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With so many alternatives, it's easy to get confused. I'll present an overview of the many ways you can connect to the internet.

I am so confused about all the different options for connecting to the internet - broadband, wireless, dial-up. Can you please explain how each works and what the differences are among them.

It's even worse than you list; broadband, wireless and dial-up only scratch the surface. Each can breakdown into additional variations, and there are a couple of options you haven't listed.

I'll see if I can clarify some of it for you.

One thing I'll clarify at the beginning: "broadband" is a somewhat fuzzy term. In common use, it refers to an internet connection that's "faster than dial-up", and always on, regardless of the technologies used. So you'll see DSL, Cable, and even some types of wireless connections referred to as broadband.

With that out of the way, and in rough order of speed:

Dial-up is by now almost ancient technology, but for many it still remains the only option. Dial-up uses your phone to establish an internet connection. Quite literally, dial-up uses sound transmitted over your voice phone line to encode the data traveling between your computer and whatever it's connected to.

Pros: dial-up is ubiquitous. As long as you have a dial-up modem (most laptops still do), a phone and an account with an ISP that provides dial-up (most still do), you can use it anywhere.

Cons: dial-up is probably the slowest connection option commonly available today. Maximum speeds can reach 56kbps (56 thousand bits per second), but in reality, speeds are more commonly 22kbps or 36kbps due to being affected by any audible noise on the phone lines.

"WiFi is not a service you can just sign up for to get internet just anywhere."

Cellular is a wireless technology that's almost as ubiquitous these days as dial-up, since it uses the existing cellular telephone networks. Speeds range from typical dial-up speeds to 1 mbps (1 million bits per second), depending on the provider and technology used.

Pros: available anywhere there is cellular coverage. Portable, perhaps perfect for traveling. There are typically several providers to choose from.

Cons: additional monthly data plan usually required. Speeds are often not as fast as advertised (though still faster than dial-up). Additional hardware in the form of a cellular adapter often required, or additional technology to "tether" an actual cell phone to be used as the cellular modem.

WiFi wireless as a connection option is actually a misnomer. WiFi is not a service you can just sign up for to get internet just anywhere. WiFi is more typically a technology you add to your existing internet connection so that you can have wireless internet connectivity within your home or business.

That being said, you can do things like visit internet cafes and other WiFi hotspots, and as long as you're in range and follow the provider's rules, you could use that to connect to the internet. Technically, WiFi speeds can reach up to 54mbps, though besides that being an ideal that's rarely reached, the true limiting factor is how the hotspot provider is connected to the internet. Typically, they'll have done so with one of the other broadband options discussed here, and that along with the fact you're sharing the connection with all other users of that hotspot, will be the limiting factors.

Pros: often free, reasonably fast if the hotspot it not overloaded.

Cons: often not fast as the hotspot is overloaded. Security is a significant issue and must be carefully considered as you are sharing a connection with other users you don't know. Using a random WiFi signal you might find without permission could be illegal.

Satellite delivers the internet to your home via a satellite dish. Speeds can actually range quite high - 1 to 40 mbps, or so I've heard. In practice, the satellite bandwidth is shared with other consumers, and usage is often capped. It's not unheard of to hear some satellite users complain of speeds as low as dialup. Others are quite happy, which leads to an interesting issue: particularly because of the time it takes to send a signal to a satellite and back, how a satellite internet connection performs is highly dependant on exactly how you use it. Some types of applications and operations work fine, others not as well. Some satellite services actually require a phone line, such that only downloads arrive over the dish, and any uploads or outgoing transmissions still happen via phone.

Pros: available anywhere you can point a dish at a provider's satellite. Often faster than dial-up.

Cons: experience is highly dependant on how the internet is used, as well as environmental factors such as weather that might interrupt the satellite signal.

DSL/ADSL uses your existing phone line, but does so without requiring or interfering with the actual phone. [Asymmetric] Digital Subscriber Line uses technology to place the digital signals outside of the audible range. ADSL speeds range from 256kbps to over 20mbps, and is always on. Typical speeds are in the 1-6 mbps range. (Asymmetrical refers to the fact that while download speeds are in that range, the technology is such that upload speeds are often much slower.)

Pros: always on and fast. While your DSL service travels over your phone lines, in many places your ISP does not have to be your phone company. It travels over your existing phone line.

Cons: requires support from your phone company, and you must be within a certain distance from the telephone switching equipment or the speeds available might be significantly reduced, or completely unavailable.

Cable Internet is a connection that, as its name implies, is provided over your television cable - again without interfering with the cable's other uses. Speeds can be as much as 50mbps, but more typically 2 to 20, with caveats listed below.

Pros: always on and usually fast. It travels over your existing cable TV connection.

Cons: must be purchased from your cable TV provider. Your actual speed may impacted by other cable internet users near you, and "evening slowdowns" in some neighborhoods are not unheard of.

Fiber optic connectivity is commonly used for all high speed connections between ISPs and whatever you might consider the "backbone" of the internet. Speeds of 1gbps (1 billion bits per second) or higher are common in these applications.

Fiber to the home, currently exemplified by Verizon's FiOS uses the same technology to deliver broadband speeds typically much faster than either DSL or Cable, ranging from 10 to 50 mbps.

Pros: always on and fast - perhaps the fastest consumer-grade internet connection available in the U.S. right now.

Cons: available only from one vendor, and even then not in all locations. Requires new fiber optic cabling, at least to the street and possibly all the way to your home. Since it's new technology, it's having occasional issues.

Other, less commonly available or older technologies include:

  • ISDN - Integrated Services Digital Network is an older phone-based technology that converts the audio line into a high quality digital audio. Typically limited to 64kbps or 128kbps.

  • T1 - A dedicated always on circuit. Carried on the phone companies wires, T1's operate at 1.544 mbps bi-directionally. They've been around forever (much voice communication is actually carried over T1s once they reach the telephone switching office), and are also typically fairly costly.

  • WiMax - This is wide area wireless service that appears to be having some troubles getting started. With a cellular-like network and ranges measured in miles, the promise is more like what people expect out of wireless: the ability to just pick it up out of the air.

Article C3619 - January 12, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

January 13, 2009 8:41 AM

I hate the term Broadband probably because as you've said, it's a "fuzzy" description. However, I've been given to understand that there's a difference between ADSl & DSL in that with DSL, one's Uploading speed is about the same as one's download speed whereas ADSL is as you've stated fast down & slow up. Would you care to comment?

Technically that's exactly true (ADSL uploads are slower than downloads), but in practice people are using the term "DSL" to refer to ADSL as well. As it turns out almost all DSL connections are in fact ADSL.
- Leo

Dr D Sreekanth
January 13, 2009 9:48 AM

I am Psychiatrist but a lay man on these topics. You have explained very nicely about different modes of getting the internet. Big thanks for enlighting such basic things.wish you all the best.

January 13, 2009 1:36 PM

@David: Let me try to explain DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and its derivatives (with a little help from Wikipedia):

Firstly, the magic of DSL is based on the fact that copper wires, such as telephone wires, are capable of carrying electromagnetic frequencies far beyond those required for the phone itself to work. In effect, the phone system uses only a very small amount of the potential bandwidth the wires could carry. A special note, however, is that these higher frequencies tend to attenuate faster, which is why DSL generally cannot be offered in just any place a telephone system exists -- DSL just doesn't have as much range, as a physical limitation.

So, anyway, what DSL does is use a frequency range above 25 kHz (the telephone system, by comparison, only uses the first 4 kHz available and no more), and further subdivides those frequencies into a number of channels. Those channels are then each assigned as either an upload or upstream channel, and a download or downstream channel (this is not entirely correct, actually the subdivision is first upstream/downstream, and then channels, but it ends up being the same thing in the end).

So that's DSL itself, as a technology. Now, DSL further divides into several implementations, based on a number of factors. The most common (I think) division is between ADSL (Asymmetrical DSL) and a variant of SDSL (Symmetrical DSL) known as SHDSL (Single-pair High-speed DSL).

Firstly, the primary difference between ADSL and SDSL refers almost solely to the way the channels are divided between upstream and downstream. Specifically, in ADSL you get a lot more downstream bandwidth than upstream (Wikipedia reports standards-compliant speeds between 8 and 24 Mbits/s for downstream and 1 to 3.5 Mbits/s for upstream), whereas with SDSL the division is symmetrical, i.e. there is exactly as much upstream bandwidth as there is downstream.

However, SHDSL also uses the frequencies normally reserved for telephony, and is generally marketed to businesses, which is why I doubt you'll see it as an option for a residential contract. To compare speeds, SHDSL (according to Wikipedia) provides up to 4.6 Mbits/s in both directions, barely topping ADSL's upstream maximum of 3.5 Mb/s. However, being a business-class connection, it should also provide far more, uh, "supportive" support.

Hope this helps, and (of course), I may not be entirely correct, but at least this should give you some idea of what's involved.

January 13, 2009 3:37 PM

The pair of wires used to serve customers from a telephone central office can be thought of as a large capacitor. The longer the loop to the customer the more capacitance. After the loop reaches about 18000 feet the attenuation makes the loop unusable for voice communication so the phone company adds inductance in the form of load coils and the voice frequencies in the 400 to 3400 cps can be extended much farther and voice frequency amplification can even be used. The load coils have the affect of filtering out the higher frequencies making the pairs unavailable for "broadband" or carrier frequencies. There are several load schemes that are used but basically you start with a half load section from the central office and then full load sections thereafter. Therefore if you live within about 18000 feet of the telephone central office you can probably receive "DSL" internet service.

AT&T offers a service similar to FIOS with fiber to an enclosure in every neighborhood and copper wire from there to the customer. It's cheaper to provide this than fiber home runs to every customer but the potential bandwidth suffers a little. Nobody wants the enclosure in their "back yard" either.

George Moravek
January 13, 2009 4:32 PM

How do I setup my smart phone to get wireless internet when in "hot spots"?

Most smartphones aren't setup to do WiFi and use hotspots - they use the cellular plan provided by their carrier instead. (Notable exception appears to be the iPhone.) Check with your cell phone carrier.
- Leo

Abdallah Ezz
January 14, 2009 9:20 AM

Firstly , I've read all comments , thanks to all comments posters , and particularley more thanks to OCTAV for his satisfying explanation.

Lelani Arris
January 15, 2009 6:24 PM

You missed one that is available in a lot of rural areas (mine included) and apparently as a backup option (mainly aimed at businesses) in some cities as well. I don't think it's quite the same as WiMax, but maybe. Seems to be called "Fixed Wireless Internet."

It consists of one or (in our case) a system of wireless transmitters on towers spread throughout the entire valley, and is typically line-of-sight to the tower or (for more $$) a different frequency that can "see through the trees." The transmitters are fed ultimately by the provider's connection to hard-wired (T1 I think here) broadband at some location close enough to broadcast to the first tower in the network.

Subscribers get a special receiver that is mounted on or near their house, then the connection is hard-wired from the receiver into the house, into a special modem, and then to the computer/router using a standard ethernet connection. You CANNOT just pick the service up using a WiFi-enabled computer.

Speeds are based on your subscription level, around here from 750kpbs (upload) to significantly higher (again, here at least, for more $$).

Pros: broadband in locations where the only other option is satellite or dial-up, and fairly consistent service.

Cons: must be line-of-sight (or line-of-sight with only trees in the way), transmitters are subject to breakdowns with subsequent downtime, and appear to be affected at times by the number of active users on a given transmitter.

I won't rant on about satellite cons, but there are more than Leo has listed. I'd recommend satellite only in the absence of other broadband options, and do a lot of research ahead of time, especially on whatever provider is available in your area. Also note that some piggyback on others, for example the Canadian provider Xplornet uses the Hughes satellite network, so many problems Hughes users experience will be similar for Xplornet users. On the "Pros" side of things, there are tons of great help resources on the internet for satellite users, because they can be such a PITA and because tech support is often unhelpful or very slow to respond.

Ken Partin
January 19, 2009 12:58 PM

Good article but I need to know the best type connection when I live in two different places depending on time of year and neither place has the same cable company or telephone company. I just want to plug it in and have service when I move between the two places without complications with the computer. Thanks

November 15, 2009 11:31 AM

I've had DSL for a few years and am moving into an area where they only offer dial up OR extended service dsl (thru CenturyTel, or actually it's now CenturyLink, a combo of CenturyTel & Embarq). Does anyone know anything about this extended service dsl?

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