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About DSL internet

DSL uses telephone lines to deliver high-speed internet service. Short for digital subscriber line, DSL offers a number of improvements over older dial-up technology. DSL reaches speeds up to 100 Mbps, which is much higher than dial-up and doesn’t tie up the phone line. Because it uses existing phone lines, DSL is widely available and one of the most affordable options for broadband internet.

Although it can reach broadband speeds (25 Mbps or higher), DSL is much slower than other internet technologies like cable and fiber. It’s great for basics like checking email and paying bills, but it isn’t as great for more demanding tasks.

Most internet service providers (ISPs) are moving away from DSL and some have stopped taking new DSL customers entirely. Still, DSL provides an affordable and reliable option for millions of people and will continue to be important as the US upgrades its communication infrastructure.

Popular DSL internet providers

ProviderDSL speeds up toPrices starting atCustomer ratingAvailabilityGet it
CenturyLink100 Mbps$50.00/mo.*3.5/5Across 36 statesView plans
Frontier45 Mbps$37.99/mo.†N/AAcross 25 statesView plans
Windstream100 Mbps$27.00/mo.‡N/A18 states from New Mexico to New YorkView plans
EarthLink45 Mbps$49.95/mo.4.2/5Nationwide across all 50 statesView plans

DSL networks run throughout the US, but there isn’t a lot of overlap between them. That means that in most areas, there are only one or two providers to choose from. Some providers, such as AT&T, no longer offer DSL to new customers, further limiting your options in many areas.

Is DSL available in my area?

Because of the wide-reaching accessibility of DSL, it’s likely you have a DSL provider in your area. Search with your zip code to see which internet providers offer service near you.

Find DSL providers in your area.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Wide availability
  • Low monthly costs

Cons

  • Speed limitations
  • Slower speeds over distance
  • Local monopolies
  • Deteriorating infrastructure

Pros of DSL

Wide availability—DSL is incredibly widespread within the US. Almost 90% of the US population has access to a DSL network, including over 70% of people living in rural areas.1 In many areas, DSL is the only form of wired internet available. Although not as fast as some wireless rural options, like certain satellite internet plans, DSL’s wired connection can offer lower latency, which is important for activities like online games.

Low monthly costs—DSL is often considerably cheaper than other types of internet connections, even those offering similar speeds. This difference in cost is especially noticeable in rural areas, where other options like satellite internet can be double or triple the cost of a DSL plan.

Cons of DSL

Speed limitations—DSL is one of the slowest types of internet connection, with some plans not even meeting the speed requirements for the FCC’s definition of broadband internet (25 Mbps or faster). DSL speeds range from about 1–100 Mbps. Most DSL connections are also asynchronous. This means that upload speed will be even lower than the download speed, which could make it difficult or impossible to video chat or livestream.

Slower speeds over distance—DSL speeds drop the farther your home is from your provider’s nearest hub. In urban and suburban areas, this usually isn’t a problem. But it can cause issues for customers who are on the edges of their provider’s network. If you live in a rural area and consistently get less speed than your provider advertises, this might be why.

Local monopolies—While nearly 90% of Americans have access to at least one DSL provider, less than 4% have two or more DSL networks available in their area.1 DSL providers essentially control regional monopolies that avoid competing with one another, giving customers no alternative choice. This, in turn, has led to poor customer service from many ISPs. When considering a DSL provider, be sure to look at customer reviews.

Deteriorating infrastructure—DSL networks cover the US, but the copper wires that make up these networks are much more susceptible to corrosion and deterioration than fiber-optic cables. Rather than repairing these networks, many DSL providers are focusing their resources on building out newer technologies. Meanwhile, DSL networks are falling further into disrepair and service outages are becoming more frequent.

Best DSL internet plans

DSL Plans

PlanDownload speedPricesGet it
CenturyLink Simply Unlimited Internet100 Mbps$50.00/mo.*View plans
EarthLink 45 Mbps Internet45 Mbps$69.95/mo.†View plans
Frontier Premium InternetUp to 115 Mbps$54.99/mo.‡View plans
Windstream Tier 1 High Speed Internet 50-100 Mbps50–100 Mbps$37.00/mo.§View plans

How DSL internet works

DSL internet works by running an internet signal over copper phone lines and delivering it to your home, much like older dial-up connections do. But unlike dial-up, DSL offers much faster speeds and won’t tie up your phone line. DSL was the first viable broadband internet option available to many people. It was revolutionary for its time, but it can’t keep up with modern technologies like fiber and 5G. As DSL lines fall into disrepair or are abandoned by providers, finding new ways to keep DSL customers connected is becoming a significant issue.

Getting the most out of an old technology

DSL was created to get the maximum amount of information possible over a standard copper phone line. Whereas dial-up internet transmitted data using audible frequencies (which ‘90s kids are probably hearing in their heads right now), DSL used much higher frequencies, which could hold more information.

This left the lower frequencies available for audible speech, allowing both signals to be transmitted across the same line simultaneously, like a melody playing over a base line. These high frequencies could then be filtered out using a splitter, allowing you to stay connected to the internet without tying up the phone line.

Types of DSL

Most DSL networks use asymmetric DSL (ADSL), which divides up these higher frequencies and dedicates most of them toward download speed. This boosts the maximum speed for most online activities, but it makes ADSL a poor choice for video chat, livestreaming, or sending large amounts of data.

ADSL also loses signal quality over long distances. The maximum distance that a signal can travel is just over 5 km (3.1 miles), but most providers will place a much lower limit on this distance to maintain quality. Customers who are on the edges of the network will experience speeds lower than their provider’s maximum advertised speeds.

There are several other types of DSL, such as symmetric DSL (SDSL) and rate-adaptive DSL (RADSL), which each have their own pros and cons. These types divide up frequencies differently, which in many cases means that the lower frequencies aren’t available for speech. None of these technologies see widespread use in residential internet, though some are used by small businesses.

Connecting to the internet

Because DSL signals slow down and degrade after traveling a certain distance, discussions about DSL often reference a provider’s “central office” or network hub. These are the points at which the DSL network connects to the rest of the internet.

Although the term “central office” implies a single, massive headquarters, these buildings are actually distributed throughout a provider’s coverage area so that a signal never has to travel far to reach customers’ homes. These buildings each contain a device called a DSLAM (digital subscriber line access multiplexor), which is able to take data from the internet, send it out to customers across telephone lines, and vice versa. 4

The DSLAM is connected to the internet with a high-bandwidth fiber-optic connection, as well as to the standard telephone network and its copper phone lines. It works a bit like the DSL splitter in your home, separating voice frequencies from data frequencies, while also mediating between copper and fiber-optic networks.4

Advantages of DSL technology

Although the use of copper telephone wire limits the ability of DSL connections to scale with our online habits, it does have some advantages. The very concept of DSL is ingenious in many ways. It’s quite a feat to take a technology first developed to carry voice in the late 19th century and adapt it to send a high-speed digital signal. The result is a technology that is surprisingly robust.

One reason that many customers are reluctant to give up their DSL connection is that DSL can continue to function during a blackout.2 As long as you have a battery to keep your router and computer running, your internet will continue to run without electricity just as landline phones do. In older neighborhoods with older electrical systems, prepared DSL customers can keep their devices running even when the lights go out.

In an even more extreme (if less practical) example, people have managed to get a DSL connection running with nothing more than a wet string.3 Since DSL modems can run over lines originally meant for sending telegrams, perhaps it should be no surprise that they can also run on “tin-can phone” technology.

The end of the DSL era

DSL was an important step in bringing millions of people online and it continues to be a vital resource for many communities. Unfortunately, DSL is reaching the physical limits of the technology and can’t keep up with other types of connection that get faster every year.

DSL is a great low-cost option, but as providers begin to abandon their aging copper networks, we highly recommend that consumers upgrade to other types of internet like fiber or cable when possible.

DSL internet FAQ

What does DSL stand for?

DSL stands for digital subscriber line. This is a group of technologies that are used to transmit digital information over copper telephone lines. Most homes have asymmetric DSL, so you might also see it abbreviated as ADSL.

How fast is DSL?

Residential DSL speeds typically range from less than 1 Mbps up to 100 Mbps, though faster speeds are available in certain cases. Even the slowest DSL connections are much faster than dial-up internet but not nearly as fast as cable or fiber internet.

If you want to see how this compares to your current internet speed, take our internet speed test.

Is DSL good for online gaming?

DSL plans are usually fast enough for most online games. Although DSL is not as fast as cable or fiber, the minimum speed requirements for most online games are actually relatively low (unless you’re using a streaming service like Stadia). You don’t even need to get the fastest DSL plans out there to have more than enough speed for online games.

What is important for online games is low latency. If you’re playing a game with fast action, high latency can cause the game to lag or even get you kicked off the server. Fiber and cable connections can give you lower latency than DSL. But if your internet choices are between DSL and satellite, DSL will give you lower latency and a more stable connection, even if the satellite connection gives you higher download speeds.

Is DSL better than cable internet?

We recommend that customers choose cable internet over DSL when possible. Cable internet is generally faster than DSL. DSL has the advantages of being more widely available than cable and often cheaper. Unfortunately for DSL customers, providers are moving away from DSL, which means that DSL plans might be harder to find in the future and maintenance outages might become more frequent.2

To learn more, check out DSL vs. Cable: Which Is Right for You?.

Is DSL the same as dial-up internet?

No, DSL is not the same as dial-up internet. Although both use telephone lines to connect to the internet, DSL is a newer technology that carries much more information and doesn’t prevent you from using your landline phone while you’re online.

Can I get wireless internet with DSL?

Yes, you can get wireless internet with DSL. You just need to set up a home Wi-Fi network with your DSL connection. To set up a Wi-Fi network, you’ll need a wireless router, which is often built into the modem you receive from your provider.

For step-by-step instructions on how to set up a wireless network in your home, check out our guide to setting up a home Wi-Fi network.

How do I install DSL internet?

Most companies offer professional installations for DSL internet. Many also give you the option to install your DSL internet yourself. If you’re interested in self-installation, consult one of our self-installation guides below:

How do I get DSL internet?

To get DSL internet, you need to know your options. Start by seeing which providers offer DSL internet service in your area. Enter your zip code below to see your options.

    1. Federal Communications Commission, “Fixed Broadband Deployment” Accessed February 15, 2021
    2. Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica, “How Verizon Lets Its Copper Network Decay to Force Phone Customers onto Fiber” August 14, 2014, Accessed February 16, 2021
    3. RevK, RevK®’s ramblings, “It’s Official, ADSL Works over Wet String” December 12, 2017, Accessed February 16, 2021
    4. Michael Clegg, in Philip Golden, Herve Dedieu, Krista S. Jacobsen (Eds) Implementation and Applications of DSL Technology,  “DSLAM Architecture and Functionality.” 2008