DSL vs. Broadband: The Main Differences


Lyndon Seitz - Editor-in-Chief

Date Modified: October 6, 2022

DSL vs. Broadband: The Main Differences

There's a lot of confusing terminology out there related to home internet service, and that can make choosing a new provider tough. When you search for home internet service providers in your area, you're going to encounter a lot of jargon - some of which will seem highly technical. Finding a reliable internet provider without brushing up on the terminology is possible, but can be frustrating. It's a lot easier to choose an ISP when you understand what you're shopping for.

You probably know that your internet options include cable and DSL, but what's broadband? Is fiber the same thing? Isn't all internet wireless nowadays? The marketing materials that home internet service providers put out there probably won't offer much in the way of clarification. They're not being deliberately obtuse, just saving room for information about their promotions and packages because they know lots of customers will care more about price than the technology. But understanding the lingo will help you make the smartest possible decision when you're trying to choose between internet service providers.

So get ready to learn something new, because we've put together a primer that will help you understand the difference between DSL and broadband, along with cable and fiber, and why wireless internet and Wi-Fi aren't actually the same thing. Let's get technical!

So What Is the Internet, Anyway?

The internet itself is a communications network over which data flows from one device to another. Home internet service providers and the firms that provide business broadband to companies own the physical infrastructure over which that data travels. This can be copper telephone wires in the case of DSL, coaxial cables for customers with cable broadband, bundles of thin glass wires for fiber, or satellites in orbit for satellite providers. ISP infrastructure can also include transmission towers, stacks of modems, and huge banks of servers.

Most internet users don't know that much about how it all works, but that's okay. You don't need to know all about the backbone of the internet to choose a provider that will let you connect to it. The most important thing you need to know is that there are probably multiple providers in your area deploying multiple technologies that make getting online possible.

How Does Broadband Fit into It?

Contrary to popular belief, broadband isn't one type of internet delivery. It's actually an electronics engineering term that refers to wide bandwidth data transmission. Imagine online data traveling along a road. Narrow band data transmission would be a residential lane with a relatively low speed limit. Wide bandwidth data transmission is like a mega highway where data is speeding along in both directions.

In common parlance, broadband refers to the always-on, high speed signal that home internet service providers deliver with cable or phone lines, fiber optic cables, or radio signals. Whether you use DSL, cable internet, fiber, satellite, or fixed wireless, you're using broadband. There are definitely benefits and drawbacks to each internet delivery type but at this point, all of them are reliable enough for casual users.

Why Do Some People Love DSL?

DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Link, and it's a type of broadband internet delivery that uses copper phone lines to deliver a signal into users' homes. It's very common because most residential properties are already wired for telephone service and unlike dial-up, it doesn't interfere with a user's ability to use a landline.

Many people choose DSL because of its wide availability and because it's typically less expensive than cable internet. In the past, DSL was the noticeably slower option (especially for customers outside of cities) but nowadays thanks to infrastructure updates and new technology, almost all DSL customers can expect to get internet speeds comparable to cable. In some areas, DSL packages support symmetrical download and upload speeds and even gigabit speeds. In those areas, DSL speeds may be comparable to those of fiber!

When Is Cable the Better Choice?

Cable broadband uses existing television lines or new hybrid lines that are a mix of coaxial cables and fiber optic cables to transmit digital data without interfering with users' television signals. It will always be the better choice if you live in an area where the DSL service is spotty or where cable is your only option, but if you live in a neighborhood with multiple providers then you'll need to do some research to determine whether DSL or cable is the right choice for your household. Some people notice a lag in their cable connections during peak hours when everyone in the neighborhood is sitting down in front of the TV to relax, but this isn't true everywhere. Ask neighbors if their cable service is prone to outages and if the answer is yes, stay away.

Why Is Choosing Between Broadband Types So Hard?

The short answer is because the technology is evolving continuously and so technology isn't the big determining factor it once was. A few decades ago, cable internet was clearly the better choice for households that needed speedy internet and lots of bandwidth, but now DSL plans can seem indistinguishable from cable packages whether you're looking at speed, price, or bundled services. Need help understanding your options and how they stack up where you live? Read on, but also look at unbiased sources like BroadbandSearch to see what the different ISPs in your area are promising their customers... and what they're actually delivering.

The Advantages of DSL

This broadband type tends to be the most affordable option when you're comparing plans with similar download and upload speeds. DSL is the most widely available type of broadband, and your home is probably already equipped with the wiring you'll need to receive a signal. More importantly, DSL lines are durable so you may experience less downtime. DSL also doesn't slow down during peak hours like cable. And the biggest benefit of DSL these days might just be that more DSL plans than cable plans have no (or very high) data caps so you're unlikely to burn through your data allowance.

The Advantages of Cable

Cable broadband may be somewhat faster than DSL, but not always, and not every household needs lightning fast broadband. It's a great choice if you do a lot of streaming or gaming, and if you're an avid TV watcher you may be able to get a discounted bundle that makes cable internet delivery less expensive than DSL.

The Advantages of Fiber

This is the fastest type of broadband, with symmetrical upload and download speeds approaching 1,000 Mbps (versus speeds of 25-300 Mbps delivered by other technologies). It's also highly stable, so your connection is going to be more reliable. The biggest downside is that it tends to be the most expensive delivery type and it's not yet available everywhere.

The Advantages of Satellite

You can get this type of broadband anywhere there's a clear view of the southern sky, which means it's available in places where there's no wired broadband infrastructure and on boats and RVs. These days, satellite connections are much faster and less prone to lag thanks to enhancements in satellite technology, so don't let tales of slow or dropped connections scare you off.

The Advantages of Fixed Wireless

If you live somewhere where the wired infrastructure is unreliable or non-existent, fixed wireless (which uses ground stations to transmit a wireless broadband signal) may be the right choice. If there is a transmission tower near you, it will beam a broadband connection to a receiver on your home. Many people wrongly believe that fixed wireless and Wi-Fi are the same thing, but Wi-Fi is actually the internet signal broadcast in your home by your modem or router.

Is There Ever Reason to Have DSL Plus Another Type of Broadband?

The short answer is no. Paying twice as much for the same amount of connectivity doesn't make a lot of sense. If you're considering investing in a second plan because your home internet service is unreliable, switching providers is a lot more logical than spending more for a different type of connection. Just keep in mind that you won't necessarily get the advertised speeds, whether you're sticking with your current provider or exploring other options. That's because advertised speeds are the maximum that a plan can deliver in near optimal conditions. The speeds you actually get will depend on a number of factors - most of which you won't be able to control, like the age of the local infrastructure and in the case of cable, how many people are sharing the connection.

The Broadband Bottom Line

Home internet service providers love to talk about their broadband plans, but remember that broadband is the type of signal. If you're signing up for a new plan with a telephone company, chances are what you're getting is DSL. Cable companies deliver cable broadband to their customers. Then there are fiber broadband, satellite, and fixed wireless plans.

When you see what looks like a good deal but you're not sure what type of broadband you'll be getting, don't hesitate to ask! Now that you know what the different types are and what the advantages are of each, you can make an informed choice when you're looking at new home internet service providers, new plans, or to move from a bundle to an internet-only package.

Are you ready to start comparing and contrasting the ISPs in your neighborhood? Start by finding internet providers near you.