DSL vs. Cable vs. Fiber: The Big Three Broadband Technologies
Updated on May 16, 2023
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No matter what you’re doing online, a broadband connection makes it possible for you to send and receive data in the form of web pages, videos, emails and more. The same thing goes for the content you see on TV — it all relies on technology that transmits data to and from your home.
Depending on what infrastructure exists where you live, internet and TV data are delivered to your home through one of three broadband technologies: DSL, cable or fiber optics. All of these technologies rely on physical infrastructure. Whether it’s fiber-carrying cables buried underground, traditional coaxial cable, or DSL lines hanging on utility poles, the technology available to you will depend on what infrastructure exists where you live.
Understanding what technology is available in your area can make it easier to shop for the right internet speed and TV service — and determine how much you should pay for it.
Here’s how DSL, cable and fiber optics compare.
What is DSL?
Digital subscriber line, or DSL for short, is the most popular technology in the world for delivering digital data. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about 21% of the U.S. population relies on DSL to get internet and TV service.
DSL transmits an internet signal through regular phone lines, but it’s not the same as the noisy, outdated dial-up system you may be thinking of.
DSL uses existing copper phone lines to transmit internet and TV signals. A copper phone line is like a highway with four lanes. The voice we use in our phone conversations only travels through the right lane, but about 30 years ago, technology was developed that opened up more lanes to transmit digital data. Now, telecommunication companies can deliver high-speed internet and TV service over a phone line.
What is cable?
Cable technology uses a coaxial cable to deliver internet and TV service. Coaxial cables are similar to the copper phone lines described above but they use a different outer material that allows the signal to travel further without needing to be amplified as much along the way.
Like copper telephone lines, coax cables work by allowing an electrical signal to travel through the copper part of the cable. When the signal reaches your home, a modem takes the electrical signal and turns it into a digital format that can be understood by your devices. Yes, that means that your favorite TV show’s audio and video is sent to your house as nothing more than a simple electrical signal.
What is fiber optics?
Fiber optics uses light to transmit data along thin glass strands that are bundled together into a cable. This means that information can travel at close to the speed of light. Fiber optic cables can carry a signal at full strength across incredible distances without any boosters along the way.
Fiber optic technology emerged in the telecom industry in the 1970s. In a little over a half-century, it’s become a game changing technology that bypasses many of the limitations of cable and DSL. For now, the infrastructure required for fiber networks is limited to certain regions in the US, but the percentage of broadband connections in the US that are powered by fiber has grown from 5.4% in 2010 to 13.79% in 2018.
Fiber optic cables can already transmit enormous amounts of data, but the future is even brighter. In 2014, Danish researchers showed it was possible to transmit data at speeds up to 5.4 terabytes per second, which is 4,300 times faster than the fastest commercially available internet in the US. What does that really mean? Well, you could download all nine Star Wars® films in Blu-ray Disc™ quality in a fraction of a second. Of course, just because it’s possible in a lab doesn’t mean it’s ready for the real world yet, but this provides a good sense of fiber’s potential over the next few decades.
Differences between DSL, cable and fiber
- DSL and Cable: These technologies don’t necessarily have a dedicated line. This means that you share bandwidth with your neighbors, so internet can be slower or faster depending on how much bandwidth the people who live near you are using.
- Fiber: You don’t have to worry about your neighbors slowing down your connection because there are lots of lanes on the fiber highway, and plenty of bandwidth to go around.
Affordability & accessibility
- DSL: DSL is still considered an essential technology for providing broadband access to rural communities that have either a very slow internet connection, or none at all.
- Cable: In 2017, cable accounted for 63% of all broadband connections in the United States, making it the most common out of DSL, cable and fiber.
- Fiber: Fiber is only available in certain parts of the country, but it’s becoming more accessible each year.
Which technology is right for you?
If you’re unsure of which way to go, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides a guide of minimum recommended speeds for different types of browsing. Review the guide to make an informed decision about how to get the internet and TV speed you need for a price that works for you.
Frontier Fiber is built for the way you live today—and tomorrow.
If you’re still on the lookout for the right ultra fast internet connection for streaming, gaming, working from home and running your smart home—all with enough bandwidth for everybody, find out about Frontier Fiber. Then check here to see when it’s available at your address.
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