DSL or Fiber: Find the Right One for You

Internet access is crucial to modern life, but finding the right service can be complicated and confusing. There are lots of different options to choose from, each with their own pros and cons.

While there is no perfect Internet plan for everyone, there are options to meet the needs of every lifestyle and every kind of user. To find the best option in your area, check out this side-by-side comparison of two popular types of Internet: DSL and fiber.

Network Overview

The fundamentals of data transmission are the same for both Internet types: information is sent back and forth between the user and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) via a network of wires. However, the type of wires carrying the data and the way signals get transmitted differ from service to service.

DSL

DSL stands for “Digital Subscriber Line,” which essentially means that the service uses copper phone lines to transmit electronic data between your computer and the wider Internet.

There are two variants of DSL: ADSL (asymmetric) and SDSL (symmetric). ADSL — the most common connection type for residential setups — allows you to use your telephone line for both landline calls and Internet access, while SDSL uses the whole connection for Internet access, resulting in faster upload speeds at the expense of voice services.

It is worth noting that DLS’s electronic signals can degrade as they travel, meaning that service quality may be affected by the distance between the ISP’s hub and the user-end termination point. Further, any electromagnetic interference or damage to phone line infrastructure may cause interruptions in the connection.

Fiber

Fiber-optic Internet is currently one of the most advanced Internet services available in the United States. Instead of using copper cables to transmit data, fiber-optic cables are made up of ultra-thin glass or plastic strands that carry light instead of electricity. These light pulses transmit messages between your computer and the rest of the world.

Because light can travel quickly through fiber-optic cables, fiber networks can carry substantial amounts of data over long distances without any service degradation. Additionally, because light signals are less affected by power surges, fiber connections don’t generally suffer from interference during electrical events.

Equipment Setup

Many people tend to assume that all in-home Internet arrangements use the same equipment, regardless of connection type. However, because DSL delivers data via electronic signals while fiber makes use of light waves, the two connections actually require drastically different equipment setups and installation processes.

DSL

DSL follows the model that most Internet users are used to: a modem/router combination that transmits and broadcasts Internet for both wired and wireless connections throughout the home. Further, because DSL has been around for so long, there are plenty of equipment options, ranging from standard ISP-provided devices to high-end customizable setups. And while it may be more convenient to use the equipment that comes with your service contract, you can save a few dollars each month by buying your own modem or router instead of renting one from your provider.

When it comes to installation, most DSL connections run through already-placed telephone lines, meaning that the service is easy to install and likely won’t require professional help. In fact, many DSL ISPs even supply simple self-installation kits. If you’re hesitant to install your own service, or you have a unique wiring situation in your home, you can also opt for a professional installation — though you may be charged an additional fee.

Fiber

Fiber-optic Internet connections do use routers, but that’s where the similarities with DSL end. Because data is delivered via light, traditional modems won’t work with fiber Internet. Instead, you’ll need to use a more complex setup — including an Optical Network Terminal (ONT) — to convert the light signals into usable digital data.

Because fiber technology is still young, there aren’t many third-party equipment options, so you’ll have to rely on your fiber ISP to supply you with most of the equipment you need. If you do opt to use your own router, you’ll need to verify that it can handle the speed capacity that your fiber plan advertises.

Due to the more complex installation process, fiber Internet is typically set up by a professional. Self-install kits are rare, and they are usually only available for homes that have previously had fiber installed.

Connection Speeds

There are few things more frustrating than slow Internet speeds — from start-and-stop video streams to choppy Skype calls, download speed makes a huge difference in the way you use the Internet. Fortunately, DSL and fiber Internet each provide a wide range of speed tiers for different types of users.

DSL

Residential DSL services don’t necessarily have the fastest speeds on the market, but most plans offer enough bandwidth for basic Internet usage. Advertised download speeds usually range from 1 Mbps to 20 Mbps, while upload speeds rarely get above 1 Mbps.

As with most Internet connections, you likely won’t receive advertised speeds all the time — several different factors can affect the quality of your connection. For example, because DSL service quality deteriorates over long distances, Internet speeds may differ if your home is located far from your provider’s exchange point. DSL is also susceptible to traffic-based slowing during peak usage times, so streaming Netflix on a weekday evening may prove challenging.

Fiber

Fiber-optic Internet is the fastest, most reliable Internet available in the United States. Speeds generally stay fairly stable, regardless of regional traffic or distance from the ISP. Additionally, most fiber Internet providers boast equal upload and download speeds, and some top-tier fiber plans can range up over 1 Gbps.

Those high speeds translate into a lot of connectivity potential — families can stream HD video on multiple devices at once, make seamless video-calls, and play online games without any stuttering or slow buffering. Heavy uploaders also benefit from fiber-optic Internet’s equal uploading capacity, and Cloud storage and video uploading are much more effective than they would be on a slower connection.

Area Availability

Not all providers have access to the same networks. Some regions have limited Internet access in general, while others have one or two dominant providers that bear the Internet load of the entire area. As a result of these varied infrastructures, your Internet service options may vary quite a bit.

DSL

DSL is available to roughly 90 percent of the United States, making it one of the most common types of Internet available. As DSL connections utilize phone lines to transmit data, most houses will already have the wiring installed and ready to go.

Additionally, because DSL has been around for such a long time, there are a decent number of providers who offer Internet services. Unless you live in a very rural location with little infrastructure, you should be able to get some level of DSL connectivity in your home.

Fiber

Laying down fiber-optic cables can be prohibitively expensive for many ISPs, so only a small portion of the United States currently has access to fiber Internet. However, as more users demand faster speeds, fiber technology is starting to gain momentum. So while the United States may still be a far cry from fiber-savvy countries like South Korea, the overwhelming positive response toward fiber Internet will surely speed up technological advancement in the coming years.

Monthly Costs

While download speeds and availability are important, price is generally the most important aspect of an Internet plan. Though total costs will ultimately vary depending on your location and plan, certain service types — usually the more high-tech or faster options — do tend to cost more than others.

DSL

Because DSL tends to be slower than other types of Internet, it also tends to be cheaper — there are several affordable plans that cost less than $50 per month. Compared to cable and fiber Internet, DSL is a great budget option.

If you’re looking for even more affordable services, don’t forget to look at bundled packages. Combining your Internet service with a landline phone plan, for example, can also net you some extra savings.

Fiber

Because fiber uses cutting-edge home Internet technology, it is one of the more expensive ways of getting online. If you’re looking for gigabit speeds, for instance, you should expect to pay around $100 or more per month, depending on your provider.

Some fiber providers also offer TV or voice services, so it’s worth checking out the bundles available in your area.

The Take-Away

There’s no objective answer as to which connection type is better than the other — everything boils down to your connectivity needs. If you have a lot of devices connected to the Internet, or if you do a lot of bandwidth-heavy processes at home, fiber-optic Internet will likely be worth the money. Those who prefer a low-budget option with wide availability and basic functionality will likely prefer a DSL plan.

Whatever your preferences are, you deserve to have an Internet plan that caters to your specific usage patterns. Determine the speed you want and take a look at what’s available in your neighborhood.