15 Answers to 15 Questions About DSL vs. Cable Internet Service

Aug 6, 2012 cable internet, dsl internet, high speed internet, 7 Comments
DSL vs Cable Internet

You timidly suggested to your nephew that you were considering a move to a faster form of Internet access. Perhaps you have heard the term “broadband connection.” He probably heaved a huge sigh of relief. “Finally!” he said. But when you asked for guidance on which service to choose, you soon were sorry you asked. In two or three short sentences, he left you behind, babbling in technical gobblydegook that you couldn’t possibly follow — when all you really wanted to know was, “What should I get: DSL vs. Cable Internet?”

Breathe easy. We’ll explain what the options are for faster Internet connections (which is what’s meant by “broadband” or ” High Speed Internet “), with just a teeny bit of “how it works” so you have some sense of what you’re choosing and why.

In doing so, we here at Digital Landing don’t expect that you want to become a computer wizard. All you want, we assume, is the ability to get the advantages of fast Internet access: a computer that is always connected to the Internet , that permits you to zip around Web pages faster than you imagined possible, and that opens up a whole new set of ways to waste time online. Oh, we mean, a whole new set of ways to be productive. Whatever.

The technical term for this sort of document is “FAQ,” which stands for “Frequently Asked Questions” and is pronounced either “fack” or “F-A-Q.” This both gives you a new buzzword with which to impress the overly-technical (but surely brilliant) nephew, and should also reassure you that these are not “dumb” questions. Rather, these are the questions that most ordinary souls ask of those who, they hope, will guide them to more comfortable computing.

Let’s start out with the key question, and then work our way back to the underlying issues.

1. What should I get — DSL vs. Cable Internet Service?

Most technical people will give you all sorts of “this is how it works” answers, and they’ll talk about performance (that is, is DSL or cable service faster?) and setup (that is, how will you get your computer hooked into the modem?). There are differences between the technologies, and we’ll get to those in a moment.

In terms of High Speed Internet connections, that means: But for someone who’s simply trying to find a simple and credible answer, the truth is that “fastest” is not really the most important issue. It’s just like choosing a car. Yes, auto enthusiasts discuss performance and 0-to-60 speeds and other things that matter primarily to other car aficionados. But if all you want is a car to commute to work, then what matters most is reliability, gas mileage, and the phone number of a mechanic whose work you trust. And affordable. It should be affordable.

  • Find out if you have a choice at all. In many places, you can get one kind of service but not another. (We’ll explain the reasons why in a little while.)
  • Choose a provider you trust. If you hate your phone company or if you are already irked with the cable TV provider, why add agony to your life? Choose the provider whose service you trust the most (or whom you hate the least, which may be closer to the mark).
  • When you check into pricing, be sure to find out about installation options. Many cable and DSL providers will come to your house or business to set up the network and Internet connection. If one provider does so and the other does not, your decision is easier. As with many things in life — such as garage door openers — it’s important to get your  High Speed Internet service installed right in the first place, or it’ll never quite work correctly. It can be worth the expense to pay a professional.
  • If company-supplied installation is not an option, then ask your “local techie” – that same nephew who’s sure he knows everything — which type of service to get, and follow his advice. If you rely on family-provided technical support, then it makes sense to choose an option with which that family member is comfortable. Doing so avoids those nasty “I told you so” conversations over the Thanksgiving table.
  • Consider price as just one element of the equation. In most cases, the difference in cost is negligible. But your existing phone and cable company may be able to sweeten the deal; for example, some cable companies may offer a reduced price if you get Internet access, telephone services, and TV stations from them.

What — none of those things are about technology! Isn’t that the key issue? Shouldn’t I choose the one that’s better?

Yes, there are technical differences between the two kinds of service. There can be major speed differences. But in the real world, “convenience” is often much more important.

2. What do DSL and cable services have in common?

dsl vs. cable internetBoth types of service provide an “always-on” connection. That is, they’re automatically connected to the Internet as long as the computer is turned on. You need not worry about busy signals or any connection/disconnection process.

Both are billed on a monthly basis, often on the same invoice with your phone or cable TV service.

Both work with your Windows or Macintosh computers without fiddling. They’ll also work with other operating systems, too. However, the typical High Speed Internet service technical support representative may be unfamiliar with the details of getting everything to work with your “alternative choice.” It may take extra expertise, and you may need additional help (that is, expect to buy the nephew a nice dinner).

In most places, DSL and cable access cost about the same.

3. How is Internet speed measured — and to what degree does it matter?

When computer techies talk about Internet connection speed, it’s generally in mbps: millions of bits per second. This can be confusing since everything else in the world of computers is measured in bytes. Bits and bytes aren’t the same thing. But to put it in context: to send a photo that’s 2.2 megabytes (MB) when stored on your hard disk, it’ll take about 3 minutes for the transfer if you have a 5 Mbps Internet connection.

If we were to get technical, we’d quibble with the reliability of those numbers and whether they’re useful for more than a general comparison. So would your helpful nephew. If you later decide to explore the underlying technology, you’ll learn the reasons for this. But for now, simply assume that 6 Mpbs is faster than 5 Mpbs, as a useful oversimplification.

Obviously, most people prefer faster speed to slower. Many providers price their services accordingly.

Realistically, if you’ve been using a dial-up modem to access the Internet, it will all seem blazingly fast. If you’re planning to use the Internet for relatively ordinary purposes, such as e-mail, Web browsing, and instant messaging, then your provider’s “basic” speed is probably enough whether you choose cable or DSL. Speed matters a lot more if you expect to work with large files, such as movies, photos, music, games, and any other application that caused the computer salesperson to say, “Hmm, you probably should get a bigger hard disk.”

4. Why do Internet providers list upload and download speeds separately? Should I care?

One aspect of connection speed that is important is the difference between upload speed and download speed. Download speed measures how quickly the information on the Internet is sent to you, such as the email you receive or the Web pages that appear in your browser. Upload speed indicates how fast the information is sent from your computer to…well, to anywhere else.

In many cases, especially with cable service, the upload speed is much slower than the download speed. That sounds like a bad thing, but in most cases the upload speed isn’t a key issue. Think about how you got to this article. You probably typed something into a browser window (such as “compare dsl and cable service” in a search engine). You clicked on a couple of links. And that was about it. A few words of typing, and the clicks. Those didn’t need to speed up the line at warp speeds; you could manage it even if your typing skills are generously described as “hunt and peck.”

But the computer where this page is stored is sending you several pages of information — so you want the download speed to be fast. (This is a very simple example. Your “just a few clicks” could also have shown you a movie, which would have a lot of data to download!)

In some circumstances, the upload speed matters. But for ordinary home use it’s fine for the upload speed to be much lower than the download speed.

5. How do cable modems work?

A cable modem connects a single computer to the Internet using the cable TV network. If you have cable TV service in your neighborhood, you can almost certainly get cable service.

Specifically, the cable modem is a black box with blinking lights. It connects to the computer with a network cable, which may be Ethernet, USB, or some other kind of plug. No matter how old your computer is, it almost certainly has one of these plug-connections available.

6. Do you need Cable TV to use a cable modem?

No. You do need to be in an area to which the cable company provides service, and the cable company needs to physically get the cable to your location if it hasn’t done so already.

Also, expect a sales pitch on choosing a cable TV service to accompany your new Internet access, perhaps with price encouragement (“do you want fries with that?”), but technically speaking there’s no need for you to sign up for HBO just so you can send e-mail faster.

7. How does DSL work?

DSL (digital subscriber line) connects a computer to the Internet using the same wires as a regular telephone line. Although it sounds like it will make your phone line “busy,” DSL doesn’t work that way; the phone service isn’t affected by the Internet connection. In most cases in the U.S., the DSL connection is a phone socket, and your existing house wiring carries both phone and data. It, too, may use a black (or white) box with blinking lights.

8. Why is distance an issue with DSL? And distance to what?

A key difference with DSL is that its speed relies on the distance to the “central office” or CO. That term sounds as though there are office workers slaving away doing paperwork, but in most cases the CO is a large building with a huge number of wires — no humans at all. The farther your computer is from the CO, the worse the signal quality, and thus the connection speed is decreased.

Don’t take out a tape measure. When the phone company judges your distance to the CO, they measure the wires installed between your home and their equipment, which is probably not a straight line.

While it isn’t a technically accurate analogy, imagine shouting to someone across a field. At some point, the other person won’t be able to hear you. If you’re within 5,000 feet of the CO, your Internet access speed will be faster than if you’re 15,000 feet away. And if you’re 22,000 feet from the CO, you probably can’t even get DSL service because the provider knows you’d never be happy with the performance.

There are different kinds of DSL service, and you may be able to use one of them even if you’re (relatively speaking) far from the CO; but you won’t be able to expect top connection speeds.

9. Why are there different flavors of DSL? Do they matter?

When people talk about DSL, they generally mean ADSL (Asymmetric DSL). It would be easy to get extremely technical here, but the simplified explanation is that ADSL is intended primarily for low use, with download speeds many times faster than upload speeds. That’s fine for most residential purposes.

In contrast, the upload speeds on Symmetric DSL (SDSL) are almost the same as its download speeds. That matters if you plan to do a lot of online gaming or to run any kind of Internet server (the latter is unlikely for home use, but the former is quite common if you have children at home). However, SDSL is more expensive than ADSL, and you usually have to be fairly close to the CO to be able to get the service.

There are a few other kinds of DSL connections. You’re unlikely to choose these, but you may want to be familiar with the names when you see them on price lists. Very high bit-rate DSL (VDSL) and Rate-adaptive DSL (RADSL) are of use primarily for businesses. IDSL is based on ISDN technology, and can connect from as far away as 50,000 feet with the currently used versions; it’s a lot more expensive because it’s based on another telecom technology.

10. I’ve been told that one is slower than the other?

It depends on whom you talk to. Cable service detractors point out that you are sharing the connection with all the other Internet users in your neighborhood. Thus, one person playing an interactive game can hog all the resources and reduce your connection speed, particularly during peak hours (such as when the neighbor’s kid ought to be doing her homework).

Those descriptions make it seem as though you’re on a telephone party line (if you’re old enough to remember those…), with a neighbor listening in on your conversations. It’s not like that; the situation is much closer to waiting in a long line at the bank at lunchtime. They never seem to have enough tellers to deal with the sudden up-tick in customer demand.

On the other hand, the people who criticize DSL point out that residential DSL is also over-subscribed, and the Internet access speed suffers – another example of the missing bank tellers.

So the summary is: yes, one is slower than the other. But which is faster will depend on the area in which you live, and which service is more popular!

11. What if I have more than one computer?

This essay was written assuming that you have only one computer at home. But many families (and many individuals) use more than one computer, in which case you want them all to use the same fast Internet connection. To do so, you’ll need to set up a small home network, in which one computer (connected directly to the cable modem or DSL connection) acts as a referee for all the other computers in the house.

The setup for such a network is outside the scope of this article, but be reassured that it isn’t difficult to get one working. You should be able to find a local computer consultant (or brilliant nephew) to assist you if you don’t want to take on the challenge yourself. In addition, some providers will sell you networking setup at an additional price.

12. Does it matter if I’m running a business, versus connecting to the Internet from home?

Maybe. It depends on the nature of the software you’re running at your business, and how many people need to use the Internet at the same time.

For most small businesses, with only a few employees, there won’t be any difference between residential and business service, without regard to DSL or cable. A business in which several (say, ten or more) employees are concurrently using the Internet should probably examine the business services branch of the DSL or cable provider. These cost more than the residential versions but they also give you additional services, such as more e-mail accounts.

Another reason you’d need business-class DSL or cable services, even in a solo home office, is if you choose to run certain kinds of Internet software, such as an e-mail server or a Web server. Those applications require something called a “dedicated IP address,” which we’ll get to in a moment. Should you plan to add Internet servers to your business, you’ll probably need professional help. It’s more likely that you’ll arrange with another company to manage your Web site and e-mail, which makes the DSL versus cable issue much simpler.

13. What’s all this stuff about “IP addresses” and why should I care?

Under most circumstances, you won’t need to know what an IP address is. However, you’re sure to come across discussions about them while you’re shopping for broadband services, so you might as well have a basic understanding of the term.

Most simply: think of the IP address as the “telephone number” of your computer. Just as you need to know his phone number to call your nephew for help, the computers with which your computer interacts online need an address to reach it, at least for the duration of the current conversation.

With both DSL and cable connections, the standard type of IP address is called a “dynamic IP.” That is, the service provider can change the IP address of your computer at any time. That’s never a problem when, so to speak, your computer is the one calling out. Just as it doesn’t matter to your nephew from what phone number you called him, the only thing you both care about is that you dialed the right number so he could pick up the phone.

However, Internet servers (such as the computers that manage and send out e-mail or host all the pretty Web pages you look at) must have an unchanging address, called a “static IP address.” It’s one option when you look at business-class DSL or cable modem service, and it does cost more.

14. Do I need to buy extra hardware?

Usually, you don’t need to buy anything more than the cable or DSL provider includes with the service. If your computer is an older one, you may need to buy a network card (the techie nephew might call this a “NIC”), which should cost about $10. If you decide to network together your home computers you’ll probably buy additional equipment. But in general, you don’t need to spend additional money.

15. What about security?

This is a bit of a tangent from DSL-versus-cable, but it’s an important item to mention for anyone who is considering moving from a dial-up connection to an always-on Internet .

In most ways, a faster Internet connection will be a wonderful experience. It will change the way you work online and give you more freedom to explore the world.

But there’s one disadvantage that someone needs to warn you about — Internet security. You’ve probably heard about computer viruses, spyware, spambots, and other “malware” (malicious software). You’ll now be more vulnerable to it. One side effect of your faster connection is that it’s easier for Bad Guys to exploit your computer because the computer is more regularly accessible.

The result is that you’ll need to acquire anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and probably a software firewall — particularly if you use a Windows-based computer. (Other types of computers aren’t immune but they are much less at risk.)

Once you know what you want — or if you still have more questions, make sure you click here to see what services and providers are available to you at your street address, and feel free to call and ask for assistance.


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The Digital Landing editorial staff has been helping people stay connected to their digital lifestyles for several years. This staff consists of people with telecommunications backgrounds, as well as writers from Cable TV and Satellite TV industries.

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7 Comments

  • Desmond

    Thanks for the info it was a good read.

  • Chris

    Very nice breakdown, easy to understand. I’m a techie myself n’ know all the other stuff but I wanted to brush up on this particular topic since mom decided to change us from DSL to Cable w/out telling me (and she sooo knows better). At my own apartment my cable service was fast. Almost in comparison to my work w/T1. But I was also living in the city (DC) in a apartment building w/regular working folk w/not many kids at all. Which brings me to your point #10. I totally forgot about that. And where she [mom] lives is mos def a family w/2 – 2.5 kids pr household community. Totally different environment, so this should be interesting. At least now I’ll be prepared…

    • David Gonos

      Haha, thanks for the comment, Chris. Hope the switch works out for you, either way.

  • Donna

    Excellent way to explain the difference between DSL and cable, but I have a question, if that is okay. My provider is charging us $4.95 for “Wire Maintenance Multi Service” because we have phone and Internet (DSL) service but that does not seem correct because the wire maintenance should cover the phone line and not the services correct? Or am I completely misunderstanding this entire thing? I would greatly appreciate it if someone could answer this question for me as soon as possible – since I am arguing with the phone company at this time regarding this situation. Thank you so very much! DB.

    • Will

      Wire Maintenance is an optional service. I highly recommend you cancel it. Phone wire and jacks are cheap these days, and you can easily fix inside wiring problems.

      Plus unlike electrical wiring, telephone wiring can easily be worked on without getting electrocuted. At worst, if you touch the red and green wires at the same time you get a buzz that you would get from sticking your tongue on a 9 volt battery.

      I would only recommend wire maintenance (aka InLine) to people who are challenged, elderly, and people who live in homes built before 1960.

      My condolences go out for the customers that are still paying for phone rentals from AT&T.

  • Kevin

    Donna, typically Inside Wire Maintenance is “insurance” to repair the wiring and some components beyond the “Demarc” point aka: NID (basically the box usually present at the side of your home where the phone co. wiring connects to your house wiring). It also usually covers the visit to diagnose the trouble. If you read the fine print it does a litigious job of rejecting certain kinds of non-standard wiring and repairs that can’t be made. As a repair tech myself, I take every job individually and look at it from the side of what can I do within reason to get your service running at best performance. It seems strange to me if you’re getting charged an additional fee on top of what you’re already paying for wire maint. just because you have DSL.

  • Will

    The author of this article mentioned that cable modems come in black. They also come in white (Netgear makes a cable modem that comes in white)

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