What is the difference between satellite, DSL, cable, and fiber internet?
If you’re looking for a new internet package, you might feel overwhelmed with the wide range of available prices, speeds, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). It’s hard to know what to choose and which factors will have the biggest effect on your service, but when it comes to choosing an ISP, the number-one factor that effects all the others is service type.
Whether it’s cable, DSL, fiber, or satellite, each type of service comes with its own pros and cons. Cable internet and DSL are easy to find but may have low bandwidth; fiber internet is very fast but rare and expensive; and satellite internet is everywhere but notorious for lag. The more you know about each type, the more confident you will be in your final decision.
Now let’s take an in-depth look at all your options.
Top bandwidth: 25-300 Mbps
What is cable internet service?
To understand cable internet, just picture the circular outlets you use for cable television. When you hook a modem to one of those, your cable internet provider can send you data through the same coaxial cables that deliver cable TV. The high bandwidth of these cables means cable internet can reach faster speeds than DSL, satellite, and sometimes even fiber internet. However, cable internet providers usually share bandwidth between multiple subscribers, which means you may experience slower speeds if more people in your neighborhood who have the same ISP as you are accessing the internet simultaneously.
How does cable internet compare to DSL, fiber, and satellite internet?
- Usually faster than DSL and satellite internet
- Widely accessible across the US
- Usually slower than fiber internet
- Can lag during peak usage times
What are the best cable internet packages?
Top bandwidth: 0.5-75 Mbps
What is DSL internet service?
If you think of plugging into a phone jack when you think of internet, you may be familiar with DSL. However, this isn’t the same as dial-up, which ties up phone lines and can reach very low speeds only. DSL internet travels on those same phone cables but at a higher frequency than voice travels, so you can stay connected to your ISP without interfering with your home phone. And because this frequency is broader than dial-up, DSL has more bandwidth to send data.
Some internet companies, like AT&T, use fiber-optic cables to carry data most of the way and then use readily available DSL cables to make the final leg of the journey to your home. This hybrid method allows for even higher speeds without the complexity of laying fiber cables directly to every home in an area.
How does DSL compare to cable, fiber, and satellite internet?
- More widely accessible than fiber and cable internet
- Usually more affordable than other services
- Usually slower than fiber and cable internet
- Upload speeds are much lower than download
What are the best DSL packages?
Top bandwidth: 50 Mbps-2000 Mbps (2G)
What is fiber internet service?
Because fiber is so new to the market, most people aren’t familiar with this lightning-fast internet quite yet. Many people may have heard of providers like Google Fiber, but there are plenty of other ISPs who offer similar services. Fiber-optic cords are made with flexible fibers, either glass (for transmitting data long distances) or plastic (for transmitting data locally). Unlike DSL and cable internet, it’s still rare to find fiber installed outside of a few select cities around the US, so if it’s available in your area, count yourself lucky.
While DSL and cable internet use an analog signal that must convert into a digital signal for your computer, fiber uses a digital signal the whole way, so there’s no delay from signal conversion. Some internet providers cut down on DSL and cable internet latency—slowing that occurs when data travels long distances—by using a fiber “backbone” to carry the signal around the nation. Fiber also has the most expansive bandwidth of any internet service type, so large files upload and download in a matter of seconds.
How does fiber compare to cable, DSL, and satellite internet?
- The fastest internet service on the market
- Matched upload and download speeds
- More expensive than other services
- Available in only a few specific cities
What are the best fiber internet packages?
Top bandwidth: 5-25 Mbps
What is satellite internet service?
When you have satellite internet, the satellite dish installed on your house signals a satellite in outer space, which then transfers to your internet provider’s hub on earth to gather the information from the website you’re trying to access so it can beam it back to your home again. That’s a long process that often brings some latency, which means you’ll have to wait a moment for the process to take place, but thanks to updated technology, the process is much faster than it used to be.
Satellite internet’s greatest strength is its expansive availability, meaning it can work anywhere with a correctly installed satellite from a satellite ISP. While you’ll have to be patient with lagging internet and be careful not to go over data caps, it’s a great solution for rural communities across the US with limited options.
How does satellite compare to cable, DSL, and fiber internet?
- Available everywhere in the US
- Internet speeds negatively affected by latency
- Packages with higher data caps can be as expensive as fiber internet
What are the best satellite internet packages?
Discover which service types and packages are available to you by searching with your zip code below.
Service Type FAQs
Is Google Fiber the fastest internet?
No. Google Fiber’s Gigabit internet has speeds up to 1G or 1000 Mbps, which is standard for fiber internet. Xfinity from Comcast offers double that speed through its fiber packages—up to 2G or 2000 Mbps.
Is broadband the same as DSL?
When discussing internet service, broadband is used to refer to any internet service that has download speeds of 25 Mbps or faster and upload speeds of 3 Mbps or faster. Under this definition, DSL is considered broadband internet when its speeds meet these benchmarks.
Does my type of internet service matter?
Any type of internet service will connect you to the internet. Some services offer faster speeds or better reliability, but in the end they all achieve the same result. Rather than being picky about a specific service type, try to look for a package that fits your budget and has enough speed to support your internet usage.
And remember: while we’ll suggest high-speed and affordable providers through the link above, the best package is one that fits your internet lifestyle. Most providers offer multiple packages, so use our tool below to find out how much speed you need.
Rachel’s catchphrase is “I’ma Google that.” This go-getter writer has a talent for finding incredible and bizarre facts on the web, and she is happy to pass her knowledge on to you.