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. Are You Overpaying for Internet? Deciding how much to pay for Internet service can be tricky. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) charge varied amounts for similar Internet packages, making it difficult to know how to choose the right one. Many people assume that doing a simple price comparison will help them pick the best Internet plan, but there’s a lot more to it than simply comparing costs. What to Consider When Picking an ISP The most important thing to consider when choosing an Internet Service Provider is the speed-to-price ratio. There is no standardized cost for any given speed of Internet, so pricing can vary greatly. As important as speed is, however, it’s far from the only factor to consider. Before you make a decision, evaluate other aspects of each ISP. Do they have high customer service ratings? Is the company known for frequent outages? Are there any data limits or overage charges you should be prepared for? These are all important — and often underestimated — facets of Internet service. The last important item to consider before picking an ISP is your service needs. Are you a heavy Internet user who streams videos and music? If so, you may need a faster connection. Conversely, if you only use the Internet to check email and Facebook, you may be able to get by with less bandwidth and a lower monthly rate. Terms to Know Understanding some basics of Internet service packages will help make your decision easier. If nothing else, you should understand the terms used for different connection types, and you should be familiar with speed tier measurements. The four main Internet connections are satellite, DSL, cable, and fiber. Each type connects users to the Internet in a different way.
  1. Satellite Internet, as the name suggests, sends Internet data via satellites. To subscribe to this type of Internet, users must have a satellite receiver.
  1. DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line, is a type of connection that transmits data through telephone lines. Subscribers will have an individual connection point at their location.
  1. Cable Internet is transmitted through coaxial cables, like premium television channels. This option may not be available in rural locations. Cable users are typically linked to a main cable line that services a larger area.
  1. Fiber-optic Internet carries data as beams of light through fiber-optic cables. This option allows for incredibly high speeds, but fiber networks aren’t as widely available as cable or DSL.
As for speed, the most common figure you’ll encounter is bandwidth. Bandwidth is measured in megabits per second (Mbps), and it shows how much data can be moved in a second. Comparing Internet Service Providers After you’ve mastered the basics of service terminology, it’s time to do a side-by-side comparison to see how the various ISPs stack up. Under 10 Mbps An Internet connection under 10 Mbps will work for checking email, accessing social media, and running simple Internet searches. If you plan on streaming lots of videos or music, this probably isn’t the right connection for you.

Fiber: The AT&T U-verse network offers the best deal in this tier. The U-verse ELITE package offers 6 Mbps for $20 per month. AT&T is also one of the bigger companies on this list, with a long history of customer service and reliability. Frontier offers up to 6 Mbps for $34 per month with a 2-year contract, and that cost includes a wireless router. This is a great no-hassle plan, but that convenience comes with a higher price tag.

Cable: Time Warner Cable, Cox, and Mediacom all offer cable services at speeds under 10 Mbps. Time Warner comes in first, offering speeds up to 6 Mbps for $29 per month, while Cox offers speeds up to 5 Mbps for $34 per month. Mediacom also falls short — while pricing is not listed online until purchase, they are the only cable provider that enforces a data cap, allowing users only 150 GB of data per month.

DSL: Windstream is a solid DSL option, matching Time Warner Cable’s advertised speeds up to 6 Mbps for $29 per month.

Satellite: Satellite subscribers should look to HughesNet for their services. The company offers up to 5 Mbps for $39 per month with a 55 GB cap.

10–30 Mbps This mid-range Internet service is great for moderate users. It’s perfect for surfing Facebook, watching YouTube videos, and streaming music. While service may slow down during large data transfers, these are not bad plans for the average consumer.

Fiber: In the fiber pool, AT&T U-verse again offers one of the best deals for the money in this service range. Its U-verse MAX TURBO service boasts up to 24 Mbps at $25 per month.

Cable: For cable subscribers, the XFINITY Performance 25 package offers up to 25 Mbps for $39 per month. XFINITY has also recently redoubled its efforts to give users a good support experience, meaning customer service will likely be excellent. Time Warner Cable offers its Extreme plan of up to 30 Mbps for $44 per month and its Turbo plan at up to 20 Mbps for $44 per month. Both of these plans are on the high end of the pricing spectrum for this bracket.

DSL: Windstream’s Enhanced Speed plan offers up to 25 Mbps for $39 per month, making it a strong and affordable DSL plan.

Satellite: If you’re looking to bundle with TV services, DISH might still be a good choice.

30–100 Mbps This high-speed tier allows users to transfer large amounts of data and stream media with ease. This is great for avid media streamers or those who work from home. Almost every major high-speed Internet company offers a package in the 30–100 Mbps arena.

Fiber: AT&T offers a stellar fiber option. Its U-verse Internet 75 package is $35 per month for up to 75 Mbps. While still a solid deal, AT&T’s U-verse Internet plan would be a better option where available.

Cable: Charter Spectrum offers a cable plan comparable to AT&T’s options, providing up to 60 Mbps for $39 per month. Rounding out this strong group of midrange options, XFINITY charges $44 per month for up to 75 Mbps on its Performance plan. Cox’s Preferred plan runs subscribers $54 per month for up to 50 Mbps, a slightly inflated rate compared to top offers. Time Warner Cable also misses the mark in this speed bracket — its Ultimate plan is $64 per month for 50 Mbps.

DSL: CenturyLink is the DSL leader in this range, currently offering packages with one- and two-year contracts. its one-year package is $29 per month for up to 40 Mbps, which is a great deal considering that most companies charge $25 for half as much speed.

100 Mbps and Up Anything above 100 Mbps is at the top end of Internet service. These plans are for users who absolutely can’t wait for their computer to catch up with their streaming needs. Plans like this also make large data transfers significantly easier.

Fiber: In the FiOS family, you can get up to 100 Mbps for $54 per month, up to 300 Mbps for $164 per month, or up to 500 Mbps for $264 per month.  These high-speed plans are not for the faint of wallet, but will definitely provide the fastest Internet connections possible. Vivint offers up to 100 Mbps for $59 a month. This plan isn’t the fastest or cheapest, but the revolutionary technology makes it more easily accessible in some areas.

Cable: The XFINITY Blast! plan is one of the best cable deals in this speed bracket. You’ll be paying $49 per month to have up to 150 Mbps at your fingertips. Cox also offers moderately priced plans with tons of speed — its Premier plan offers up to 100 Mbps for $64, while its Ultimate plan is $84 per month for up to 150 Mbps. That’s not as cheap as the XFINITY Blast! plan, but it’s still reasonably priced for the amount of speed offered.

Cable plans step up considerably in price from there, but the amount of speed offered also doubles or triples in most cases. The XFINITY Extreme 250 plan runs $149 per month for up to 250 Mbps of Internet speed. Its XI Gigabit Pro plan offers up to 2,000 Mbps, but comes with a hefty price tag of $299 per month.

Next Steps There’s a lot to consider when purchasing an Internet plan. Research your options before taking the leap. Take time to see what consumers in your area are saying about any given ISP. It’s also important to remember that most speeds listed for a plan are considered average maximum speeds — not guaranteed speeds. Don’t forget to ask if the plan has a speed cap or if it comes with any usage restrictions. These factors can greatly affect how your plan functions. If you feel like you’re getting a raw deal on your Internet service, there are plenty of other plans out there. Check out providers in your area to see if you can find a plan that’s right for you. *Pricing and speeds are current as of writing. Pricing and speeds are subject to change. Not all offers available in all areas. Online gaming is one of the most demanding activities that your Internet connection can experience. On a par with streaming video, gameplay is impacted by every possible step from you to the server. That’s not a big problem if you’re playing turn-based and / or low resolution games, but most of today’s games are fast-paced and graphics-intensive — and a troubled connection can spell doom for you and your teammates.  

The Main Focus

The two most important ISP issues are bandwidth and latency. Bandwidth is the well-known “speed” rating that your ISP tempts you with. Try to get used to NOT thinking of bandwidth as speed, but as capacity (after all, we don’t call it “fastband”, we call it broadband). Bandwidth measures how much data can be sent “down the pipe” at once. The difference between a fiber ISP and cable / DSL is the difference between a fireman’s hose and a cocktail straw. All things being equal, higher bandwidth is better. Cable networks can be subject to congestion when too many people are online at once. DSL is actually ADSL, and the A stands for “asynchronous”, meaning that your upload bandwidth is MUCH smaller than your download (and remember, gaming is a two-way street). Both types rely on copper wire, which is subject to electromagnetic disturbance, corrosion, and other kinds of signal degradation to which fiber is immune. And in all cases, there will be conditions that are almost completely out of your control, such as the number of junctions, nodes, and “hops” along the way. Bandwidth is very important to gaming, especially where high-res graphics are concerned, but it’s not the whole story by a long shot. It’s very possible to get improved performance by switching from a higher-bandwidth ISP to a “cleaner” and more direct lower-bandwidth connection.  

Latency’s Gaming Impact

Gamers depend just as much — maybe more — on latency. Unlike bandwidth, latency really is speed. It’s a measure of the delay that you experience between hitting a button and getting a response. More technically speaking (at least relatively), it’s the time that it takes for the signal to travel from your home to the server. It’s measured in milliseconds, but don’t be fooled — it doesn’t really take too many milliseconds before you start to “feel” a certain sluggishness in response. When it’s enough to affect gameplay for you and your teammates, it’s called “lag.” Typically, the weakest link in the lag chain slows down the experience for everyone around them — and you know what happens to the weakest link. Goodbye. This latency is why satellite ISPs are virtually useless for gaming despite offering more than enough bandwidth. Each trip from you to the server has to travel an average of 70,000km (44,000 miles) from you to the satellite in orbit, back down to the ISP’s receiver, and from there to the game host server — and then back to you along the same route. And that’s not even counting the typically inefficient coaxial cable from your PC to the dish. Satellite ISP generally off at least 500 milliseconds of latency, which is at least half a second between pressing a button and getting the intended response. And at least another half a second before you hear the dismayed cries of your teammates.  

It May Not Be Your ISP’s Fault

Before you point your finger at the ISP, examine your non-Internet connections. Traveling through your controls and into your PC, your gaming encounters bandwidth barriers and processing bottlenecks from the motherboard, CPU, GPU, storage drives, memory sticks, and the connections to your USB and Ethernet ports. Plus, the path to your modem and router, especially with a wireless network, can add unnecessary obstacles in getting the most from your Internet connection. And that’s not even considering the countless software and operating system variables. Bottom line: before you begin to blame your ISP for poor gaming performance, make sure that your hardware and software is up to snuff. A thorough guide is beyond the scope of this article, but one extremely helpful resource that I’ve found is Tweak Guides.com, which has many helpful guides to game-specific as well as system-wide optimizations.  

Satellite Versus Dial-Up

You’re actually better off with dial-up than you are with satellite. A good dial-up connection can offer an average of 150ms latency, which is frankly still horrible for gaming but can work under certain circumstances. There’s still a healthy contingent of online players who prefer games such as Ultima Online and the original EverQuest, not to mention less graphically-intensive games from the earlier days of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, what we old-timers used to call MMORPGSs). Newer casual games or turn-based games (such as Atlantica Online or the quirky Kingdom of Loathing) have no significant latency requirement, so dial-up or even satellite may be sufficient. But for serious gameplay, you’ll be looking at broadband: cable, DSL, and fiber. Cable and DSL are, as usual, broadly comparable, both offering ideal-world latencies in the 10-20 millisecond range. For once, fiber doesn’t provide a clear benefit; latency in fiber is comparable to DSL and cable. “But doesn’t it travel at the speed of light?” you ask. Well, yes… but it also travels with a little less “concentration” or “focus” than electrical.signals over copper wire, due to the nature of light refraction within the fiber “wire.” Not to mention that a fiber signal usually has to jump to good old copper wire for that “last mile” to your PC.  

Ask The Audience

My advice is to listen to the reviews and anecdotal experiences of others who have tried broadband solutions in your local area, which is why (shameless self-promotion to follow) a site like ours is so valuable. I hate to take the easy way out, but there really is no substitute for personally trying the different ISPs in your area to see which one provides the best gaming experience. Between DSL, cable, and fiber, you’re certain to find the best combination of high bandwidth and low latency that will eliminate the lag, keeping you (and your teammates) playing at peak performance levels.
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