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DSL vs. Cable: What's the Best Internet Choice?

written by: •edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 7/5/2011

Choosing an Internet solution for your home office is an important decision. In this article, we tackle the DSL vs. Cable debate and take a look at the major differences between the two options.

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    In today’s world, high-speed Internet access tops the list of needs for any home office. As technology progresses, we’re starting to see more and more options for this service, but for now, the two that are still most prevalent are DSL and Cable. Are the differences between these two services really that pronounced?

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    Availability and Price

    When trying to answer the DSL vs. Cable question, the most important thing to check first is availability. If a service isn’t available in your area, all of the other comparisons become pointless. CNET has a nice tool that allows you to search for high-speed internet providers in your area using your zip code and area code. However, don’t just limit your search to this application. While it is a nice starting point, it doesn’t contain information on every provider out there.

    For those providers that are found through the CNET tool, current promotions and prices are listed. This is another thing you want to read carefully. Promos may advertise a nice low $19.99 per month charge, but when you read the fine print, you’ll usually discover that’s just for the first 3-6 months. Since you don’t want to be changing Internet providers constantly, it’s important to find out what the price will be after the initial promotional period.

    It’s also a good idea to check with your current telephone and cable television providers if you subscribe to those services. Many times they will have package deals available that could save you some money. For the most part, the monthly charge for comparable packages for DSL and cable isn’t going to vary much within a single geographical area.

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    One of the biggest questions that people have when contemplating the DSL vs. Cable issue is asking which is faster. Cable providers will tell you that cable offers much higher speeds, and that is true in theory. Cable does have the potential to be faster than DSL, especially for downloads. However, that potential can be greatly reduced due to a number of factors.

    DSL providers offer a dedicated line just like your telephone line. This means that you don’t have to share bandwidth with anyone else on this line. In contrast, the bandwidth of cable customers will be shared with all other cable users in the neighborhood. Partly making up for that issue is the fact that DSL speed also depends on how far away you are from your provider’s base of operations. Further distances mean less speed for DSL users while distance from provider has no discernible effect for cable users.

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    Because cable services involve the use of a shared line, there have been many arguments in the past that DSL connections are more secure. In actuality, the bigger security problem comes from the “always-on” status that is used by both DSL and cable systems. However, most of these worries can be assuaged simply by employing basic security measures that have become almost standard on any home office computer set-up. For a list of things that you can do to make your home network more secure, take a look at this document put together by CERT.

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    Overall, there is no general answer to the question of which service is better in the DSL vs. Cable debate, but there are some specific things you can ask to help determine which one is a better solution for your home office needs.

    • Are services available in your area? This may sound like a no-brainer, but providers don’t always advertise to the extent you would expect. Plus, online directories can take awhile to be updated and may not have the most recent information.
    • What is the monthly cost of the service after any initial promotion? Will there be extra equipment rental fees?
    • For DSL service, how far away is your home office from the service provider’s facilities? Distances that are too far will result in a loss in speed that may or may not be acceptable to you.
    • For cable service, how many users will you be sharing a line with? Too many active users on a shared line could make your connection slower, especially during peak usage times.
    • What security measures have been put in place from the provider’s end?

    While it’s important to put these questions directly to the provider, make sure to ask around your neighborhood, too. This can be especially helpful if you’re concerned about speed issues. If there’s a problem that several others in your area are having on this matter, chances are that it’s not just their set-ups and you could be in for the same trouble.