DSL, or a Digital Subscriber Line, allows users access to the internet via telephone lines. This might make you think of older dial-up days, choosing whether you want to keep a phone line open or have access to the internet.
But, unlike dial-up, DSL lines can support phone calls and internet access at the same time.
DSL internet service has been around since the early 90’s. Given DSL’s age, you might think it is on its way out. However, it’s still a popular option amongst both customers and internet service providers.
While we want to answer the question, “what is DSL internet,” for you, we also want to help you understand if this type of internet service is right for your needs. And, in order to answer this question, you also need to know how reliable the connection is, how fast DSL internet is, how much internet speed you need, what DSL providers are near you, and more.
So let’s get into it.
How does DSL internet work?
Without getting too technical, DSL works by using specific frequency bands on copper wire. DSL wires make use of various frequency bands, with a phone and internet connection working at different frequencies. So while the internet uses one set of bands, the phone uses another, thus allowing both to work simultaneously.
DSL internet uses the same technology as a standard home telephone line. Therefore, because phone lines have been around for a while, DSL is also well established as an internet option. In the US, it’s a widespread option that’s fairly reliable.
You can expect consistency, especially when compared to satellite or fixed wireless internet services. That being said, all three forms are susceptible to crosstalk, which happens when frequencies crossover. For example, some radio waves work on the same frequency as what comes through DSL wires. When the radio waves interfere, it can cause connection errors.
In your home, DSL internet is set up like any other internet service. An internet line or cable is fed from an outside network of cables. It’s then pulled through the walls in your home in order to connect to a router. The router itself is your gateway to the online world.
How fast is DSL internet?
There’s the basic question, “what is DSL internet?” and then there’s the more pressing question: “how fast is it?” This is the one that most customers care about.
A typical, basic DSL internet connection varies from 256 Kbps (slower than 1 Mbps) to 100 Mbps. Higher speeds require the more modern ADSL protocol, which is widely available, but may come with a different pricing structure and/or installation.
Though available in most areas, DSL internet is generally the slowest option on the market. However, satellite internet can be slower in some cases and some zip codes. HughesNet satellite services, for example, tend to have speeds of around 25 Mbps. And, while this is slower than most providers and most types of internet, it is plenty for someone who needs a basic internet connection for a single device (it doesn’t boast fast upload or download speeds for video streaming or gaming).
Tests have confirmed that DSL has the potential to reach the same speeds as Gig internet. Rumors abound that G.fast, the “gigabit DSL” project, could even stop the spread of fiber-optic internet. After all, if gigabit internet speeds are already available on existing infrastructures, fiber doesn’t need to be developed.
The debate on the future of fiber is still out, but it’s safe to say that, when people ask, “what is DSL internet?” the stereotypical response is “slow internet”. Now you know, that’s not true. DSL copper wires still have a good deal of life in them - and plenty of practicality for many people’s home internet needs.
How does DSL compare to other internet types?
There are multiple types of internet that are great for home connections. Let’s take a quick look at some of the most popular ones you’ll encounter - and how they compare to DSL internet.
- Fiber-optic internet vs. DSL internet - Fiber is the future of the internet, especially if you ask big cities. While DSL wins when it comes to widespread availability (even in rural areas), fiber wins in the speed category. The copper cords used by DSL are also a bit more durable.
- Cable internet vs. DSL internet - Cable has almost as widespread appeal as DSL. It uses television lines instead of telephone lines, which do tend to be a bit faster. Cable internet providers are usually preferred over DSL, though they offer fairly comparable experiences.
- Satellite internet vs. DSL internet - Satellite internet is for homes that usually wouldn’t get internet, such as rural neighborhoods or homes in difficult terrain. In this case, DSL generally offers faster, more consistent speeds. DSL is also usually cheaper, offering an internet connection at lower rates.
- Fixed wireless internet vs. DSL internet - Fixed wireless connections make use of radio towers, making reliability and available connections dependent on tower availability. Much like satellite, DSL outpaces it in speed and general reliability.
DSL internet tends to rank under cable and fiber-optic in larger cities, but it is the preferred choice when compared to satellite and fixed wireless options. And, if a reliable connection (even if slower) at a cheaper price is top of mind, it could be worth looking into, even in well-populated zip codes.
Another good thing to note: Most DSL internet providers do not implement a data cap, which is something you’ll see amongst many satellite providers.
How to find DSL internet near you
As we mentioned, DSL internet coverage spans most of the United States. Any rural community with phone line access can take advantage of DSL. And if you want to find the best DSL internet service providers near you, you can use InternetAdvisor’s helpful search tools.
- Enter your zip code from the box in the upper-right corner
- Click the red search button just to the right of your zip code
- Look for different types of internet to the right of the word “offering”
- Click the phone number or “see availability” to shop for options
You can also filter by optional services, your budget, customer star ratings, and current promotions on the left.
Now you can easily answer “what is DSL internet” and find a great provider in just minutes! Though each area may have a slightly different list of providers, you’ll see some names consistently come up in your search. So, we thought we’d give you a quick review of the 10 best DSL providers in the US:
1. Best overall: AT&T
AT&T is mostly known for its fiber-optic coverage. However, its authorized retailers still offer AT&T DSL on their behalf. The authorized retailer network is more expansive and helps the company’s services reach the far corners of the country.
The list of benefits for this provider is long: you’ll get a trusted name, service bundling options, some of the most reliable internet in the nation, and access to AT&T’s incredible customer service.
2. Excellent coverage: CenturyLink
Though not as big of a household name, CenturyLink has a bit more availability than AT&T when it comes to DSL internet services. Plus, the focus on rural areas gives CenturyLink a slight edge for small-town customers, while people who live in larger cities will need to double check if they offer service in your specific zip code.
Internet speeds start at 30 Mbps, which is pretty normal for DSL connections. And, with CenturyLink’s DSL services, you’ll experience great home services and technicians that offer excellent support.
CenturyLink offers many internet plans and also bundles with phone plans, offering you lower prices and flexibility based on what you want.
3. Great bundling opportunities: Verizon
Despite being known as a smartphone provider, Verizon does have a home DSL service. Most of what Verizon offers are fiber-optic lines, but they do have DSL in some areas.
That being said, Verizon’s DSL does offer you an opportunity to stick with a trusted company - and bundle your phone service for discounts, if you’re already a customer. They also offer some great TV services, and all with zero contracts.
4. Free antivirus: EarthLink
EarthLink provides speeds ranging from low-end DSL to gigabyte internet. In all cases, they promise no data throttling and unlimited data. They also have a very hands-on customer service approach, explaining the exceptionally high customer ratings.
All this and their inclusion of a free antivirus (something that few other internet service providers have), makes EarthLink a very underrated option.
The downside? You need to be willing to pay for 12-months upfront and a professional installation, which isn’t optional through EarthLink.
5. Cheap DSL internet: Windstream
Windstream focuses on providing cheap internet for everyone. As the sixth-largest DSL provider in the US, they want to keep the DSL dream alive and their customers happy.
The company also provides cable and fixed wireless internet across the US. Regardless of your chosen option, you have unlimited data, and no contracts are required. The flexibility feels excellent.
Despite this massive flex, Windstream manages to keep its pricing down. Where it struggles is with its mediocre customer service record. But overall, Windstream still provides a great service given the cost.
6. Good availability: Frontier
Frontier is available in 25 states, providing multiple plans and options that cover your internet provider needs. While Frontier likes to advertise and talk about its fiber-optic service options, it does have DSL internet. In fact, DSL still makes up a significant portion of its business.
Frontier has no data caps, which is ideal if you don’t want to stop binging Netflix. But remember that DSL connections aren’t breaking any speed records, so your streaming may not be as smooth as you’d like.
There are some initial one-time charges with the professional installation but pricing is pretty reasonable across the board. Frontier isn’t the cheapest internet provider - or the most widespread - but they’ve earned their place on the list with their customer service and reliable connections.
7. DSL options in Oregon and Washington: ZiplyFiber
With “fiber” in the title, you might wonder why this one’s on the list. However, ZiplyFiber does offer some great DSL plans to customers in the Pacific Northwest, specifically in Oregon and Washington.
Remember our explanation to the question “what is DSL internet?” and how we mentioned it can be a great solution for those who live in rural areas or difficult terrain? That’s why this one is on the list.
If you live in or around cities like Portland or Bellevue, you’ll probably find some of their DSL options show up in our search tool. And it’s a great way to take advantage of cheap internet service. Given the name, though, the company does primarily invest in their fiber-optic offerings.
8. Zero data caps and service in California: Sonic
If you live in California, you might already know about Sonic. As one of the largest internet service providers in the state, Sonic offers everything from DSL to fiber-optic internet.
Sonic doesn’t charge installation fees or data caps, saving you a good deal of money over time. And while we could talk about speed, Sonic’s DSL won’t overwhelm you. But no DSL connection likely will. The upside? With all of their services, you always have the option to upgrade if the DSL internet isn’t enough for your needs.
Tech rental fees and 12-month contracts do take away a bit of the savings punch. You’ll also find it challenging to find DSL service outside of California, as Sonic doesn’t have great nationwide coverage. In the state though, Sonic is worth your consideration.
9. Always-online customer service: RCN
RCN offers 24/7 customer support and provides free installation with most DSL internet plans. We have it lower on this list as a DSL provider mainly because of availability - or lack thereof.
Going back to the original question - “what is DSL internet?” - we discussed that this internet service is incredibly useful in rural areas. But RCN doesn’t offer service in rural areas. And with cities having plenty of other options for most customers, RCN’s DSL services aren’t always top of the list.
Regardless, they have great customer service. That, coupled with their flexible plans, pricing options, and a 30-day money-back guarantee make them worth your time. If you want to check out an internet service provider without the same clout as AT&T, give RCN a call.
10. Unlimited data: WOW!
WOW!, or Wide Open West, has been around since the mid-90s. Since then, it has stuck around in a handful of large cities. Like RCN, you won’t find WOW! in rural places.
The lack of widespread service makes this less suitable for people who move often. Thankfully, they offer DSL, cable, and fiber-optic internet plans across most locations. You can also expect a 30-day price guarantee.
Part of WOW!’s lower ranking comes from a requirement to sign 12-month contracts for new customers - and their tendency to apply early termination fees. That combo doesn’t sit well with most people, but it doesn’t detract from the company’s solid offering and long history.
FAQs about DSL internet
Do you need an active phone line for DSL?
Though DSL internet uses phone lines, internet installation does not require an active phone line in your home, or a working phone number. You just need to have a DSL port on the wall that your internet service provider can use to set up your connection.
Is Cable or DSL internet better for streaming?
Again, cable internet uses TV lines and offers consistent speeds well above 100 Mbps (which is the very top range for most DSL connections). That makes cable better for serious streamers.
Is DSL internet faster than dial-up internet?
Despite using similar cables, DSL is much faster than the old dial-up internet used in the 90’s and early 00’s. No dial-up connection has adequate download speeds to meet today’s demands.
Is DSL considered high-speed internet?
DSL is not the fastest option, but it does have speeds up to 100 Mbps, which is considered high-speed internet. For most average internet users, this will be enough for their home internet connection. But, if you’re looking to work from home, do online gaming, or watch a lot of videos, DSL doesn’t compare to fiber-optic internet or cable internet connection speeds.
Will my cable modem work for DSL internet?
No, cable modems require a different set of wires. You’ll need to buy a non-cable router to connect through DSL. Some routers do support both connection types. Research what type of router you have and its capabilities - or ask a customer service representative who works for your internet provider prior to installation to make sure you have the right tech setup.
Conclusion - is DSL internet still worth it?
Despite getting overshadowed by the lightning-fast promises of fiber and cable, DSL internet has a well-established and well-deserved place in the world of internet services. So to summarize “what is DSL internet and is it right for me?” we can say: The original Digital Subscriber Line is reliable, widespread (even in rural areas), and often amongst the cheapest internet you can get in your home.
Sure, it doesn’t have the faster fiber speeds or the flexibility of satellite internet. But you’ll likely find a trusted provider in most US zip codes and have no issues successfully installing DSL in your home.
Ready to find the best internet provider in your zip code? Use the tools we provide at InternetAdvisor to save yourself time - and money - by comparing available services and plan pricing.