The days of the 56Kbps dial-up internet connection may be gone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re guaranteed a lightning-fast surfing experience. The speed you get will depend upon a lot of different factors, including the modem you’re using. So when it comes to DSL modems vs. cable modems, what’s the difference?

If you’ve already decided on a DSL modem, check out this post for the best options.

Cable Modems: the Box That Opened the Door to the Internet

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Although the internet, in some form or another, has been in existence since 1969, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the vast majority of residential users were able to go online.1 Part of the reason for this was the introduction of the cable modem in 1995 by the cable television industry.2

The cable modem works by connecting directly to your cable TV box, which is itself connected to a local headend. The headend services a number of people in your area, but the precise number will vary at each location, depending on the number of internet subscribers the provider has in the area.

However, each one of the subscribers at that headend is essentially sharing the same line out to the internet, which can potentially cause problems during peak times. The technology is capable of providing up to 10Gbps, but the speed you receive will depend upon the number of users who are online and how much data they’re using.

As a simple example, let’s imagine there are 1,000 subscribers sharing the 10Gbps connection with the headend. Each subscriber could theoretically download at a speed of 10Mbps. If, for example, 90% of subscribers are using the internet, they could each receive a download speed of slightly more than 11Mbps. However, if usage increases by 10% then everyone’s speeds will drop to 10Mbps as a result.

(The same concept is true of the wireless router at your home. If you’re paying for a 100Mbps service, then that’s all your ISP will send to your router at any given moment. However, the actual speed you receive on your device will also depend upon how many devices are using that same router and how much bandwidth they’re taking up.)

On the plus side, your internet speed is not affected by distance. In other words, if you live far away from the headend, you won’t find your speeds dropping as a result.

Nowadays, cable modems are often used by businesses where a high number of employees can access the internet using the same high-speed connection. Since these businesses produce more online traffic than regular subscribers, ISPs tend to cater to those businesses by offering a faster, more reliable service (albeit at a higher price) and will often give them higher service priority.

Cable modems are declining in popularity, but if you’re a hardcore gamer or you simply need as much bandwidth as possible, then a cable modem might be your best choice. If your ISP is also your cable TV provider, they might lease you a cable modem instead of one of the more common DSL modems that many ISPs now use. Alternatively, if you’d prefer, your ISP may allow you to purchase and use your own.

DSL Modems: The Reliable Residential Solution

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Having your internet speeds determined by the number of online subscribers in your neighborhood can obviously be a source of frustration for customers, and with the majority of subscribers being residential customers, it made sense for ISPs to provide an alternative solution.

Rather than connecting to your cable TV box, a Digital Subscriber Link (DSL) modem works by connecting directly to your phone line, which gives it one important advantage over a cable modem: your speed isn’t affected by the number of other local subscribers who are also online.

That’s because your phone line is unique to you and is not shared by anyone else in your neighborhood. This makes for a more reliable connection and a much better option for residential customers – especially in the built-up areas of a town or city.

Besides being more reliable, DSL modems are also less expensive than their cable modem counterparts, making them an attractive option for budget-conscious ISPs.

These two advantages are enough in themselves to make DSL modems the standard for residential customers, but of course, they don’t come without their pitfalls.

For starters, whereas a cable modem is capable of providing speeds of up to 10Gbps, a DSL modem is limited to 400Mbps.3 Realistically this isn’t a big problem as the chances are you won’t need all that bandwidth anyway. If you and your family are only going online to surf, post on social media, upload your photos and stream music and movies, 400Mbps is more than enough.

The other downside is that while your speed isn’t affected by the number of online subscribers in the area, it is affected by your distance from the headend. The problem here is that you’ll probably have no idea of how far from the headend you are, and even if you did, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Again, realistically, you may not even notice a difference and, unfortunately, there are far too many other potential impactors that can influence your internet speed (such as your device capabilities, your router and the strength of your WiFi signal) that narrowing it down to the distance from the headend is difficult to prove.

Cable Modem vs. DSL Modem Comparison Table

Cable ModemDSL Modem
Connects to TV cable boxConnects directly to phone line
Up to 10GbpsUp to 400Mbps
Less stable than DSL as you’re sharing a connection with other customersMore stable than cable because the landline is unique to the subscriber
Speed is affected by the number of subscribers in the area using the networkSpeed is not affected by the number of customers in the area using the network
Speeds are not affected by the distance of modem from the headendSpeeds slow the further the modem is from the headend
Better for online activities that require higher speeds, such as gamingBetter for more general internet use, such as surfing and streaming music and movies
Typically used by business customersTypically used by residential customers
More expensive than DSLCosts less than a cable modem

Article Sources

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  1. Shedden D. Today in Media History: The Internet began with a crash on October 29, 1969. Published October 29, 2014. Accessed October 15, 2021.
  2. The Cable Center. The Cable History Timeline. Published Fall 2015. Accessed October 15, 2021.
  3. Armstrong RL, Parrish K. How Important Is My Wireless Router to My Internet Speed? Published August 24, 2021. Accessed October 15, 2021.