What Is the Difference Between Fiber Optics & DSL Internet Service?

By Rick Leander

Knowing the difference between Internet services can help you navigate today's technology.
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As demands for higher bandwidths rise, both phone carriers and cable providers continue to enhance their infrastructure. Cable providers no longer hold a monopoly on fiber service and phone carriers now offer this service in many major metropolitan areas. What impact does fiber optics have on Internet service and does it make sense to upgrade from DSL? Here are some facts about the two technologies and some factors to consider.

DSL Basics

DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line, uses high frequency digital signals over existing copper voice phone lines to carry data directly from the phone company's switching station to residential homes. Bandwidth ranges from 1.5 to 6 MBPS downstream but only 64 to 640 KBPS (0.064 to 0.640 MBPS) upstream. Service is always on and each home has exclusive use of its line from house to central office. Computers and other devices connect through Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi using a DSL modem.

Fiber Optic Basics

Fiber optic cables carry Internet, voice and video simultaneously over a single strand of optical fiber using modulated light instead of electricity. Unlike copper wire, optical cable does not suffer from electrical interference and has a much higher bandwidth. Speeds to home subscribers can reach 40 MBPS downstream and 5MBPS upstream, but each line may be shared by many households so bandwidth varies depending on competing traffic.

Reasons to Upgrade

DSL service works well for typical home Internet uses such as casual browsing, e-mail, school research, social networking and occasional video. Those who put more demand on their Internet may find that upgrading to fiber service makes sense. These consumers might include telecommuters, hard core video gamers and web developers. The greatest benefit comes to those who spend quite a bit of time uploading data, since DSL has extremely limited upstream bandwidth.

The Next Wave

DSL is an appropriate service for most home subscribers, but new video technologies and cloud services are on the way. A variety of Internet-based video services such as NetFlix already stress bandwidth caps and new IP TV may need more speed than DSL can handle. Online backup, picture sharing, drop boxes and other cloud based services will tax DSL's upstream capacity and we cannot yet imagine what other new Internet services wait on the horizon.