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Your need for internet speed is one of the most critical factors in choosing an internet service provider (ISP). Not everyone needs the fastest internet speed, but it's still important to have enough bandwidth to meet your household needs.
Understanding the differences between each type of internet connection when choosing the best internet option for your needs is important. Here’s what you should know about each connection type.
What speeds can different internet services reach?
Which ISPs offer which types of internet service?
What are the different types of internet connections?
Different types of internet connections are available depending on your ISP and where you live.
Your connection speed and internet plan cost could depend on the internet connection types available to you. Most cities and suburbs have at least a few options for internet access, and most rural areas have seen increased speed and reliability thanks to fixed wireless and satellite internet.
But you may see other internet connection types and wonder how they stack up. Some of the most common connections available include:
- Dial-up (Yes, we still have dial-up.)
- Fixed wireless
- Mobile internet (5G and LTE)
Dial-up internet access is a type of internet access that connects to an ISP using your telephone line. A dial-up modem converts audio signals into data for transmission over those phone lines.
- How fast is it?: Up to 56 Kbps
Early versions of dial-up started with connections as slow as 14.4 kilobits per second (Kbps). That was just enough to read text on the screen and maybe one picture. When U.S. Robotics Corp. released the 28.8 Kbps modem, speeds increased.
With a 28.8 Kbps dial-up connection, you could load one website at a time and send an email using Sendmail. (We've come a long way!) Later, internet service providers that offer dial-up services, including America Online (AOL) and NetZero, found a way to reach 56 Kbps by adding line compression into the architecture.
In the late 1990s, AOL offered "unlimited internet access" for $9.95 per month. Almost overnight, its internet traffic overwhelmed the network. User connections dropped. AOL faced several lawsuits surrounding what "unlimited" service means and what serviceability guarantees were offered.
Many service providers started to build next-generation internet connection networks to meet the demand AOL generated. Realizing that dial-up connectivity would not serve up the rich content from e-commerce sites, internet providers spent billions to offer even faster connection speeds to communities.
Satellite broadband is another form of wireless internet that is also helpful for serving rural areas.
Viasat, HughesNet, and Starlink have developed satellite dishes and terminals with impressive upload and download speeds for internet access. Though one drawback to satellite internet is that you need a clear view of the Southern sky (at least in North America).
- How fast is it? Up to 500 Mbps
Viasat offers download speeds up to 150 megabits per second (Mbps), whereas Starlink advertises download speeds up to 500 Mbps.
Digital subscriber line (DSL) internet
DSL allows for faster internet access than dial-up by transmitting digital data through existing copper phone lines in your neighborhood. And while you couldn't use dial-up internet while someone was using the landline phone, you can browse the web on DSL while chatting on the phone.
- How fast is it? Up to 100 Mbps
There are various types of DSL internet, including asymmetric DSL (ADSL) and symmetric DSL (SDSL). One thing to note about this type of internet connection is that many large ISPs are trying to shut down their DSL networks, much like AT&T started to do in 2020.
Cable internet uses a cable modem that's connected directly to the internet via the same coaxial cables you use to plug into your cable TV service. (Don't worry, you can still watch TV while using the internet.)
- How fast is it? Up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps)
You'll usually see faster internet speeds available with cable than you would DSL, but fiber-optic internet is typically faster than your average cable connection.
Fiber-optic internet uses light to transmit information across a color spectrum of glass cables. The speed of fiber optics varies depending on how close your ISP delivers a fiber internet signal to your house, as well as other factors.
- How fast is it? Up to 5 Gbps
Many cities and suburbs are seeing fiber internet rolled out, but more rural areas might be lagging behind.
Fixed wireless broadband allows you to access the internet from a stationary antenna or dish. Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) offer fixed wireless plans at speeds starting at 1 Mbps, usually in rural areas where there is no wired broadband infrastructure.
- How fast is it? Up to 50 Mbps
Wireless LTE broadband services are becoming increasingly available from mobile phone service providers and others. These services are generally suitable for highly mobile customers, such as those who travel in an RV. Mobile internet usually needs a special PC card with an internal antenna plugged into your laptop.
Mobile internet usually provides slower download speeds, ranging from several hundred Kbps to several Mbps.
How fast is it? Between 20 to 30 Mbps (LTE)
“5G” stands for “fifth generation” mobile network, and it’s already available — mostly in urban areas. 5G provides significantly faster speeds than current 4G LTE networks, offering download speeds between 50 Mbps and 150 Mbps. Some experts believe 5G networks could reach speeds of 10 Gbps.
What speeds can different internet services reach?
The following chart should give you an idea of the various speeds each internet connection could reach. Remember, the speed varies depending on your ISP, internet plan, and location.
Max internet speeds by connection type
|Connection type||Max download speed|
|Dial-up||Up to 56 Kbps|
|DSL||64 Kbps to 100 Mbps|
|Satellite||Up to 500 Mbps|
|Fixed wireless||Up to 50 Mbps|
|Cable||25 Mbps to 1 Gbps|
|Fiber||Up to 5 Gbps|
|Cellular LTE & 5G||LTE: 20 Mbps to 30 Mbps
5G: Up to 10 Gbps
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Which ISPs offer which types of internet service?
The good news: every large internet provider has plans that fit most everyone's needs. Many of these ISPs continue to make considerable investments to make internet more accessible to everyone.
Large U.S. internet providers by connection type
|Internet provider||Service connection types|
|AT&T||DSL, Fiber, Wi-Fi, Cellular (4G LTE & 5G)|
|Comcast Xfinity||Cable, Fiber, Wi-Fi, Cellular (4G LTE & 5G)|
|Spectrum (formerly Charter)||Cable, Wi-Fi|
|Verizon Fios||DSL (limited), Fiber, Wi-Fi, Cellular (4G LTE & 5G)|
|Viasat||Satellite, Wi-Fi on commercial aircraft|
In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched an ambitious project called the Aqulia. The idea was that Facebook would launch self-propelled, solar-powered gliders into rural areas and beam down internet signals. Although the project gained notoriety, eventually it was canceled.
What is the fastest type of internet?
The fastest type of internet is currently fiber-optic with an impressive 5 Gbps, but 5G is expected to have a range of 10 Gbps when fully available.
What is the slowest internet connection?
Dial-up forever will be known as the slowest internet option at a max of 56 Kbps. Satellite and DSL internet could also be considered slow depending on what plan you're subscribed to.
Viasat offers satellite internet plans with download speeds starting at 12 Mbps. Verizon's DSL internet speeds range from 0.5 to 15 Mbps.
Which is better, fiber or DSL?
Fiber is hands-down better than DSL thanks to its faster speeds and larger bandwidth capacity. However, fiber is not accessible to many parts of the country. DSL, if available, could still be an excellent option.
Is DSL and ADSL the same?
ADSL is a type of DSL. So is SDSL.
ADSL, or Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line, is used primarily by residential customers, and its download speeds are usually faster than its upload speeds.
SDSL, or Symmetrical Digital Subscriber Line, is used primarily by businesses for services such as video conferencing. It can also be helpful for residential activities, such as livestreaming, which can require just as much bandwidth for uploading as it does downloading.
Internet connections and options vary depending on what's available in your area. Considering the various options, it’s a good idea to reach out to multiple ISPs like AT&T, Comcast Xfinity, and Verizon to compare prices, connection types, and speeds.
If you're located in an area without many internet options, Viasat, Starlink, and HughesNet offer satellite internet plans — though they may cost you more than DSL, cable, or fiber internet. Rise Broadband and Starry offer fixed wireless internet plans that may also be an option worth considering.
5G also has a promising future, especially with the growth of smart cities, connected cars, and industrial devices. Connectivity and bandwidth demands will continue to grow, and hopefully, everyone will have many options to connect regardless of where they are located.
If you're looking for a smoother web browsing experience, you can review our list of the best ad blockers.
- High-quality VPN offering safety and speed
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- Works with popular streaming services, including Netflix
- Too many confusing plans