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Cable vs. DSL

Unless you live or work in a remote or very rural area, you probably have the option of giving up (if you haven't already) that slow dial-up modem and investing in a broadband Internet connection. If high-speed Internet services are available, your choice is between DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) or cable modem services. Both DSL and cable modems are common home networking broadband connection technologies — but which option is better?

What Is DSL Internet Connection?
DSL uses a sophisticated modulation scheme to pack data onto copper wires. DSL is sometimes referred to as a last-mile technology because it is used only for connections from a telephone switching station to a home or office, not used between switching stations. DSL is also called an always on connectionm because it uses existing 2-wire copper telephone line connected to the premise and will not tie up your phone as a dial-up connection does. There is no need to dial in to your ISP as DSL is always on. The two main categories of DSL for home subscribers are called ADSL and SDSL.

ADSL: ADSL is the most commonly deployed types of DSL in North America. Short for asymmetric digital subscriber line ADSL supports data rates of from 1.5 to 9 Mbps when receiving data (known as the downstream rate) and from 16 to 640 Kbps when sending data (known as the upstream rate). ADSL requires a special ADSL modem.

SDSL: SDSL is still more common in Europe. Short for symmetric digital subscriber line, a technology that allows more data to be sent over existing copper telephone lines (POTS). SDSL supports data rates up to 3 Mbps. SDSL works by sending digital pulses in the high-frequency area of telephone wires and can not operate simultaneously with voice connections over the same wires. SDSL requires a special SDSL modem. SDSL is called symmetric because it supports the same data rates for upstream and downstream traffic.

Two other types of DSL technologies are High-data-rate DSL (HDSL) and Very high DSL (VDSL). VDSL offers fast data rates over relatively short distances - the shorter the distance, the faster the connection rate. Collectively, all types of DSL are referred to as xDSL.

Key Terms To Understanding cable modem

cable modem
A modem designed to operate over cable TV lines.

A type of data transmission in which a single medium (wire) can carry several channels at once.

Refers collectively to all types of digital subscriber lines, the two main categories being ADSL and SDSL.

Short for Internet Service Provider, a company that provides access to the Internet.

More Cable Vs. DSL Terms

local-area network
A computer network that spans a relatively small area.

A modem is a device or program that enables a computer to transmit data over, for example, telephone or cable lines.

A system designed to prevent unauthorized access to or from a private network.

What Is a Cable Internet Connect?
Through the use of a cable modem you can have a broadband Internet connection that is designed to operate over cable TV lines. Cable Internet works by using TV channel space for data transmission, with certain channels used for downstream transmission, and other channels for upstream transmission.  Because the coaxial cable used by cable TV provides much greater bandwidth than telephone lines, a cable modem can be used to achieve extremely fast access to the Web. This, combined with the fact that millions of homes are already wired for cable TV, has made cable Internet service something cable TV companies have really jumped onboard with.

Cable vs. DSL: The Speeds
The topic of "which is better and faster" has been a highly debated topic, and still there doesn't appear to be a clear winner.  DSL offers users a choice of speeds ranging from 144 Kbps to 1.5Mbps. Cable modem download speeds are typically up to 2 times faster than 1.5Mbps DSL, but the reason there is no clear speed winner is because cable technology is based on shared bandwidth, with many factors influencing a users download speed. With shared bandwidth the speed fluctuates depending on the number of subscribers on the network. With DSL, the connection is yours and not shared, and you tend to have a more constant speed. This is one reason why cable Internet providers don't often publish speed information. In more rural areas with fewer subscribers, you're bound to have faster download speeds than a subscriber in a metropolitan center. Because cable modem speeds fluctuate, it is difficult to gauge an exact download speed. On the upload stream, however, cable and DSL are closely matched for speed. Both DSL and cable Internet speeds are largely dependant on the service provider and either the distance away from the switching station you are or how many subscribers are in your immediate area.

Cable vs. DSL: Home Networking & Security
Both DSL and Cable Internet can easily be shared with computers on your home LAN through software (Microsoft Internet Connection Sharing for example) or by using a connection sharing device, such as a router and firewall software. Using a SOHO router is most-often the recommended option as this will also provide you with a much needed firewall protection for your LAN as well. It is important to check with your service provider, however, as sharing your broadband connect may violate your Terms of Service agreement. In many areas, service providers will allow you to connect additional computers to your broadband Internet service for a nominal fee. Because Cable is shared connection, you are actually on a LAN with all subscribers in your areas. This would really create security issues only if no security measures are in place, but cable service providers generally provide cable modems with security features in the hardware. Overall the security of these broadband connections are closely matched, with DSL boasting a bit better security — and it is always advisable to consider purchasing additional hardware or software to protect your system, as your service provider may only provide the basics with the installation & set-up of your account.

Cable vs. DSL: The Price
The price consumers will pay for DSL or cable Internet services is not standard. It depends on how much competition there is for broadband services, and the area you live in. For example, in some areas it's only been in the past few years that cable Internet has been available. Until then, DSL costs were quite high, but as cable Internet became available the price of DSL went down. With either option you generally will pay a one-time set-up fee. For cable you could expect this fee to be anywhere from $50 to $100, while the cost for DSL installation is a bit more and could run up to $150 for set-up. Once the installation is completed, you will usually pay for your Internet subscription on a monthly basis. Cable, again, is usually a bit cheaper with monthly fees averaging $40 to $50. You can expect to pay about $5 to $10 more a month for DSL service.

If you live in an area where both cable and DSL is offered then you may find yourself being able to nab a better deal on your broadband service. Your local DSL or cable carrier may offer introductory offers such as free installation or offer the Internet service free for a couple months. In addition, you can also check and see if the service provider offer discounts on service bundles. For example, many cable companies offer discounts for "surf and watch" which gives you a price discount if you subscribe to both cable TV and cable Internet from the same provider (also many cable operators now offer VoIP capabilities as part of the mix). If you choose DSL you may qualify for a "surf and talk" bundle plan. If you're not already a broadband subscriber you can save money by checking with local service providers and signing up for your broadband account when you can catch a good deal.

Did You Know...
In "perfect" conditions, cable download speeds are up to 2 times faster than 1.5Mbps DSL speeds, Which is roughly 50 times faster than 28.8K Modem.

Vangie 'Aurora' Beal
Last updated: June 03, 2005

Related Links

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Check out this Webopedia article for everything you need to know about broadband / ICS Routers.

The Differences and Features of Hardware & Software Firewalls
This Webopedia Did You Know... article discusses the benefits and features of both hardware and software firewalls.

Sharing Your DSL Connection, The Inside Story
If you're using an internal DSL modem here is the scoop on the best way to share your connection with another PC.

From C|net: Cable Vs. DSL - Vital Statistics
Looking for straight facts on DSL and cable Internet access? Check these charts for average cost and speed, plus the pros and cons of e

PracticallyNetworked has provided practical, easy-to-understand help for small network builders since early 1998. The site contains the most complete "How-To" information for setting up Internet sharing found anywhere!

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