Both cable and DSL, also known as digital subscriber line, offer high-speed internet services. Cable is faster than DSL, but there are other key differences you should consider before choosing one for your internet service.
Here’s a quick overview of each type and the differences you need to be aware of:
- Cable internet comes into your home via coaxial cables, the same cables that you receive your television programming on. Cable internet is generally faster and also the higher-priced of these two options.
- DSL internet uses your phone lines to carry internet service to your home, so if your home is wired for telephone service—and nearly every home is, even though many of us no longer use landlines—you probably have the option of using DSL. Though it's often more widely available, whether you can access DSL depends on how far you are from your provider. The farther a DSL signal must travel, the slower and less reliable it becomes. In addition, the fastest DSL speeds are slower than the fastest speeds available with cable.
In most larger communities, both types of internet service are available, though rural areas will often have more limited options. If you live in a city, you may have your choice of both DSL and cable internet, plus fiber and fixed wireless. So, how do you know which one to choose?
If you work from home, like to stream movies and shows, or enjoy online gaming, a cable connection will probably be a better option for you. If you primarily use the internet to check email and browse the web, then DSL could be a cheaper way to meet your internet needs.
Cable vs DSL: pros and cons
- Higher speeds than DSL
- Capable of supporting multiple users and intense online activity
- Often less expensive for the speed you get
- Subject to network congestion
- Wide availability
- Not subject to neighborhood congestion
- Low-budget plans for casual internet users
- Slow speeds
- Connection speed subject to distance from internet provider
How to determine your internet needs
Analyzing your typical online activities can help determine whether cable or DSL is better for you. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you use your internet primarily for web surfing and email?
- Do you enjoy streaming movies and shows or online gaming?
- Do you work remotely with video conferencing and regularly upload and download files?
- How many people in your household are using the internet at the same time?
Each of these activities requires different levels of internet speed. When it comes to measuring internet capability, there are two speeds you need to know:
1. Download Speed
This is how fast information comes from the internet to you. Download speed determines how quickly a website will load, whether the movie you’re streaming will play without interruption, and how well you receive video or audio from others.
2. Upload Speed
Upload speed is how fast you can send information from your device over the internet. This includes sending emails, posting a video on social media, or sharing files with a coworker. If you work remotely and your work involves a lot of file uploading, you’ll want to pay close attention to upload speeds.
You can also check out our article on how to determine the internet speed you need.
Cable vs. DSL speeds
A good rule of thumb is to plan on at least 10 Mbps of download speed per person who will be using the internet at the same time. In addition, you’ll want to consider how many devices will be connected to your internet and how you use them. If you do a lot of video streaming, video conferencing, or gaming, you’ll need higher speeds than if you primarily use your internet for web browsing or email.
Cable internet usually offers more speed options than DSL. In my neighborhood, for example, our DSL provider offers only two speed options, both of which are much slower than all but one of the cable options. Our cable provider offers about a half-dozen different speed options, and most are much faster than DSL.
While fiber internet offers the fastest download and upload speeds, its availability is still pretty limited. You will need to check with providers for your area to see if fiber is available yet, or when it may become available. Keep in mind that prices for all internet services will vary depending on where you live.
Cable vs. DSL reliability
In most areas, DSL is a lower-priced but slower option for internet services. Download speeds typically max out around 50 Mbps, but how fast your speeds are will depend on how far you are from the provider’s station. DSL is also less consistent across large areas. Internet speed on DSL can vary even within the same neighborhood.
Cable internet usually offers more high-speed internet options with download speeds up to 3,000 Mbps. Cable internet speeds are usually consistent throughout a neighborhood or service area; however, they can be slowed, depending on how many people in an area are online at the same time.
Cable internet plans are also usually more expensive, though the price per Mbps is often lower. That means, if you want higher speeds, it's probably worth springing for cable internet. But if 50 Mbps or less is plenty fast enough for your needs, a cable plan probably isn't worth it.
Major providers nationwide for DSL
Most people have access to at least one DSL provider like these:
Largest providers of cable internet
In most areas of the country, you will have only one cable provider available to you.
Disclaimer: Availability and pricing are subject to location. Conditions apply. For offer details, visit the provider's website.
Cable vs. DSL: which is right for you?
Choosing an internet provider depends on several factors including price, speed, and local availability. Comparing both cable and DSL can help you decide which type of internet service is right for you. Start by finding out which providers are available near you.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.