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    Cable, fiber, DSL and more: The different types of internet services and how they work



    Michael Smith/Getty Images

    Shopping for internet plans gets confusing fast — especially if you aren’t familiar with the different technologies being used to deliver the connection to your home. Between fiber, fixed wireless, cable, DSL, satellite and cellular internet plans, there’s an awful lot to keep straight, and if you don’t understand the differences, you risk getting stuck with a connection that isn’t as fast or reliable as you had wanted, or as affordable as you need. That’s no good when there are long-term contracts potentially at play.

    We’re here to help. This guide will walk you through the many types of internet connections that may be available in your area, how they work and what, if any, limitations you can expect from them.

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    Cable internet delivers a connection to your home via copper coaxial cable — the same as traditional cable TV.


    Taylor Martin/CNET

    Cable internet

    Cable is one of the most common types of internet connections, and you’ll often find it bundled in with home phone service and TV packages. That makes sense, because cable internet uses the same coaxial connections as cable TV. 

    How it works is your internet service provider, or ISP, will send a technician to your residence to ensure that your home has the right wiring for the job. Then, they’ll use coaxial cables to connect that wiring with a modem or wireless gateway. At the other end of that connection is a neighborhood node that services all the homes in the area. That’s where your connectivity comes from.

    With a cable connection, your internet speeds will vary based on your area, the internet plan you select, and other factors. Average download speeds can range from 10 to 500 megabits per second.

    Notable providers: Comcast Xfinity, Charter Spectrum, Cox Communications

    DSL internet

    DSL refers to a digital subscriber line, and you’ll often find it available in areas where you might not have access to cable or fiber internet. With DSL, your connection to the internet runs through your phone lines. Unlike dial-up, however, where it would disrupt your connection with a call, with DSL, you can use your internet without having to worry about an incoming call disrupting your connection.

    DSL internet is best for those in rural communities looking for a reliable and affordable internet connection. While it does lag in speeds compared to cable internet plans (the average download speed ranges from 3 to 50 Mbps), it can be a cheaper alternative to satellite internet.

    Notable providers: AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Frontier Communications, Windstream

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    With satellite internet, your connection comes from radio-equipped satellites in Earth’s orbit. You’ll need a dish to receive the signal.


    Eric Mack/CNET

    Satellite internet

    Satellite internet is one of the most widely available types of internet, because it doesn’t rely on ground-laid infrastructure like cables, cellular towers or line-of-sight antenna connections. Instead, you’ll use a special dish to connect with satellites orbiting far overhead. If you have a clear view of the sky, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s a satellite provider capable of delivering an internet connection to your home. 

    To set it up, your provider will come out to install a satellite dish either on the roof of your home or in the ground facing southward. It’s best suited for those living in rural areas without access to other options, especially since bad weather and other obstructions could affect your service in ways that you can’t control. 

    On average, today’s satellite internet providers offer speeds that typically vary from 12 to 100 Mbps. In most cases, that makes it a suitable option for smaller households who want to stream video, play games and upload files online. Satellite service tends to be a bit on the expensive side, but that’s because it often reaches areas where it doesn’t have to compete with other technologies.

    New providers — namely Elon Musk’s Starlink network, which began expanding service in select areas this year — are promising to bump those speeds up by using low Earth orbit satellites that are closer to the ground. That means that the signal doesn’t need to travel as far, which also makes for a reduction in latency, or lag. Other big names are looking to get into the internet space race, too, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

    Notable providers: HughesNet, ViaSat, Starlink

    Fixed wireless internet

    Another option for rural communities is fixed wireless internet. How it works is you install an antenna on your roof. The antenna picks up a signal transmitted from a wireless hub to give you an internet connection. 

    Fixed wireless connections work best for communities that lack the resources needed for DSL. To receive the strongest signal, you’ll want to place your antenna in an area with a clear view of the sky. If there are hills, trees or other obstacles nearby, it can distort your connection.

    Fixed wireless internet speeds range from 5 to 50 Mbps, but there are many variables that can affect the quality of the incoming signal, so your mileage may vary. That said, many providers offer gracious data caps, allowing you to access the internet as much as you need.

    Notable providers: Rise Broadband, Etheric Networks, UnWired Broadband

    01-at-t-fiber

    AT&T installers laying fiber-optic cable in San Carlos, California.


    Stephen Shankland/CNET

    Fiber internet

    Like the name suggests, fiber refers to an internet connection that comes to your home via fiber-optic cable, which uses pulses of light along thin strands — or fibers — of glass or plastic to transmit data. It’s the fastest of traditional internet connections, with download speeds as fast as 2 gigabits (2,000 Mbps). That’s fast enough to download a two-hour movie in HD in less than a minute. 

    Fiber internet is much, much faster than cable internet because of those fiber-optic cables. With cable internet, your internet traffic travels along copper cables, which results in distortion and slower speeds. Fiber-optic cables, on the other hand, reduce distortion, which is why you’ll be able to download games, stream movies and more in the blink of an eye. 

    There are only two real disadvantages to fiber internet. One, it can be expensive, and two, it isn’t available everywhere. Laying enough fiber-optic cables into the ground to connect entire cities and regions is a huge logistical challenge, and with lots of competition and red tape to cut through, it’s been slow going for any of the major service providers to expand coverage to underserved areas.

    Notable providers: AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Google Fiber

    netgear-nighthawk-5g-wi-fi-6-mobile-router

    This portable Netgear Nighthawk mobile router takes an incoming 5G signal and broadcasts it out as a Wi-Fi network your nearby devices can use to get online. If you wire it to a dedicated Wi-Fi router, the connection can cover a wider area.


    Netgear

    Cellular internet

    Another option is to draw internet service over the air, from a cellular connection. With this option, your cell phone carrier connects your router or hotspot to the cellular tower nearest you, just like it does with your phone. The speeds can vary based on where you live and how close you are to a tower. If you’re living in a city or another area with strong cellular infrastructure, then you might be able to connect over 5G. You’ll also find cellular internet plans that use LTE, the previous generation of technology.

    Another option is to use your phone as a hotspot, which means it’ll take the incoming cellular signal and rebroadcast it out as a Wi-Fi signal that other devices can use to access the internet without wires. Just be aware that your download speeds will vary depending on your carrier, your location and other factors like network congestion.

    That’s why it’s a good idea to check with your provider for a better sense of the speeds you’ll receive, and to see if they have any dedicated cellular internet plans that you might be able to bundle with your phone service at a discount.

    Notable providers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon

    Finding the right internet plan for you

    So which kind of internet connection is right for you? It depends on several factors. The first thing to think about is your typical usage, and how much speed you really need. If you plan to surf the web and check email only, you can get away with a slower connection, but smaller households with users who stream videos, play games online, or upload files for work or school will ideally want access to download speeds of at least 25 Mbps.

    Costs are another key factor, obviously. Some providers bundle their various services to offer you a discount, but be aware that the promotional pricing might not last as long as the service contract. In that case, you’ll pay more for the same service during the second year, for example.

    In the end, the biggest factor is likely beyond your control, and that’s your location. Some parts of the US have lots of options for getting online, while others hardly have any options at all. Whatever choices are available to you, understanding the different technologies at play will help you know what to expect before you sign up. 

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