Since the birth of the internet in 1983, we have seen several methods of connecting to the internet. These internet technology types include dial-up, integrated services digital network (ISDN), digital subscriber line (DSL), cable network, fiber, satellite, and cellular network technologies. Each of these technologies features a unique speed and mode of operation.
The evolution of internet technology
The journey of modern internet technology started from the independent research of two US scientists, Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn. (1) In 1969, they developed the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which formed the foundation for dial-up internet technology.
Dial-up internet was the leading technology in the 1990s, relying on telephone lines to connect to the internet. Broadband internet technologies came along in the early 2000s, providing various levels of sophistication. They also offer more broad bandwidths, with faster download and upload speeds.
Types of modern internet technology
|Speed||Suitable for rural areas||Mode of connection||Widely used||Latency||undefined|
|DSL||50 Mbps||No||Copper wire||Yes||Low|
|Cable||1,000 Mbps||No||Coaxial cable||Yes||Low|
|Fiber||10,000 Mbps||No||Fiber-optic cable||No||Low|
|Satellite||250 Mbps||Yes||Wireless—satellite dish||Yes||Extremely High|
|Fixed wireless||1,000 Mbps||Yes||Wireless—receiver||Yes||Low|
|Cellular internet||20,000 Mbps||Yes||Wireless—mobile phone||Yes||Low|
Up to 56 Kbps
Although dial-up technology is nearly out of use, it is worth mentioning because it is the oldest technology for connecting users to the internet. Dial-up internet relies on a public telephone line and modem to connect to the internet. A user at one end typically calls the recipient’s telephone line to connect both computers to the internet.
Dial-up connections can support up to 56 Kbps connection speed. This speed is nothing compared to several modern internet technologies, like fiber and fixed wireless internet technologies, which are more than one million times faster. Still, it’s unlikely you will get 56 Kbps when you call. The speed can drop depending on the modem quality and the noise on your phone line.
Considering its relatively slow speed and limited bandwidth, the dial-up method has fallen out of fashion since the introduction of newer broadband technologies. However, the technology is not entirely extinct. Statista reports that about 1.9 percent of US households use a dial-up connection to access the internet. (2) It is a cheaper alternative to satellite internet and DSL for people living in rural areas lacking broadband internet access.
Dial-up technology suits people who only perform basic internet activities like checking emails and chatting online.
- Wide availability
- Requires only a landline and a modem
- Less susceptible to cyber attacks and hacking
- Slow connection speed
- Supports only primary internet usage due to limited bandwidth
- Prone to disconnections in harsh weather conditions
- Does not support internet and calling simultaneously
Integrated services digital network (ISDN) technology
Up to 128 Kbps
The integrated services digital network is another technology that operates via telephone lines. ISDN gained popularity in the 1990s as an alternative to the traditional dial-up connection. Unlike dial-up connections, ISDN uses a digital modem, requires a service contract with a service provider, and provides higher connection speeds. It also supports sending voice, video, and text data messages.
ISBN services typically come in either of two interfaces, each with varying bandwidth capacity. These interfaces include the basic rate interface (BR-ISBN) and the primary rate interface (PRI-ISDN).
BR-ISBN offers less speed than all the PRI-ISDN. It transmits a connection over two data bearer channels (B-channels). Each B-channel sends an internet connection to a location at 64 Kbps speed. Together, they provide 128 Kbps data transmission speed. Conversely, the PRI-ISDN infrastructure provides up to 1.54 Mbps. It comprises 23 B-channels, each allowing up to 64 Kbps data speed.
Although it provides higher bandwidth than a dial-up connection, ISDN does not match modern internet speed demands. ISDN can’t support the bandwidth and speed you need for heavy internet activities like video conferencing, streaming, or gaming. If you’re in an area with limited access to broadband internet, ISDN can be a valuable alternative for basic web surfing.
- Supports voice and data seamlessly
- Better quality calls than traditional phone dial-up technology
- Connection is less prone to interference and noise than analog phone lines
- Requires specialized technical infrastructure
- Slower than other broadband internet technologies
Digital subscriber line (DSL) technology
Up to 50 Mbps
Digital subscriber line (or DSL) relies on modem technology to transmit pictures and videos to subscribers via phone lines. As such, you don’t have to spend extra on cables since your home will most likely have the phone lines cable set up in your home.
Depending on your plan, DSL typically provides download speeds between 3 Mbps and 50 Mbps. The speed you receive will also vary depending on the quality of copper wire used when installing the phone line and the cable length from the service provider. You will get faster internet speeds when connected over a shorter cable to a service provider nearby. Although unaffected by weather, speeds can slow down at peak periods.
Most DSL services will support gaming on up to two devices streaming at 1080p quality. Lowering the quality will allow you to stream on more devices. Virtual reality (VR) games on DSL may fail to run smoothly because they require more upload speeds than DSL can provide. You may also experience similar challenges with uploading videos and downloading gaming updates.
Typically, DSL service providers offer the internet in two ways: Asymmetric DSL and Symmetric DSL. Asymmetric DSL trades off some upload speed to provide higher download speed. Most residential providers use this as households typically do more downloading than uploading. On the other hand, symmetric DSL maintains equal download and upload speeds.
There are concerns over the future of DSL technology. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported a steady decline in demand for DSL connection as fiber and cable rise. (3) A few providers, like AT&T, have already announced their decision to discontinue offering DSL services to new customers as they shift to more modern internet technologies. (4)
- Sometimes less expensive than cable or fiber internet
- Widely available in urban and suburban areas
- Suitable for applications such as streaming video and online gaming
- No need for additional wiring
- Supports telephone calls and internet simultaneously
- Speed is unaffected by weather
- Signal strength may be limited by distance from the main distribution frame
- DSL is slower than fiber internet speed
- DSL lines require filters between the phone and the wall jack
- Signals can be vulnerable to interference from other electronic devices, such as microwaves
Satellite internet technology
Up to 250 Mbps
As a wireless technology, satellite internet connections do not need wires to receive an internet signal. Instead, the technology works by transmitting radio waves from satellites orbiting the earth to satellite dishes installed on the side of a building or on the ground. The dish then transmits the signals through an ethernet cable to your modem or router.
Different internet service providers offer varying bandwidths and download speeds. Viasat, Starlink, and HughesNet are the top satellite internet providers in the US. While Viasat provides up to 25 Mbps and 3 Mbps upload speed, HughesNet maxes at 100 Mbps, and Starlink gets to 250 Mbps. However, these speeds are only available for some locations.
Since satellite connections do not operate based on cables, they are suitable for remote areas. But this comes with some drawbacks. The network can get slow on stormy or heavy snowfall days because the receiver dish can become blocked from having a clear connection with the satellite up in space. Bad weather or high network congestion may cause weak signals, networking finicking, or a complete outage.
High latency is another significant challenge with satellite internet technology. Latency refers to the time it takes for data to travel between two points in a network. This delay is significantly high in satellite internet because signals travel long distances through space to the satellite in orbit and back to the ground before you get a response on your computer.
Because of its high latency, satellite internet may be rough for competitive online gaming, video conferencing, or VR events.
- No phone lines required
- Faster internet speed than dial-up or ISDN
- Larger bandwidth
- Excellent upload and download efficiency
- Prone to poor signal when there is a slight obstruction or bad weather
- More expensive than cellular networks
- Significant lag time and latency (5)
Fixed wireless internet technology
Up to 1 Gbps
Fixed wireless internet technology works by broadcasting radio waves from a transmission mast to receivers in homes and offices. The masts (or poles) run on electrical power provided by utility mains that typically run on batteries or generators. The receiver is mounted in your home at a height (possibly on the roof) where you can clearly see the mast.
Fixed wireless networks work with cellular data networks. Fixed wireless plans typically beat satellite and wired technologies like DSL and cable connections in terms of speed and reliability. While some standard fixed wireless plans offer speeds up to 25-50 Mbps, some go up to 1 Gbps. While many fixed wireless plans are offered by mobile providers, like T-Mobile, you can't take your internet with you wherever you go like you can on a mobile phone.
People in rural and remote areas will find fixed wireless internet technology helpful since it provides high-speed internet without the cost of laying cables. The network can support website browsing, file uploads and downloads, streaming, video conferencing, and online gaming.
Small businesses and remote workers can also rely on fixed wireless networks to sponsor their daily work internet demands. Some construction companies use the technology on sites since it is easy to set up and dismantle.
- Low latency
- Nearly stable uptimes
- Available where leased lines are absent
- Unaffected by harsh weather conditions
- Expensive compared to wired networks
- Internet connection is stationary
- Not suitable for roaming
Cable internet technology
Up to 1 Gbps
Cable internet is a broadband technology that provides internet services to homes and businesses using cable television infrastructure. These cables are the same as the ones you use for cable television. The internet service provider sends a signal through the coaxial cable to your home.
Connecting your modem to your computer using an ethernet cable gives you access to high-speed internet. Or you can plug the ethernet cable into a router and connect multiple computers via a Wi-Fi signal. The connection speed allows online gaming on gaming consoles or personal computers alike. Remote workers can stream videos, attend virtual events, and seamlessly download and upload files on multiple devices.
Cable internet providers commonly advertise download speeds between 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps. Their plans often come with TV and internet service bundles, allowing you to watch television and use the internet simultaneously. Xfinity, Spectrum, and Optimum internet are some of the most popular cable service providers in 2023.
- Widely available
- Reliable internet connection
- Fast connection speed
- Bundled internet and cable television packages
- Asymmetrical internet
- Slower upload speed
- Limited availability in rural areas
Fiber internet technology
Up to 10 Gbps
Fiber internet connection is a newer technology that provides lightning-fast internet signals. The technology uses light signals to send and receive data from your computer through fiber-optic cables. The fiber-optic cables transmit optical signals over long distances with low latency and minimum distortion. Since fiber has a higher speed than cable internet and DSL, it achieves faster and more reliable connections.
Fiber internet service providers deliver internet connections using the fiber to the home (FTTH) or the fiber to the node (FTTN) setup. While FTTH connects directly to the internet service provider, FTTN connects to a fiber internet distribution hub in your neighborhood. Fiber internet technology supports up to 10 Gbps internet speed.
Fiber networks are typically available in urban areas. The wide bandwidth and fast speed meet your internet needs, whether streaming 4K videos, hosting live virtual events, gaming online, or uploading large files to the cloud.
- Faster internet speed
- Energy-efficient and sustainable
- No interference from weather or electrical or magnetic fields
- Excellent upload and download efficiency
- Expensive to set up
- Not widely available
Cellular internet technologies
Up to 20 Gbps
Cellular network technologies allow you to connect to the internet from your mobile phone and communicate with other computers. Radio wave receivers installed on your mobile phone connect wirelessly to cell transmitters. As such, you can access the internet from anywhere using your mobile phone so long as there's a cell tower within range to provide service.
The cellular technologies that support internet connection are 3G, 4G, and 5G. 3G supports up to 2 Mbps speed for static phones and 384 Kbps when on the move, while 4G offers up to 1 Gbps speed for stationary devices. 5G is the fastest cellular internet technology, offering higher bandwidths, lower latency, and an energy-efficient internet connection. 5G allows up to 20 Gbps internet speed.
Cellular networks are ideal if you need to use the internet as you move about. You can stream videos, attend virtual events, download and upload files, or play games from anywhere. IoT (short for “Internet of things”) devices, like smartwatches and other wearables, operate using cellular network technology.
- Inexpensive subscription plans
- Provides voice and data services
- Can connect to both fixed and wireless network devices
- Mobile internet broadband
- Limitless network range
- Slower data rates compared to DSL
- Vulnerable to security breaches
- Specific to mobile devices
Which internet technology is right for me?
Choosing the right internet technology for you will depend on how much internet speed you need and the availability in your area. Consider your internet usage, budget, and the available options in your area to determine which type of internet might be the best fit for you.
Peter is a technical writer with over 6 years of experience. He believes in simplifying technology through content and has worked with brands from the US and other parts of the world. Peter has a background in Economics and is an avid researcher. He’s also a lover of photography.
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.
Michal directs the Switchful content strategy and leads the editorial team. With a bachelor’s degree in Communications, she has more than a decade of experience in the world of marketing communications. Her diverse career has included public relations, brand development, digital strategies, and more; her key skillset has always been centered around strategic efforts for consumer-focused initiatives. In her free time, you can find her camping with friends, chasing waterfalls on her kayak, or searching for the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.
Endnotes and sources
1. “Who invented the internet,” Britannica. Accessed 15 February 2023.
2. “US household dial-up connection usage by state,” Statista. Accessed 15 February 2023.
3. “AT&T shelving DSL may leave hundreds of thousands hanging by a phone line,” USA Today. Accessed 23 February 2023.
4. “OECD broadband statistics update,” Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Accessed 23 February 2023.
5. “Measuring Fixed Broadband- Tenth Report,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Accessed 23 February 2023.