If you wanted to get on the internet in the mid-90’s, you pretty much had one option available to you: a spare phone line and a 56k dial-up modem.

By today’s standards, the internet of yesteryear was comparatively archaic, taking minutes to load a single picture, and always being predicated by a symphony of analog data being digitized for transit across your phone line. Nowadays however, we have a bevvy of speedy, affordable, and reliable services that can get out computers out of the dark ages and onto the internet in seconds.

But how do you know which type of connection is right for you and your home? Read on in our short guide to find out.

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL)

Of all the options available to consumers who are in the market for a new broadband subscription, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) is far and away the cheapest option they’ll find. It’s on nearly every block thanks to the phone lines it’s wired on, and because other options like cable can offer up higher speeds, the cost for a basic subscription can be peanuts compared to the top tiers of other offerings from the likes of Comcast or Time Warner.

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Speeds as seen on AT&T’s DSL website

One caveat to DSL is unlike fiber, the actual speed of your connection can vary depending on how far away you’re located from the phone company’s central box (i.e. generally one has to be within 18,000ft).  This can have a significant impact on what speeds are available to subscribe too and, if the distance is too great, DSL may not even be available.  Some more detailed information on the distance limitations of DSL can be found here.  DSL generally comes into two variations:  Synchronous DSL or SDSL (where upload and download speeds are the same) or Asynchronous DSL or ADSL (where the the upload and download speeds are different).  The advantage of  ASDL service – if it’s available – is that one can often get far greater download speeds.  However, this comes at the expense of having a lower upload speed.

Cable

In the US, cable internet is both the fastest growing and most reliable service that the largest margin of the US population (48%) have access to in their household. First made available to the public in the early aughts, the technology has quickly caught on to overtake DSL as the dominant type of internet in the United States.

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It’s not all roses, however. Unfortunately for us, most of the large conglomerates offering cable internet have all but bought up the rest of the competition, often leaving just one company to choose from in any given area. This means if you want a cable subscription you won’t have the option to shop around, and will generally just be stuck with whatever the one horse in your town has to offer.

Not only that, but unlike DSL or fiber, cable download speeds compared to upload speeds are generally always asynchronous, meaning that your upload speed can often be just a fraction of what you can expect to get down.  This can be pain if you often find yourself uploading large data files (e.g. a lot of images or videos).

That said, cost comparatively cable is still a better deal than DSL, averaging a unit cost of about $1.6/Mbps to $1.4/Mbps, respectively (although this can obviously vary somewhat depending on specific providers and the services – including specials – being offered).

Fiber

Fiber optic internet (or “fiber” as it’s usually referred to) is named for the type of cable it uses to transmit information from one side of the net to the next (i.e. essentially optical fibers with light pulses traveling across them).

You’ve likely already heard of the biggest player currently testing the waters – Google Fiber – thanks to the company’s antics when it tried to have every city in the country sell them on why their town deserved a fiber rollout more than anyone else. The contest soon escalated into the ridiculous, with the city of Topeka officially renaming itself to “Google, Kansas” in order to convince the internet search giant to lay down fiber optic lines along their streets.

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But why all the fuss over a simple type of internet connection? Probably because fiber optic internet is blisteringly fast compared to anything else that came before it.  For example, Google Fiber offers a download rate of up to 1000Mbps (or 125MB/s) with its service (for more info, please see our detailed review of the service). However, not all providers offer speeds this fast (yet): For instance, Verizon’s FiOS currently offers speeds starting around 25Mbps and going up to 300Mbps for their most expensive plan.  Cost of Fiber is generally competitive with Cable and DSL variants where it is available, but can get expensive for upper tier plans (e.g. at the time of this writing, Verizon’s fastest 300Mbps FiOS plan costs over $150/month).

The technology is on track to become the dominant connection standard for the US in the near future.  But for now, it’s still pretty hard to find. As of this writing, Google Fiber only exists in three places: Kansas City, Provo, Utah, and Austin, Texas, although the company has recently revealed their plans to expand into markets like Portland, San Jose, and Atlanta in the next few years.

FiOS offering has this beat by a slight margin, offering up plans in about 20 locations, but still the fact remains that unless you live in the center of a major metropolitan area in the US, it could be  upwards of a decade or more before you start seeing advertisements for the service pop up on your local TV station.

4G/LTE Cellular

Ever noticed how sometimes the internet on your cell phone seems faster than what you have plugged in at home? Well, that’s probably because a lot of the time (depending on where you live and your carrier), it probably is.

Within just the past few years, the technology we depend on to power our voracious desire for data over the airwaves has accelerated exponentially, giving birth to ethereal, persistent wireless networks which can stream Netflix in 1080p even when we’re camped on the side of a mountain in the middle of the wilderness.

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On average, 4G LTE connections can maintain about 3-10Mbps, which is just about the same as what you’d get if you were paying for a full plan of DSL. However, the reason the networks are able to sustain such quick communication wirelessly is because not everyone is trying to use them at the same time. Thanks to throttling, every carrier imposes a limit of how much data any user can attempt to download each month, which means that after a certain amount is used the phone will either be automatically switched over to a slower network, or might incur expensive overage charges.

Tethering your cellular internet connection is a great option if you often find yourself on the road and in need of a quick internet fix, but for home use the bandwidth limitations and lack of consistent reliability make it too volatile to present any real sort of competition to the landline-based monopolies held by cable, DSL, or Fiber.

Satellite

Last up, there’s also satellite internet, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Satellite internet works by beaming down a connection from orbit, usually into a large dish that a subscriber has to install on their property themselves.

It’s generally sluggish, overpriced, and difficult to maintain a strong or consistent signal; so why would anyone choose this over the rest? Well, to start, it works from literally anywhere on the planet.

The one (and some would argue only) benefit to choosing satellite internet over anything else is that if you live in an extremely rural part of the world, or need to get a signal from the middle of a jungle somewhere in Costa Rica, satellite internet is how you’re going to make it work. If this sounds like what you’re set up for, Exede offers reasonable rates on par with what you’d find with DSL, even if the speeds are a touch slower.

Conclusion


DSLCableFiberCellularSatellite
Average Speed (Upload/Download) 1Mbps-25Mbps+ (1)1-15Mbps Up/15Mbps-105Mbps down25Mbps – 1000Mbps Synchronous500kbps – 15Mbps Up/4Mbps – 10Mbps down 250kbps Up/1Mbps – 10Mbps down
Cost$29-79/mo$45-150/mo$70/mo+$30-$80/mo + depending on your data plan$49 for 10Mbps
Long Term Contract?NoNoNoYesNo
Data CapNoneNoneNone2-15GB/mo12GB/mo
AvailabilityNationwide (2)NationwideSelect MarketsMetropolitan AreasWorldwide

  1. Can be asynchronous (i.e. ASDL)or synchronous (i.e. SDSL)
  2. Recall that availability and speed depend highly on the distance you are from the telephone office.

There’s an old saying, which states that “when companies compete, the consumer wins”.

And so in the case of internet services, while you might hear a few negative comments sent the way of Comcast or the likes of AT&T, the choices available of how we stream, scroll, and change our status updates has never been more plentiful than the are today.

What has your experience been with these various services?  Let us know in the comments below or by starting a new discussion in our community forum.