Your Options for High Speed Internet

You may have more choices than you realize

Cable and ADSL aren't the only options for high-speed internet connections. Broadband (high-speed) internet pipes to devices through several different technologies including cable, DSL, cellular, satellite, and fiber-optic links. With the popularity of streaming media, HD and 4K content, the need for speed has never been greater.

If you can average 25 megabits-per-second download speed with your connection, you should have a smooth daily internet experience, whichever connection method you choose. However, if you stream several video sources at the same time to several simultaneous users, 25 Mbps download may not be enough.

Cable Internet

Coaxial cable
Mark Coffey / Getty Images

What We Like

  • Cable internet is the fastest overall choice if you can't get fiber.

  • The best choice for heavy file sharing, heavy downloading, and sending/broadcasting your own streaming video.

  • A good choice for serious gamers, as latency is moderate.

  • Several computers can easily share a single cable connection.

  • Available to most people in metro areas.

  • Many users already have a cable connection for their TV, so setup can be fast.

  • If combined with TV and VoIP telephoning, an all-in-one media bundle package may offer a financially attractive setup for your family.

What We Don't Like

  • The special modems can sometimes be quirky.

  • You may need to have the tech install booster devices if you do a lot of downloading.

  • Bandwidth can be high, but gaming latency can also be higher than DSL.

  • You will share your bandwidth speed with your neighbors. If you happen to live near many serious downloaders and movie-streaming fans, your own speeds will decline sharply when they are online.

Speed

  • Down speed (more is better): 25 to 100+ megabits per second
  • Up speed (more is better): 2 to 8 Mbps
  • Latency: (less is better) 150 to 500 ms, depending on your area

Cost

  • $25 to $90 per month, plus installation fees

Note

Cable should be the first choice for 99 percent of urban users if fiber isn't available.

TV cable internet is arguably the best choice for urban residents. Depending on your location, you can get blazing fast download speeds of 30 to 100 megabits-per-second (Mbps).

Cable internet is a service offered by your television cable provider, and the type of cable hardware they use supports these phenomenal connection speeds. The one major downside is that cable internet often shares your download speeds with your neighbors, in the same way, your hot water tank is shared across your whole house. If you happen to live near 2 or 3 hardcore file downloaders in your neighborhood, you will see your download speeds drop to as slow as 5 Mbps during simultaneous heavy usage.

Cable internet requires special modems, and a hard line will need to be either wired to your house, or your existing TV cable will be spliced to bring the internet into your home.

DSL: Digital Subscriber Line

A modem and ethernet cable on a desk
Fotosearch / Getty Images

What We Like

  • Convenient for people who already have telephone subscriptions.

  • Available in more rural areas than cable.

  • No sharing of bandwidth with your neighbors: your speeds should be very constant through each day.

  • Perhaps the best choice for gamers, as DSL commonly has lower latency than cable.

What We Don't Like

  • The monthly price should be cheaper than cable internet, so watch that you are not gouged.

  • ADSL speeds are considered slow by modern standards.

  • Not the best choice for heavy downloading and file sharing.

  • Not always the best choice for families, as many ADSL providers limit the number of computers to 2 for addressing reasons.

DSL has a few variants: ADSL, ADSL2+, and VDSL2, in order of increasing speed.

Speed

  • Down speed: 1.5 to 15 Mbps for ADSL
  • Up speed: 128 kbps to 1.0 Mbps for ADSL
  • Latency: (less is better) 75 to 400 ms, depending on your area

Cost

  • $35 to $50 per month, plus installation fees

Note

ADSL should be the second choice for most users, after cable internet, provided that fiber service isn't available.

ADSL, or often just called 'DSL' for short, is a type of telephone connection made for internet signals. If you already have a telephone hard line in your home, it can be quite quick to enable internet DSL for your computer.

ADSL achieves speeds that are not as fast as cable but can be quite fast for most users: 8 to 15 megabits per second. Unless you are a hardcore downloader, this is plenty fast for daily Internet and gaming needs.

ADSL requires special modems and small devices called microfilters that plug in between a wired home-telephone connection and the wall jack.

3G/4G Wireless Cell Phone Internet

Flash drive and laptop
Ivan Bajic / Getty Images

What We Like

  • Often available where cable and DSL isn't.

  • Works in a pinch if you need a backup solution.

What We Don't Like

  • Can be very pricey given that most cell-data connections are metered.

  • Because it's over-the-air, some distant connections may prove spotty, and subject to atmospheric conditions.

Speed

  • Down speed: 0.4 to 50 Mbps
  • Up speed:  0.2 to 6 Mbps
  • Latency: (less is better) 250 to 800 ms, depending on your area

Cost

  • $30 to $110 per month, plus startup fees

4G is the first choice for travelers and rural residents. 4G and its HSPA+ technology are getting better, and we can expect to see 100 Mbps wireless speeds as a standard in a couple of years. The emerging 5G technology, which should roll out to broad swathes of the United States over 2020 and beyond, promises even faster and more robust performance.

3G and 4G are named for 3rd generation wireless and 4th generation wireless networking. They are essentially cellular internet connections. Both 3G and 4G wireless use cell phone towers and cell phone signals to provide your internet connection. 

All 3G download speeds are significantly slower than wired cable and DSL. Expect a 3G connection to average 1 to 4 megabits-per-second down speed, and even less up to speed. 4G connections, however, are much faster at 14 to 42 Mbps down speed, and easily rival cable and DSL connection speeds.

As a 3G or 4G user, your wireless modem will likely be a dongle — a small device that connects to a USB port. As long as you are in a cell coverage area, you should get wireless internet with the same reliability that you get cell phone service. You will only get to have one computer on the internet at a time with your dongle, so this is not a good choice for families with several machines. But as an individual traveler, 4G is an excellent way to get online.

Satellite Internet

A home satellite dish
tttuna / Getty Images

What We Like

  • Internet — anywhere.

  • Decent download speeds.

What We Don't Like

  • Upload speed limits makes gaming and VPN usage off-limits.

  • Ouch, that price tag!

Speed

  • Down speed: 0.5 to 1 Mbps
  • Up speed:  less than 1 Mbps
  • Latency: (less is better) 800 to 2500 ms, depending on your area

Cost

  • $100 to $250 per month, plus $300 to $1000 for the satellite dish, plus installation fees

Don't even bother looking at this satellite choice if you can get cable, DSL, or 4G.

Satellite is prohibitively expensive and should be the last choice for any private user. But if you live in a remote area with no cell phone coverage, a satellite may be your only choice. Satellite internet is available as a down-only connection (you cannot send emails or file share; you need to use a telephone modem to do that), or as a full two-way connection which is much more expensive.

Installation of the satellite dish on your home will cost you over $1000, plus the time and effort to do the install. And monthly subscription costs are often $100 to $250, depending on your provider.

Down speeds with satellite internet are 0.5 to 1 megabit-per-second, and up speeds are much slower. Latency is very poor, often 800 ms and worse.

Fiber Internet

Fiber Internet
Image © Gary H/Flickr.

What We Like

  • Blazing-fast speeds.

  • High reliability connections.

What We Don't Like

  • Can be pricey in some places.

  • Very little national coverage as of 2019.

Speed and Cost

The speed of fiber appears in pairs. For example, you can get 250 MB/s download and 25 MB/s upload, or 1 GB/s download and 100 MB/s upload, or tiers within those ranges. Costs vary between $40 for lower-speed service to $200 or more for the fastest, unmetered service.

If you can get fiber, get fiber.

Fiber internet is still percolating through the United States. Price and performance varies significantly by provider and market region, but in general, fiber is priced competitively with high-end cable and DSL connections, and it's an order of magnitude faster. Many fiber connections offer true 1 gigabyte-per-second throughput, which is 10 times faster than the theoretical best speeds of DSL.

The only hitch? The national coverage map, as of December 2017, looks weak:

fcc fiber broadband coverage map
Federal Communications Commission