Deciding between cable and DSL Internet services can be tricky, especially without having all the facts. While both types of service do the same thing in principle, they differ greatly in their technical aspects, and there are definite pros and cons to each type of service.

There isn’t a cut-and-dried answer when it comes to determining which of the two services is “better” than the other. Several factors — including availability in a given area, services offered by providers, and connection speeds — should contribute to the overall decision. Think of choosing between DSL and cable like choosing between different kinds of cars. Some people may want a racy, fast car that does great on highways, while others may lean toward pick-up trucks that have a wider range of off-road capabilities. The choice becomes, in part, a matter of preference and expectations.

Fortunately, if a consumer understands what they want from their Internet connection, choosing a service doesn’t have to be a matter of guesswork. By dissecting the differences between cable and DSL Internet, the educated consumer will be able to pick the right service to suit their needs.

What Are Cable and DSL?

The first step to choosing the right service is to understand exactly what cable and DSL are. Cable Internet services are transmitted through existing cable television lines. These lines can be internal or external. Most current cable Internet is digitally broadcast through coaxial cables.

DSL stands for “Digital Subscriber Line.” DSL connects a computer to the Internet via phone line. DSL is one of the oldest forms of Internet service. It is also regarded as a highly stable form of Internet. A DSL modem is required to “dial in” to DSL service, but most providers will include the modem in a service package.

How They’re Similar:

Despite being different as far as how they function technically, DSL and cable do share some common ground. For example, both services are usually billed on a monthly basis. The bills will often be on the same invoice as cable TV or phone services.

Another overlap — and a way in which cable and DSL Internet services set themselves apart from dial-up Internet — is that both connections can be considered broadband connections. This means that both services are “always on” — there is no dial-up time necessary for either service. Data is being transmitted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently redefined “broadband” by raising the minimum download speed from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps, forcing ISPs to increase their options to stay relevant. Some DSL and cable options are therefore no longer considered broadband under the new FCC standards.

While cable and DSL are capable of offering high-speed connections, both services may also be throttled or capped by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). FCC regulation has limited some more prevalent throttling practices, but subscribers to both service types have claimed that certain ISPs still engage in the practice.

Finally, cable and DSL both work well on both Mac and PC setups, giving users some degree of flexibility.

How They’re Different:

Despite a healthy list of similarities, DSL and cable have a number of differences as well. Obviously, the biggest difference is the type of connection used. As stated earlier, DSL connects to an ISP by phone line. Cable, on the other hand, connects to the ISP through coaxial cables.

Speed is another big differentiator between cable and DSL. While there can be wide variation in speed options, cable generally provides access to faster speeds — some providers provide downstream speeds up to 105 Mbps. The speed at which DSL sends and receives information can also be highly variable, but DSL providers advertise speeds up to 40 Mbps. Latency times follow a similar pattern: DSL latencies tend to be higher than cable latencies.

Those speeds aren’t absolute, however. As a result of its different connection type, cable Internet may be more susceptible to lost speeds as a result of network traffic. During peak evening hours, DSL will likely be a little bit more consistent due to the designated connection lines to the central service hub. Interestingly, though, when observing the complete Internet experience, cable ISPs actually have a better reputation for consistently providing advertised speeds.

On the note of reputation, several surveys have been conducted asking consumers to rate their satisfaction with different elements of their Internet service bundles. These surveys ask subscribers to rank things like billing, customer service, cost of service, and performance. While DSL has its supporters, cable providers do have a distinct edge over their DSL counterparts when it comes to overall satisfaction.

Given these similarities and differences, it’s clear that each services has a set of advantages and disadvantages for subscribers. Read on for a more in-depth look at what each service has to offer.

Pros and Cons of Cable Internet

Pros:

  • Distance — The biggest advantage with cable is that the performance is not increased or decreased by the proximity to the provider. Near or far, connection speed and reliability should be the same.
  • Speed — As mentioned above, cable generally offers faster connection speeds and lower latencies than most currently available DSL connections. Since cable is typically offered in a variety of bandwidths, this difference can be huge, especially for things like business connections.
  • Consistency — Despite susceptibility to network traffic, cable offers a distinct benefit in consistency of speed. Because information is being broadcast at a consistent rate, things like data transfers and information caching are going to be faster than they would be with DSL.

Cons:

  • Cost — Cable definitely has the potential to be more costly than DSL. While this is not necessarily true everywhere, cable has a higher likelihood of being more expensive due to higher speed options.
  • Availability — A cable connection may not be available in remote areas. Depending on where the connection is needed, cable may not be an option.
  • Traffic — Internet connections over cable lines can become slower during peak hours in congested areas. Since cable connections run to a central distribution point, there is the potential for a cable connection to become bottlenecked during periods of high usage.

Pros and Cons of DSL Internet

Pros:

  • Flexibility — DSL is a good option for cord-cutters, as it allows subscribers to make use of Internet streaming services like Netflix or Hulu without having to pay for a standard TV subscription. While cable Internet doesn’t require a cable TV subscription, Internet services are often more expensive when not bundled with TV.
  • Accessibility — Because DSL Internet runs through phone lines, it is more likely to be available in more remote locations. That means that many telephone subscribers in the U.S. live in DSL-accessible locations.
  • Customization — DSL offers a wide variety of speeds and prices from a large list of providers. Being able to customize a plan and rate can be a huge advantage for small businesses or consumers who may not use the Internet frequently.
  • Support — Many DSL companies offer strong support systems, with representatives available at all hours to help troubleshoot problems.

Cons:

  • Uploading — DSL receives information much faster than it sends it, which can lead to lagging upload times, especially for big files.
  • Proximity — Distance matters for DSL service. The farther away a subscriber is from the service provider, the slower the service can be.
  • Vulnerability — DSL is reliant on phone lines to function. If a phone line is damaged, subscribers may lose Internet connectivity as well. This can be extremely damaging to businesses and may pose a risk if the connection is the only form of communication with the outside world.

Beyond the Internet

In this interconnected world, the choice between DSL and cable isn’t limited to Internet options. As telecom companies offer a wider variety of services, bundling options may also become a factor in choosing an ISP.

Depending on the provider, DSL and cable bundles may include other services like premium television, telephone connections, and more. Generally, cable bundles tend to offer pairings with premium television channels, while DSL connections will often offer pairings with landline telephone services.

Bundling Internet and TV services can offer many benefits. The biggest benefit is the convenience of having premium television, telephone, and Internet on one simple monthly bill. Consumers are able to deal with one company and one service package for a variety of needs, which can save time on both installation and billing.

Another benefit to bundling cable or DSL is the cost reduction. Many companies offer sizeable price incentives when bundling TV or phone services with Internet options. This means that by bundling their services, consumers can get more for the same amount of money.

Making the Choice

In the end, choosing between DSL and cable will come down to personal preference. However, there are a few takeaways that potential subscribers should remember before making the choice.

The first thing to consider when looking into DSL or cable services is whether or not a choice exists at all. Both services can be limited by geography, so determining which options exist in a given area is the first step.

Second, potential subscribers should determine what, exactly, they want from their Internet package. For someone looking for a simple and practical option that allows them to use email, social media, and the occasional streaming service, a DSL subscription will likely be more than enough. For a person in need of fast upload speeds and quick response times, cable may be the better option. Bundling options should also be considered here — subscribers who care about pay TV services should lean more toward cable Internet packages, for example.

Finally, consumers should look for a trustworthy service provider. Subscribers who have been with the same provider for a long time may feel that their ISP has already demonstrated a high level of customer service. For those who haven’t been with the same provider for a long time, a good way to find a trustworthy ISP is to rely on consumer surveys — including surveys about TV, phone, and any other bundled services. Asking neighboring businesses or homeowners will also shed some light on which service providers are the best in any given area.

Making the decision between DSL and cable can be tough. There are many different elements to consider before making the choice — price, availability, and speed, among others. Ultimately, there’s no objective formula for making the decision. Subscribers should carefully examine their personal circumstances, their connectivity needs, and the options available to pick a plan that’s right for them.