If you’re shopping around for a new ISP, it can be difficult to understand the different internet plan options that providers have on offer. DSL is the most widely available, but also the slowest. That leaves fiber vs cable internet, both of which can be good options depending on how much bandwidth you need and what’s available in your area.
- Fiber is the fastest and most stable type of broadband internet connection, but it’s not widely available.
- Cable internet connections also have relatively high speeds that will satisfy users that only need an internet speed of 50 to 100 Mbps. However, upload speeds are generally slower.
- DSL is slower than both fiber and cable internet, but is also the most widely available, especially in rural areas where it’s often the only option other than dial-up or satellite.
If this breakdown piques your interest, you can head over to our list of internet speed statistics for an even deeper dive into the subject. You can also see how to speed up your internet connection. For now, though, let’s dive into the different types of high-speed internet.
As long as it’s available where you live, fiber is always the better option if you’re looking for faster and more stable internet.
Fiber connections use fiber-optic cables that send light instead of electricity, which makes for higher connection speeds and much better stability.
Yes, fiber connections transmit light through plastic or strands of glass rather than electricity over copper and are usually much faster and more reliable than cable.
Cable internet is generally cheaper because it uses existing infrastructure. Fiber, on the other hand, often requires putting down entirely new cables, the cost of which is often passed down to the consumer in the form of higher subscription fees. That said, this isn’t always the case, and internet prices vary depending on the country and region.
DSL vs Fiber vs Cable Internet Comparison
To best understand the differences between DSL, fiber and cable, we’ll start by going through a brief explanation of each before doing a comparison of their speed, availability and price.
What Is DSL Internet?
DSL (short for “digital subscriber line”) is the evolution of the old dial-up connections that younger readers might not even remember. This type of connection uses your telephone line to transmit data, but unlike dial-up, it doesn’t disrupt your telephone service while doing so.
Of the three connection types, DSL is the slowest. Download speeds lie in the 5 to 35 Mbps range and upload speeds are even slower, rarely exceeding 10 Mbps.
The only real advantage of (and reason to get) DSL is availability and price. Depending on where you live, DSL might be the only option other than dial-up or satellite, or it might be much cheaper than cable or fiber alternatives.
Since telephone cables are generally located above ground, there’s an added risk of connection loss due to damage from events like storms and extreme weather.
What Is Cable Internet?
Cable internet uses copper cables rather than phone lines, which lets it reach higher download and upload speeds. Since the cables are generally located underground, they’re also more resistant to damage.
Theoretically, coaxial cables can reach a bandwidth of 10 Gbps, but plans for regular consumers never go above 1 Gbps (or 1,000 Mbps), and even that is incredibly rare. The fastest connections are 500 Mbps, but most providers won’t offer anything above 100 Mbps.
Like DSL, cable internet treats download and upload speeds differently. Since most people need much more bandwidth for downloads than they do for uploads, the former are often as much as 10 times faster than the latter.
What Is Fiber Internet?
Instead of sending electricity through metal wires to transmit data like DSL and cable does, fiber uses fiber-optic cables made of plastic that send information back and forth in the form of light. This means that both cable speed and stability is radically improved, as the bandwidth of a beam of light greatly exceeds that of electricity in a metallic conductor, even at longer distances.
Unlike the two other types, fiber is also generally “symmetrical,” meaning upload and download speeds are the same. The biggest problem with fiber internet is its availability; many people, especially in developing countries or rural areas, don’t even have it as an option.
Out of the three different connection types, fiber is easily the fastest and most stable. Fiber connections generally have speeds of at least 100 Mbps, and can go all the way up to 2 Gbps for regular consumers.
Technically, the theoretical bandwidth limit of a fiber optic cable is absurdly high. Given the right (incredibly expensive) equipment, fiber optic internet can reach transfer speeds of above one Petabit (1,000 Terabits or 1,000,000 Gigabits) per second. That said, it’s rare to find anything for public use exceeding 2 Gbps, though some ISPs go as high as 10 Gbps.
Cable comes in at second place. Although you can find cable connections as fast as 500 Mbps (and the theoretical limit is as high as 10 Gbps), most will fall in the 20 to 100 Mbps range.
Finally, there’s DSL, which will rarely exceed 30 Mbps at best. The theoretical max speed varies depending on the type of DSL, but even the fastest (VDSL) caps out at around 60 Mbps.
Summing things up, a good rule of thumb is that fiber internet is generally 10 times as fast as cable, which itself is usually at least twice as fast as DSL.
Given the clear superiority of fiber, you might think that cable and DSL would be obsolete. Unfortunately, on a global scale, fiber-optic internet is still only available in very limited areas. Even when you just look at OECD countries (essentially the wealthiest nations in the world), fiber only overtook DSL in terms of availability in 2020, and still trails behind cable.
Because of this, the reality is that many — if not most — consumers won’t have the option to choose between different types of broadband, if they even have a choice of competing ISPs at all. That said, at least in OECD countries, fiber is the fastest growing type of broadband, with 21.15 million new fiber subscriptions set up in 2020.
Before we talk about price, it’s important to note that what type of connection you have isn’t necessarily correlated with cost. Things like how much ISP competition there is, the remoteness of your area and local regulations have a much greater impact on the price of your internet subscription.
That said, it’s not uncommon for fiber connections to be more expensive. This usually comes down to how the laying of the fiber-optic cables themselves was financed.
Sometimes this is achieved through subsidies or an up-front collective payment from a community or neighborhood. However, it’s just as common for the ISP to simply pass this cost onto the consumer in the form of higher subscription fees.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to generalize the price of internet subscriptions as they will vary significantly depending on where you live. Generally though, ISPs will charge more money for faster connections if they can, which is especially the case in areas where they operate without any competition.
With that, we’ve reached the end of our fiber vs cable vs DSL internet connection comparison. You can read our internet speed statistics to learn more about the shifts and usage of these internet connection types.
If you feel like you need a lot of bandwidth on your internet connection and fiber is an option where you live and within your budget, then there’s no alternative. That said, cable isn’t a bad option either unless you need extremely fast internet speeds.
What did you think of our explanation of DSL, fiber and cable internet? Do you feel more equipped to shop around for ISPs or are you just as confused as before? Have you switched from cable to fiber internet? What were your experiences? Let us know in the comments below. Thank you for reading.