We compared prices, speeds, and bundles for DSL and cable internet services from industry-leading internet providers to determine if cable or DSL service is better. In most cases, cable is the clear winner.
DSL vs. Cable Internet: Pros and Cons
If you’re looking for internet service after moving into a new place, the two most common internet types you’ll find are cable and DSL. Both will get you a reliable connection to check email, stream movies, partake in Zoom meetings, and more. Each has its strengths and weaknesses—but we think cable is your best bet.
DSL internet is the old-school option, with wide availability and straightforward monthly rates (usually hovering around $50 per month). But it’s got limited speeds, which are not nearly as fast or as reliable as cable.
Cable internet tends to have more complicated contracts and hidden fees. But it can deliver speeds up to 10 times faster than DSL. And, in some cases, it can also be much more affordable, with prices ranging anywhere from $20 per month for the cheapest plans to well over $100 per month for hyperfast gigabit speeds and bundle options.
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Data as of 08/16/2021. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.
*Prices and speeds taken from listings by the internet provider.
DSL vs. cable internet: What’s the difference?
DSL and cable both give you internet service, but they run on different network connections. DSL operates through the copper wiring of landline phone systems, making it widely available but also a bit old-fashioned and slow.1 DSL usually tops out at around 100 Mbps for download speed, though a handful of DSL plans offer download speeds up to 500 Mbps.
Cable runs on the coaxial wiring laid by a cable company. Higher-tier cable plans cost more than DSL, but cable is faster, more reliable, and offers better options for bundling with cable TV or even a mobile phone plan. Cable download speeds can reach a maximum of 1,000 Mbps, or 1 Gbps.
DSL vs. cable pricing
On average, you should expect to spend about $50 to $60 per month for a decent DSL or cable internet connection. Deluxe cable plans with faster speeds will cost you more. You’ll also need to factor in additional fees for installation, a modem and router, and taxes.
Though DSL and cable internet cost roughly the same in many cases, we think cable is the best deal in the long run because you can get faster speeds and more reliable service at a decent price.
Cable is all about giving you lots of options, with promotional prices and bundle deals designed to sweeten the pot as you sign up for a package. DSL more commonly has fixed rates, straightforward plans, and month-to-month commitments. You can get some sweet deals from DSL too, though, and DSL’s no-contract options give you more flexibility if you decide to cancel your plan or switch providers.
Most DSL plans cost around $50 per month, which may or may not be a good deal. Paying that much is worth it if you can get 25 Mbps or faster. But it isn’t if your provider will only give you 5–10 Mbps download speeds—significantly slower than what you could get from a cable provider at the same price.
Cable internet download speeds range anywhere from 10–1,000 Mbps. You can often find low-priced plans for $50 a month or less. Or, you can pay $60 to $100+ a month for superfast internet if you live in a big family or have a fleet of mobile devices using Wi-Fi at all hours.
DSL and cable providers both often offer deals to let you shave the price off your bill. When you sign up, ask customer service if you can get a VISA gift card, a waiver on installation, or a modem/router for no extra cost. You can also sometimes save money by bundling your internet with a cable TV or phone package.
Read our guide to lowering your internet bill for a list of great deals and promotions.
How much does installation cost?
For both DSL and cable internet, installation usually costs between $50 to $100 if you have it done by a professional. You can usually opt for a self-install option, which brings down the fee significantly. Many DSL and cable internet providers also have recurring promotions that let you waive the installation costs or get a rebate with a VISA gift card—definitely ask about getting free installation when you sign up.
How much does equipment cost?
You’ll need a modem and router to get your internet flowing at your new pad. You can rent a “gateway” (a combined modem and router) from your internet provider, which usually costs around $10 per month. Some internet providers include the gateway as part of your monthly bill. Or, if you want to save some money on rental costs, you can buy the equipment yourself.
DSL vs. cable speeds
Internet speed (download)
What you can do online
1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps)
Speed is the biggest difference between DSL and cable internet. DSL is like your dad’s old station wagon. It’s trusty and reliable but not about to win any drag races—most DSL plans top out at around 100 Mbps download speeds, and they usually run much slower.
Cable, meanwhile, is like a souped-up Honda, letting you rev your Wi-Fi engine to the max if you so desire. You can find cable internet plans that deliver anywhere from 25–1,000 Mbps download speeds. Faster internet speeds come in handy if you use the internet for more advanced tasks like online gaming, content creation, running smart-home security cameras or attending video chats with large groups of people.
Cable plans also let you access mid-range speeds—not quite gigabit but still much faster than DSL. A cable internet plan in the range of 100–500 Mbps is perfect if you want excellent speeds at an affordable price that are capable of supporting large households.
Again, that’s not to say that DSL is no good. DSL’s top speed of 100 Mbps is plenty fast for most users. Even 25 Mbps—which you’re more likely to find in most DSL markets—is solid if you live in a relatively small household (say, 2–3 people) and you use the internet mostly to check email, use social media, and stream in HD.
If you want to learn more about internet speeds and find out exactly how many Mbps you need, check out our guide to internet speeds.
What’s a good upload speed for cable or DSL?
Most online activity revolves around downloading data from the internet—like when we download a big file from work over email or stream the latest season of Shameless. But we also spend time uploading data, and upload speeds of 5 Mbps and up are ideal for any internet plan.
DSL and cable internet both have much slower upload speeds compared to download speeds. Although some DSL providers advertise faster upload speeds, DSL generally hovers around the 1–10 Mbps range for uploading.
Cable upload speeds often span 5–50 Mbps. You’ll want speedy uploads of this caliber if you need a solid Wi-Fi connection to do things like backing up your hard drive, hosting Zoom video calls with large groups, and uploading photos from your recent vacation to Facebook.
If you truly require the fastest uploads possible, consider seeking out a fiber internet plan. Fiber internet, which runs over fiberglass cabling, can hit 1,000 Mbps (and in some cases even faster) for both downloads and uploads. Fiber plans typically give you “symmetrical” speeds, which means that both download and upload speeds are the same.
Just keep in mind that fiber will probably cost you more money than a cable plan. Also, fiber is not as widely available as cable or DSL, so it may not be an option in your area.
DSL vs. cable internet: Availability
DSL and cable internet are both widely available across the United States. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nearly 88% of the US population has access to at least one DSL provider in their area.2 Nearly 89% of Americans can get internet from at least one cable provider where they live.
There are some limitations, however. Only 37% of Americans can get DSL internet with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster. It’s much easier to get cable internet with 250 Mbps speeds or better—but gigabit speeds on cable are still rare, available to a mere .15% of the US market.
Also, it’s common to have just one cable and DSL provider available in one area. You can pick one or the other, but it’s not as common to have a choice between multiple cable and multiple DSL companies.
DSL vs. cable internet: Customer experience
Overall customer rating*
DSL and fiber**
DSL and fiber
DSL and fiber
DSL and fiber
DSL and fiber
*Ratings come from HighSpeedInternet.com’s 2020 customer satisfaction survey.
**DSL providers typically also offer fiber internet—although fiber is less commonly available than any provider’s DSL option.
To get a full rundown of which DSL and cable providers do the best work for their customers, it’s worth perusing the details of HighSpeedInternet.com’s 2020 customer satisfaction survey.3 Of the 15 internet providers covered, the top one for overall performance was a DSL internet provider—EarthLink.
EarthLink (which also provides fiber internet in some markets) stole the show across the board, taking the top spots for installation, billing, technical support, customer service, and more.
Optimum, a cable internet provider, also performed well, taking third place for overall customer satisfaction and getting high rankings for reliability, billing, tech support, and customer service.
Xfinity, one of the biggest cable internet providers in the country, also got top marks, coming in fifth place for overall satisfaction. Xfinity used to not have the best reputation for customer service, but it’s really upped its game over the past few years. It takes first place for speed and comes in the top five for other crucial categories like customer service and reliability.
Our pick: Cable internet gives you the best value
While we dig the simplicity of DSL, we think cable internet is still the best deal. It’s faster, more consistent, and gives you a lot more options to choose from. Whether you want the cheapest plan possible or something megadeluxe with gigabit speeds or cable TV to match, cable internet providers have what you need.
FAQ about DSL vs. cable internet
What is DSL internet?
DSL—short for “digital subscriber line”—is a type of internet that runs on copper wiring through a landline phone network. It delivers download speeds up to 100 Mbps and is widely available across the United States. Most DSL internet plans cost around $50 per month, although some providers, like Frontier, offer cheaper options.
What is cable internet?
Cable is a type of internet that runs over a coaxial cable network—the same kind operated by cable TV providers. It’s usually faster and more reliable than DSL internet, providing download speeds up to 1,000 Mbps. Cable internet comes at a range of prices depending on the speed and service you’re getting. Basic, low-speed cable internet plans cost as low as $20 per month while gigabit cable plans and bundles cost upwards of $75–$100 per month.
How fast is DSL internet?
DSL internet is slower than most types of internet, topping out at 100 Mbps. Most DSL internet providers offer speeds in the range of 1–25 Mbps, according to data collected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).2
Which is better: DSL or cable internet?
DSL internet has its charms, but cable is definitely the better option between the two. It’s faster, more reliable, and comes in a wider range of speeds. Cable internet gives customers more variety when it comes to choosing between affordable price and high performance. However, DSL can also be a fine option, especially for people living in rural areas whose only other option will be a costly satellite internet plan.
Why do you need a modem and router?
You need a modem to bring your internet signal into your home and a router to broadcast it as Wi-Fi. A modem is a piece of hardware that converts data from a network into an internet connection for your house. A router then picks up that connection and beams it as a wireless (a.k.a. Wi-Fi) signal to all your devices.
When buying a modem, the most important thing to keep in mind is that it needs to be approved to work with your internet provider. Both cable and DSL internet providers require modems that can communicate with their networks, so if you bought a modem that isn’t configured right, you won’t be able to get Wi-Fi.
Also, if you’ve signed up for gigabit internet (1,000 Mbps or faster) from a cable company, make sure to purchase a cable modem that meets DOCSIS 3.1 standards. DOCSIS 3.1 is the latest communications protocol, letting you hit the fastest speeds possible. You can also use a DOCSIS 3.0 modem (which is cheaper), but it won’t guarantee you can reach the 1,000 Mbps speeds you’ll be paying for.
Now that you understand the differences between DSL and cable internet, check out these guides to get your new home ready for streaming, working, and browsing the web:
- Brian X. Chen, The New York Times, “Everything You Need to Know About Slow Internet Speeds,” May 2020. Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.
- Federal Communications Commission, “Fixed Broadband Deployment,” June 2019. Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.
- Rebecca Armstrong, HighSpeedInternet.com, “2020’s Best Internet Providers in Customer Satisfaction,” May 2020. Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.