Come to Terms With Your ISP: Dial-up, Cable, DSL and Satellite-What's the Difference?

By TopTenReviews Contributor
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Millions of people all over the world connect to the internet each day through ISPs (internet service providers). Most people know what type of connection they have: dial-up, cable, DSL or satellite—some connections are high-speed/broadband (the terms are interchangeable) while others aren't.

While the average internet consumer knows the name of their connection type, few know much more. When you explore the assets and liabilities of each ISP method, you can best choose the internet connection that will fit your household habits.

Dial-up ISP

Dial-up is a connection that sends information through the phone line by way of a modem. Some dial-up ISPs offer accelerators that use content compression and page caching to increase the speed of the data transfer. If you have a phone line, you can generally find a dial-up ISP in your area.

Dial-up ISP:

  • Typical speed of 56K per second
  • Uses the telephone line; you can't call and surf the internet simultaneously (without an additional line)
  • Requires a phone line
  • Usually the least expensive

Cable ISP

A cable internet provider offers internet service through the same coax cable through which you receive cable television. Currently, cable is the fastest of all connections, but speeds can be affected by the number of local customers connected at the same time. A cable connection requires a modem that can be rented from the ISP or purchased from a local computer dealer.

Cable ISP:

  • Is always on so there is no need to wait for a lengthy dial-up connection
  • Is 50 times faster than a typical dial-up connection
  • Allows you to use the telephone and internet at the same time
  • Requires a cable connection

DSL ISP

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), like a dial-up connection, comes through your phone line, but DSL uses electrical signals at frequencies that humans cannot hear. Many phone companies offer DSL connection at discounted prices if you also use their phone services. There are two main differences between DSL and dial-up: first, DSL is much faster (up to 50 times) and second, because you cannot hear the data signal, you can use your phone and the internet at the same time even with only one phone line.

DSL ISP:

  • Is always on so there is no need to wait for a lengthy dial-up connection
  • Is 50 times faster than typical dial-up connections
  • Allows you to use the telephone and internet at same time
  • Requires a phone line, a filter, and a data sending/receiving box that translates data
  • You must be in the phone company's DSL service area since these delicate transmission frequencies deteriorate over a short distance

Satellite ISP

Satellite is a connection that makes high-speed internet accessible to areas where DSL and cable connections are not yet available. Data is downloaded (received) about 10 times faster than dial-up through a satellite dish attached to your home. Some satellite systems have slower uploading times (sending data) because data must travel over phone lines through a modem. Other systems use the satellite both ways—for uploading and downloading.

Satellite ISP:

  • Is always on so there is no need to wait for a lengthy dial-up connection
  • Is usually 10 times faster than typical dial-up connections
  • Allows you to use the telephone and the internet at same time
  • Does not require a cable line
  • Is very expensive to set up; an internet satellite dish and satellite modem are required.
  • Some satellite providers penalize you for frequent downloads and uploads with a megabyte limit; this should appear in the fine print of your contract, so read carefully and ask questions

Wireless ISP

Wireless is an internet connection offered by businesses with access to a main internet route. Data is downloaded about 50 times faster than dial-up through a direct line-of-sight (LOS) from your home to the provider's antenna. You must have a powered receiving antenna on your property to send and receive data.

Wireless ISP:

  • Is always on so there is no need to wait for a lengthy dial-up connection
  • Is usually 50 times faster than typical dial-up connections
  • Allows you to use the telephone and the internet at same time
  • Does not require a cable line
  • May cost a few hundred dollars to set up; an antenna with power is required
  • You must be able to see the provider's antenna from your antenna for the connection to work—hills, trees and buildings blocking the view will cancel the connection 
  • Whether you live on the internet and like to surf at break-neck speeds or are looking for an internet provider that offers a cost-effective service there is an ISP that's perfect for you.

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