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What Kind of Internet Connection Is DSL?

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DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line, and it's one of the many technologies used to bring an Internet connection and information into homes and businesses. What makes DSL unique is that it uses existing telephone lines/connections, with special adaptations. DSL started to become popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the early days of the "World Wide Web" (we're talking 1990s, not 1890s), your telephone company provided what was called "dial-up" service, which was slow and tied up your telephone line. In response to the fast-growing demand for Internet access—and faster, better connections—DSL was developed.

How does it work?

DSL brings a connection into your home through telephone lines and allows the household to use the Internet and make telephone calls at the same time. It works because the DSL system separates the telephone signals into three bands of frequencies. The lowest band allows for telephone calls, while the other two bands take care of uploading and downloading online activity.

Cable companies provide a cable modem for their Internet customers. DSL companies provide a similar piece of hardware called a DSL transceiver.

Who provides it?

Since DSL uses telephone wires, it makes sense that the biggest providers are telephone companies. AT&T is the largest telecommunications company in the world and is also the largest provider of DSL service. Verizon and Century Link are also major providers of DSL.

How popular or common is it in 2016?

DSL isn't as popular today as it was 20 years ago because the companies that provide it are mostly phasing it out and switching to the next generation of Internet technology: fiber optics. Also, cable companies, which are widely available, can typically provide a much faster connection to the Internet than DSL.

How fast is it?

The better question might be, "How slow is it?" Much slower than a cable connection (Comcast, Cox Communications, Time-Warner, etc.) and incredibly slower compared to fiber optic connections, such as FIOS (which is not available everywhere).

"Fast speed" according to some DSL providers is only 1.5 Mbps (megabits per second). "Lightning" speed, their top, is 15 Mbps. The typical speed for a DSL connection is 6 Mbps, compared to the 100 Mbps top speeds offered by many cable companies. The midrange cable Internet plan likely promises 25-50 Mbps.

Has it improved or does it get better?

Yes. For starters, today's DSL is likely ADSL, which was an improvement to the initial technology. But more than that, there is now ADSL+2, described as "an extension to ADSL broadband technology" that boosts download speeds significantly. ADSL2+ has taken the capability of DSL from 7.1 Mbps to up to as much as 15 Mbps downstream, or downloading speed, which is what matters to most people.

But not so fast: Most likely, you still would have to live in a major city and highly populated area to find ADSL2+ available, and you'd have to live close to the telephone company's "central office" to enjoy the service the way you'd want to. So check with your local telephone company to see if it's even available.

Is it in decline?

Yes. If people have a choice, have done their homework and want a faster connection, they most likely won't settle for DSL in any form. It's all about speed, and old-fashioned DSL is on its way out.

The fact is, new reports say that DSL providers would prefer to phase out DSL in favor of the latest technology: fiber optics. This doesn't sit well with the Federal Communications Commission, which doesn't like the idea of large companies abandoning customers or forcing them to switch to better—and higher-priced—services, even if the product is much better.

What are the advantages of DSL?

In most scenarios, you'd likely want DSL only if your other alternative were old-fashioned, low-cost dial-up service, which surprisingly is still available in many areas. Compared to dial-up, DSL offers you advantages:

  1. You're able to use the Internet and make phone calls simultaneously.
  2. It's faster than dial-up.
  3. You have a choice of price plans, based on the speed you want or are willing to get.

That seems like a good start, but there are some disadvantages nonetheless:

  1. Sending data won't work as well or as fast as receiving data.
  2. The further you are from the telephone company's central location, the slower your service might be (we're not talking hundreds of miles either—more like just under four miles).
  3. Sorry. You just might be too far away to even be offered DSL.

If you had a choice.

It's hard to imagine that most individuals and families would settle for slow Internet service if there were another Internet connection option available. Then again, most people simply stick to what they're used to.

  1. If you currently have DSL and you find it frustrating, it might be time to see if high-speed Internet from a cable company (Cox, Time-Warner, etc.) is available.
  2. If you are with a cable company now and you don't like their prices, you might want to downsize to DSL to save some money...but then you'd have to live with DSL's limitations.

Maybe what you can do is wait for the latest and greatest technology to come your way...fiber optics. Then, once you experience that, you're not likely to settle for anything less at any cost.

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