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DSL, Cable, Wireless: Which is Right for Me?

When people think about getting broadband service, they wonder what this all means. They hear about upstream, downstream, bandwidth usage limits, DSL, cable modem, routers, and so much more that it seems like a foreign language that only sounds like English. I can help you understand what all this technical jargon means and point out some of the advantages and disadvantages of the choices you have.

First, you need to understand about the terms used for broadband speed. This is where the terms upstream (aka upload) and downstream (aka download) come into play. Upstream is the speed from your computer to the Internet and is the slower of the two speeds quoted in most Internet Service Provider's websites. The reason it is slower is that most people do not need to send out their emails at top-notch speed. They are willing to wait a little longer to get the pictures of the children sent out. What they want is for websites to pull up quickly or for their music from the iTunes store to download. This faster speed that transfers files to you computer is downstream.

Now, you know what the terms mean but what speeds are available. That depends on the technology you eventually want to use. Before we get into choosing the technology, let's think about the numbers and what they mean.

To start, there are many common numbers for downstream such as 512Kbps, 768Kbps, 1Mbps, 1.5Mbps, 3Mbps, 7Mbps, and so forth. Dialup, for the sake of comparison, is 53Kbps at its fastest (with 33.6Kbps being the most commonly experienced speed). Now, to put the various speeds in practical terms, let's consider downloading a 20-megabyte file (such as an installer for a program). The following chart details how long it would take to download it based on the various speeds.

SpeedTime to Download
33.6Kbps6095.23 seconds (1.7 hours)
512Kbps320 seconds (5.3 minutes)
768Kbps213 seconds (3.5 minutes)
1Mbps160 seconds (2.7 minutes)
1.5Mbps107 seconds (1.8 minutes)
3Mbps53 seconds
7Mbps23 seconds

Based on this, you can see that, logically, the faster you go, the faster such a file transfers but also, as you can conclude, the higher the speed, the higher the price. Thus, you need to make the choice as to which speed fits your budget best.

If price is no object and you want the fastest speed possible, then in this area, the fastest option would be Midco's top-tier cable modem service since they offer reliable speeds up to 110Mbps downstream and 5Mbps upstream. In other areas of the country (or the world), you should check to see what your local offerings are.

The technology that is utilized by DSL (whether ADSL, which stands for Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line, or VDSL, which allegedly means "Very fast DSL") and cable modems limit what the maximum speeds for the services are. Specifically, ADSL in either version 1 or 2 is limited to only 12Mbps. Locally, the fastest DSL service was only 6Mbps but that has been phased out in favor of VDSL. The newest DSL technology, VDSL, is what AT&T uses for its U-Verse Internet service. VDSL has a maximum speed of 45Mbps though the VDSL standard can support up to 100Mbps in both directions, upstream and downstream.

Cable modems utilize a standard called DOCSIS, the current version being DOCSIS 3.1 Full Duplex. This has a maximum throughput rate of 10Gbps in both direction, much higher than DSL. However, I have not seen any provider offer cable service at that speed. The fastest here locally is advertised as 110Mbps.

So, now you have an idea as to what speed you want and you know who offers it, so what else do you need to know? To say it plainly, you need to think about the advantages and disadvantages to each option. Locally, we have three options for broadband access: cable, VDSL, and community wireless.

To address the community wireless option first, it is a way of connecting your computers to the Internet without using either the phone lines (whether dialup or ADSL/VDSL) or coax cable. Instead, the wireless service provides you a wireless modem that communicates with their radios in the area and give you Internet access over the airwaves. (The connection--at least here locally--is encrypted, so you do not need to worry about someone getting anything from you by just sitting right outside your home.) The advantage to this is that it is often cheaper than, just as fast as, and easier to locate than cable or DSL. The wireless modem can be placed anywhere within your home that you have a power outlet. Of course, being wireless, there will be certain areas of the home in which you get better signal than others and my recommendation is to place it near a window, preferably one that is as close to the nearest service provider radio as possible. The disadvantage is that if there are many in the area who use the same community wireless radio, then your speed will degrade faster than if you use either of the other two technologies.

Cable modem service is a great alternative. With speeds "up to 110Mbps" locally, it makes the local VDSL offerings (only up to 45Mbps) and community wireless (up to 7Mbps) pale by comparison. To get that speed, though, you often have to pay much more than what the other services cost. Further, most cable companies limit the amount of bandwidth that can be used each month, something that DSL and wireless companies tend not to do. This means that if you send out a lot of emails that contain funny videos (such as the cartoon of a cat using a baseball bat to wake its owner), chances are that you will be hitting your limit in regard to bandwidth usage fairly easily. When that happens, either the cable company will throttle down your speed to lower than dialup speeds or they will not say anything to you until you get your bill and then shock you with a huge overage charge. Also, just like with community wireless, because of the way that cable service is implemented, there are many times that the speed will be slower than that for which you pay. Cable service is done by a one-to-many technology. (In technical jargon, it is a bus network topology.) What this means is that there is a single trunk line that runs through the neighborhood and every house in the neighborhood has a connection to that one resource, just like a water main. Thus, when everyone wants a piece of it, the amount available for each subscriber is diminished, especially when the cable company oversells their services in certain neighborhoods (which is very common for them to do). A prime example is a client who paid the local cable company for their 50Mbps service yet her actual maximum speed was no more than 12Mbps. The cable company refused to do anything about it, saying that the service is "up to 50Mbps" but there was no guarantee that she would get that speed. She was paying more for a faster service and, yet, was getting speed that actually was one-quarter of VDSL at the times she needed it.

VDSL service on the other hand, does not use a bus topology. Instead, just like with regular telephone service, it is a direct one-to-one link between you and the service provider (technically termed a star topology). Therefore, anytime that usage is high in the area, it doesn't affect your speed. Further, VDSL companies typically have no bandwidth usage limits. So, this means that you get your full speed at all times and can use it fully for the entire month without any problems or complaints from the VDSL provider. Though the maximum speeds possible through VDSL are lower, the potential for achieving those speeds is practically guaranteed. Thus, you pay less and get more. Here locally, it sounds like VDSL is the winner. Now the down side to VDSL is that some companies require you to commit to at least a year of service, such as AT&T does with U-Verse.

The final issue is security. If you use community wireless, then chances are that the wireless modem has some sort of rudimentary firewall built into it. You can use that if you wish but I would advise against it. If you opt for VDSL, you might get just a VDSL modem or you might get a VDSL gateway (modem and router combined into a single unit; AT&T uses a gateway for their VDSL service). If you're not sure which you have, let us know via the Contact Us selection in the menu on the left, and we can determine that for you. With cable, you will most often receive just a plain, simple cable modem. You want to make sure that you have a router (or DSL gateway if your connection is DSL) to insure that your computers do not get infected with Internet worms, accessed by hackers to find your confidential data, or otherwise attacked for nefarious purposes. To help you decide which router to get, I will give you various scenarios:

You have only one computer that is near the Internet access device (cable modem, DSL modem, etc.). Get a wired router.

You have two computers that are both nearby the Internet access device and you need the potential for hooking up other machines via wired means. Get a wired router that has four ports on the back. (If you need more than four ports, you will need to get a network switch and hook that to the back of the router. Contact us via the Contact Us selection in the menu on the left and I will help you figure out where the cables go.)

You have two (or more) computers and at least one of them needs to be wireless. Get a wireless router. (Most wireless routers have four ports for wired connections on the back. Once again, if you need more than four, you will need a network switch.)

There are those who say that one can run their computers without a router and, instead, use a software firewall such as Norton Internet Security or McAfee Internet Security. Take my professional advice: don't use such programs. They do not work as well as a router (hardware firewall), are more expensive since they need to be replaced every year, and are very easy for any hacker to bypass in a matter of seconds. If you want to read more about firewalls and routers, read the article I have posted here. It explains the entire issue.

Once you have your router, whichever kind it is, you need to make sure to secure it. You can read how to do that in this article.

If you have any questions about anything here, please feel free to contact us via the Contact Us selection in the menu on the left. We're glad to help.