers in the U.S., while DSL had 19.5 million subscribers. Outside of the U.S., DSL seems to be more popular than cable. So, it’s a toss-up. A lot depends on what’s offered in your neighborhood, how far you may be from the DSL signal and how many people in your neighborhood have cable service.
Customer Satisfaction – Some surveys show that DSL has a slightly higher consumer satisfaction level than cable. (It seems to us that, no matter who you speak to, they think they’d be happier with the competition. Cable users want to switch to DSL and vice versa. The grass is always greener, it seems. Cost, reliability and other factors would effect this determination, and are somewhat subjective. Back in 2004 (when FIOS wasn’t even available) for example, Earthlink had the highest customer satisfaction Index score for residential high speed internet providers, according to J.D. Power & Associates, with a score of 728. Verizon was right behind it with 724. Road Runner cable had 723, while Comcast cable was below the national average of 705 with only 657. The 2012 American Customer Satisfaction Index, which ranks more than 225 companies, has consistently ranked the four largest cable companies (Comcast, Time-Warner, Cox and Charter) among the ten lowest rated companies. But, although higher in their ratings, cable’s competitors in the telecom and satellite business haven’t spurred any real defection from the cable operators. In order to compensate for service issues, some providers have began to offer premium services such as personal advisors, 24 x 7 phone and online chat, faster repair scheduling and the like. But the cost can be between $5.99 a month (DirecTV) and $200 a month (Time Warner). It’s too soon to tell if there are going to be many takers or if it even works.
Security – Today, there is really no difference in security between cable and DSL. Years ago, there was a perceived preference toward DSL, on the grounds that all cable users were theoretically individual “nodes” on a vast network of shared cabling, while DSL customers used dedicated cabling in a given neighborhood and do not appear as nodes on a network. Now that cable providers have built in network firewall capabilities in their cable modems (which use Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (“DOCSIS”) support, including authentication and packet filtering, their networks are virtually equally secure.
Cost: There are so many plans that it’s almost impossible to compare them except in general terms. The faster the speed, the more the service will cost, both between services and within them. FIOS costs more than cable or DSL, but it’s faster. High speed DSL costs more than low speed DSL. And so forth. If you’re a gamer, you have no choice but to get the broadest and fastest service. But if you’re a “light” user, just getting e-mail and not much more, maybe you don’t need to pay for that excess speed.
Here in Florida, we’re often asked if there are low cost broadband services for seniors or families on fixed or limited incomes or who are just “light” users. Interestingly, there are. But there are eligibility requirements and it depends on the State where you live. For example, FreedomPop provides free high speed internet access (with the purchase of their modem for $89; more than 1Gb data max, additional charge for more). Also, NetZero and Juno both have DSL plans for only $10 for the first six months ($18/mo. after that). And they still offer dial-up if you don’t require broadband, you have a land line and can stand the slow speed, which may not be fast enough to access many internet services, like video. Depending on where you live, you may qualify for low-income internet service. If you qualify (usually by showing that you receive certain types of federal government assistance like Medicaid or Food Stamps or that your household income is a certain percentage of Federal Poverty Guidelines), you may be eligible for these programs, which vary by state. One of the more common programs is CenturyLinks Internet Basics program which provides low cost high speed DSL for $10/mo. for the first year ($21 thereafter) and can even include a PC with free classes for $150. Similarly Comcast offers Internet Essentials as does Connect2Compete, which costs $10/mo. and is geared toward families which have a child or grandchild that participate in the national school lunch program. And the federal government is toying with the Lifeline Broadband Program which would offer low cost service to qualifying participants. For more information about these and other services, try cheapinternet.com or Internet Service Providers.
So what’s the answer? First, it depends on the availability of services in your area. If you don’t have FIOS in your area, you can forget that option. If you do, it’s certainly the fastest of the three offerings. If you’re not within range of a fast DSL connection, then that decision is made for you as well. If everything is available to you, however, cable and DSL services are pretty much equal, probably a little slower than FIOS (but that may not mean much to you, especially if FIOS ends up costing a lot more). That means that cost will be the determination. To complicate the issue further, cable, DSL and FIOS providers are each offering programs to merge your telephone, internet and television signal service into a sole provider, at a reduction in cost (at least for the first 12 months) versus purchasing these services separately. Just make sure that you’re not paying less for a slower connection that may or may not suit your needs (see “capping”, above), or signing up for a combination of services that you wouldn’t normally be using (e.g. you don’t need much long distance telephone, whether its free or not).