Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

It's hard to say, on a global basis, which is better: Cable or DSL. There are going to be differences related to the number of users on the line and distance from your ISP's equipment.

Which is better for my PC's internet connection? A cable or a telephone line?

In this excerpt from Answercast #96 I compare DSL connections to cable connections and the ways they can differ in speed and quality.

Cable or DSL?

You know, there is no answer to this. There really isn't.

It depends... not just on which is available at your location - but the ISPs involved, and the quality of the connection, and the number of additional people using it.

DSL dependent on distance

Here's the problem: the telephone line, typically referred to as DSL or Digital Subscriber Line, can provide a very fast, very solid internet connection. The problem is that it is dependent on how far from the telephone company's equipment you are.

If you're too far away, yes, you'll get an internet connection but you won't be able to get the top speeds. If you're closer to the telephone company's equipment then you may get blazingly fast speeds.

Cable is user dependent

When it comes to cable, things get interesting but in a different way. They are less distance dependent, but they are more I'll say "crowd dependent." In other words, when you are using a cable internet connection, you're typically sharing that connection with a lot more people closer to you.

If everybody's using the internet at the same time, you may find that your speeds aren't what they normally are when you're using it alone. Of course, the speed that they're going to advertise, the speed that they're going to sell you, is what they would call their "maximum speeds." Speeds up to a certain amount.

That's not a guarantee that you'll get that amount; that means it could be as fast as that. But if a bunch of other people are using their internet connection at the same time, you could see speeds significantly slower.

ISP quality

So, on top of that is the quality of the ISP itself. It really depends on exactly where you are, what your options are; what companies are available; and what their reputations are. So I would do a fair amount of research.

Talk to people in your area who are using any or all of the alternatives that might be available and see what their experiences are. Are they getting the speed that they were promised? Are they getting the customer service that they need? Do things work? Do they have outages? Do they have slowdowns? Those kinds of things.

But really, there is no blanket answer as to which is better. There is always a "which is better" in your neighborhood but that's something that you can research by talking to the people in your area to find out what their experiences have been.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6331 - March 2, 2013 « »

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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.

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8 Comments
Arline
March 5, 2013 11:07 AM

I am very dissapointed with the cable service in my area. I only have an internet phone. Can I still get DSL??? Please help.

Engineer10388
March 5, 2013 1:17 PM

If DSL having the speed you need is available in your area it has two advantages: (1) DSL speed is typically rock solid...does not vary. Our DSL-12 is always 12Mbps. (2) It's much more reliable during storms or prolonged power outages b/c telephone systems are mostly underground and designed for survivability. They also have standby power for days of service, so if you are fortunate enough to have utility power, or a generator, following a major storm you can still communicate. With cable you'd likely be SOL.

Phillip
March 5, 2013 8:42 PM

ARLINE: Possibly. DSL needs a physical phone line (just like cable needs a cable connection), but you do not always have to have telephone service. AT&T used to offer DSL without the phone at a small ($5?) extra charge. You need to check with your local phone company.

Mark J
March 5, 2013 11:53 PM

@Arline
As the article say, this is something that you will have to research at the local level. A phone call to the phone companies in your area should help you get an answer. Of course, asking the neighbors can help a lot.

David
March 6, 2013 1:35 PM

My wife and I are having a similar, but courteous argument - how much does it slow down a router the more devices that are used at the same time? For instance, we normally have two computers going at the same time. However, we have already added one box to a TV for streaming video, and are considering hooking up my daughter's Wii online, as well as hooking up more boxes for streaming video in preparation to dropping our cable service. How much of a speed difference will we see if, say, we have five or six devices using the network at the same time, as opposed to just the two computers?

Melissa
March 6, 2013 9:09 PM

My take on this is it does depend on the ISPs. I have been an At&t DSL customer since it was SBC back in 2005. The sad thing is that it worked very well until the fall of 2011 when I began having numerous issues...slow connections which are intermittent and other issues. Ever since they started pushing U-verse they no longer care about their DSL customers. I would never choose At&t for a DSL provider nor would I go with their U-verse. Xfinity is a better choice if you have to go FIOS. I also am intrigued with Engineer10388's response. The fastest speed I can get with my distance from the central office is about 2.5 mbps and frequently the speeds are closer to 1.5 mbps. The lines are not buried here. I frequently have both phone and DSL issues now but cannot afford cable so I am stuck.

Mark J
March 7, 2013 3:23 AM

@David
That depends on how fast your connection is and how much each device will be accessing the internet at the same time. It's not so much a matter of how many devices. What matters much more is how many devices will be accessing the internet at the same time.

Scott Currier
March 12, 2013 10:32 AM

Cable is much better technology than DSL. The latency is noticably less with cable and the speed of cable is so much faster than DSL that it's like the DSL company is bringing a plastic knife to a gunfight.

In my area it's Verizon DSL versus Comcast Cable. I pay $68 and some change for 50/10 service. It's overkill. The best that Verizon offers at my location is 3mbps. My phone is faster than 3 mbps. 3mbps is laughable.

If 50mpbs wasn't fast enough, I could go to 205 but it's not worth the money. 50 mbps is actually really nice.

The most I have seen DSL offer is 22 mbps through ATT Uverse. I believe in a few places Verizon offer 15 mbps DSL.

Not very competitive with cable.

There are people who bring up the sharing issue. All internet connections are shared. With cable fiber or high speed cable a gigabit or so internet connection is brought into a neighborhood and shared.

Even if my internet connection ran at 10 percent of rated speed it would still be faster than what the DSL company provides.

Even if it were running at 50 percent capacity it would still be faster than the fastest DSL available available anywhere.

Cable also allows you to use additional capacity in burst mode. For the first 10, 20, or 40 mb of a file you can usually get up to 50 percent more speed than what you are paying for. My connection speed tests at about 70 to 80 mbps because of the burst mode.

Now, with that said, if you have an old cable company, using old technology, and a DSL company that is using good technology, you may find that a 15 mbps DSL connection, if you can get it, is the way to go.

A friend of mine in Northern NH did that. 15 mbps DSL, worked fine, but the cable company came along and offered 30mbps for the same price. Thus he switched.

At this time, DSL in areas with a competent cable company, just isn't competitive.

Professionally, I use DSL at locations where cable or fiber isn't available because the buildings haven't been wired. Of 15 locations that I am dealing with 9 are on cable, 1 is on fiber, 5 are on DSL. Of the 5 that are on DSL, cable is available at 1 of those locations but it's a different cable company than the 9 locations with cable and the DSL provider has been so reliable and easy to deal with that I have no inclination to switch. The service is fast enough and it's a case of, it works, don't fix it. The other 4 DSL locations do not have cable or fibre available due to the buildings not being wired.

DSL has the advantage of using existing wiring.

The cable companies have the disadvantage of not wanting to wire buildings for service unless they can get enough customers to justify it.

Back when I was on usenet, I used to download for hours at a time and would get full speed the entire time. I have never seen any slowdown with cable that can be attributed to the neighbors. I think our cable system is well engineered and more than enough capacity is brought into the neighborhood to support everyone needs.

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