How Does DSL Internet Work?

DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line, connects you to the internet through telephone lines. That’s good news for rural internet users, since telephone lines can be found all across the US—even in places where cable and fiber internet infrastructure is nowhere to be seen.

But how does DSL internet work, and is it worth your time? We’ll explain some DSL basics, and give you recommendations on rural internet options, including DSL. Let’s dig in.

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What is DSL and how does it work?

We mentioned before that DSL uses telephone lines to get you online. But aren’t phone lines used for, well, home phone service?

Yup, that’s right too. But phone lines have a much larger capacity than your home phone service requires, so there’s room for your DSL internet signal to piggyback on the same infrastructure. And the bonus perk is that, because it uses infrastructure that’s already there, no extra cables need to get buried for DSL internet to work.

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Does DSL internet kick you off the phone?
Wait, if DSL internet uses your phone lines, do you need to get off the phone to hop online just like the old dial-up days?

Nope, not at all. DSL internet uses different frequencies than your home phone service, so you can chat away with your sister while you scroll through Facebook at the same time.

There are two main types of of DSL technology, and the most common is ADSL, or asymmetrical DSL. The other type is symmetrical DSL. You may have also seen VDSL lurking around too. Here’s how each one compares:

  • Asymmetrical DSL (ADSL): Has faster download speeds and slower upload speeds.
  • Symmetrical DSL: Has download and upload speeds that match.
  • Very high-bit-rate DSL (VDSL and VDSL2): Both types of VDSL are faster than ADSL. VDSL2 can reach speeds of 100 Mbps or faster.

Many internet service providers (ISPs) offer DSL service, and most call it “high-speed internet.” That seems silly now with cable and fiber internet speeds far surpassing what DSL can achieve. But keep in mind that VDSL2 was announced in 2005,1 back when only 42% of Americans had internet at home.2

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DSL internet connections get worse over long distances
Thanks to its use of copper phone lines, a DSL internet connection tends to get worse the farther you are away from your ISP’s hub. That could mean slow internet speeds and buffering—or worse, disconnections.

How does DSL compare to dial-up, cable, and fiber internet?

DSL technology is showing its age, and its speeds and throughput can’t match what cable and fiber internet offer.

But DSL is still a better internet option than dial-up, and we have to wonder why 1.9% of Americans with an internet connection still use that screechy 56k connection to get online.(Hint: It’s likely because they don’t have any other way to connect to the internet.)

DSL vs. dial-up

While DSL and dial-up both connect through phone lines, dial-up ties up the whole line and DSL doesn’t. This means that dial-up doesn’t let you use the internet and make phone calls at the same time. Plus, dial-up requires you to re-connect every time you want to access the internet. (Remember that old screeeee-ba-doi-oi-oing-bapbapbap noise when you connected?)

A DSL connection, on the other hand, is always on. And, thanks to a special filter installed at the phone jack, the internet and phone signals don’t interfere with each other.

This allows you to use the phone and internet at the same time. (Don’t underestimate the convenience and saved time of an always-on connection—nobody wants to sit and wait for their mom to get off the phone just to check some email.)

DSL vs. cable

Cable uses coaxial cables to connect you to the internet, and those cables allow your internet connection to reach faster speeds than what DSL gets you. For example, cable internet can reach speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, while DSL internet caps at about 100 Mbps.

Cable internet technology also offers faster upload speeds than even VDSL2, which means you can post that new YouTube video online faster or send off that giant Excel spreadsheet to your boss without wasting much time.

But one way DSL gets the lead on cable internet is that it gives you a dedicated circuit. That means you don’t share your DSL internet lines with any of your neighbors. So if they hop online at the same time you do, your speeds don’t slow down.

With cable internet, you share part of your connection with any neighbors who use the same ISP. So if everyone around you uses Xfinity and you do too, your internet speeds will likely dip if everyone’s online at the same time.

DSL vs. fiber

If you can get fiber internet, we always recommend it over any other type of internet. This newer technology uses glass fibers and light signals to keep you connected to the internet, resulting in much faster speeds and a connection that doesn’t get worse over long distances.

The price for fiber internet has come down in recent years too. That means you might pay as much for a fiber connection as you would for a DSL plan, making the choice between fiber and DSL much easier.

DSL vs. satellite

Satellite internet might be another alternative you’re considering if you live outside of town. But if you’ve got the choice between a faster DSL internet plan, like 50 to 100 Mbps, we say that’s a better choice than satellite.

Why? The main reason is that DSL internet costs a lot less than satellite. The average DSL internet bill is $50 a month, while the average satellite bill skyrockets to $123 a month. That’s a huge difference, and we doubt your budget would like it.

Another reason is that satellite internet has high latency. That’s how much time it takes for your data to leave your computer and travel to the server hosting the website you’re visiting, then back again. Satellite latency usually sits around 600 milliseconds (ms), while DSL latency hovers around 30 ms.

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Test your latency and internet speed for free
You can find out what your latency and internet speed is right now with our free speed test tool.

Should you get DSL internet?

Depending on where you live, you may not have a lot of internet options. Generally, we recommend DSL internet over satellite and dial-up. But if you’ve also got a choice between cable or fiber internet, those are likely better choices.

The easiest way to see what internet providers are available in your area is with our free ZIP checker tool. Just enter your ZIP code below and we’ll pull up all the ISPs near you.

Look for internet providers in your area.

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Is DSL internet good for gaming?
Generally, DSL internet is an okay pick if you enjoy logging into online worlds or adventuring solo through RPGs.

We advise getting a DSL internet plan with speeds of at least 50 Mbps if you game just so your partner or roommate don’t get hit with the buffering hammer while they watch Netflix and you play Call of Duty.

What does DSL internet cost?

On average, DSL internet costs about $50 a month. But depending on which speeds you’re looking for and where you live, you might see prices above or below this average.

Here’s a quick look at some popular DSL internet providers and the prices they charge. (Note that some of the higher-end speeds might be a fiber connection that has limited availability.)

Price ranges for DSL internet providers
ProviderMonthly priceDownload speedsConnection TypeLearn more
CenturyLink Internet$49$65*15940 MbpsDSL/FiberView Plans
Earthlink Internet$49.95$99.9531000 MbpsDSL/FiberView Plans
Frontier High Speed Internet$20$34.996115 MbpsDSLView Plans
Verizon High Speed Internet$69.99^0.55 MbpsDSLView Plans
Data effective 11/19/18. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
* New customers only. Rate requires paperless billing and excludes taxes. Additional fees apply.
With a 12 month contract.
Actual speeds may vary. Installation, equipment fees, taxes & other fees apply. Services subject to availability and all applicable terms and conditions.
^ for 1 year plus taxes, equip. charges & other fees. Speeds 1.1-3 Mbps, 3.1-7 Mbps, and 7.1-15 Mbps. Verizon home phone service required.

How is DSL internet installed?

A technician typically handles DSL internet installation, but many companies now offer self-installation kits.

The self-install kits tend to be cheaper and are a great way to save some money if you feel comfortable getting your internet set up on your own. We’ve even got a guide for setting up your internet if you need help.

But if you want or need a professional to come out and install your internet, that’s an option too. You’ll need to schedule an installation appointment when you place your order. The technician who arrives will get your modem hooked up to your phone jack so you can hop online in a jiffy.

What are the best DSL internet providers?

If you’ve decided on DSL internet, look for one of these recommended DSL providers in your area.

Our most recommended DSL provider and winner of our Editor’s Choice award is CenturyLink. That’s because it offers a Price for Life guarantee on all of its DSL internet plans, which come reasonably priced with a wide range of speeds.

CenturyLink: Editor's Choice for Best DSL Internet
CenturyLink Internet
Download speeds:
15940 Mbps
Data cap:
1 TBUnlimited
Starting at $49 a month

Data effective 12/10/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
New customers only. Rate requires paperless billing and excludes taxes. Additional fees apply.

Here’s a full look at all of our recommended DSL internet providers.

Top DSL internet providers
ProviderMonthly priceDownload speedsConnection TypeLearn more
CenturyLink Internet$49$65*15940 MbpsDSL/FiberView Plans
Earthlink Internet$49.95$99.9531000 MbpsDSL/FiberView Plans
Frontier High Speed Internet$20$34.996115 MbpsDSLView Plans
Verizon High Speed Internet$69.99^0.55 MbpsDSLView Plans
Windstream Internet$27$85°251000 MbpsDSL/FiberView Plans
Data effective 11/19/18. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
* New customers only. Rate requires paperless billing and excludes taxes. Additional fees apply.
With a 12 month contract.
Actual speeds may vary. Installation, equipment fees, taxes & other fees apply. Services subject to availability and all applicable terms and conditions.
^ for 1 year plus taxes, equip. charges & other fees. Speeds 1.1-3 Mbps, 3.1-7 Mbps, and 7.1-15 Mbps. Verizon home phone service required.
° For the first 12 months.

Now that you know how DSL internet works, check these out next.

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Sources

  1. International Telecommunication Union, “New ITU Standard Delivers 10x ADSL Speeds,” May 2005. Accessed December 10, 2020.
  2. John B. Horrigan, Pew Research Center, “Home Broadband Adoption 2006,” May 2006. Accessed December 10, 2020.
  3. J. Clement, Statista, “Home Dial-Up Internet Connection Usage in the United States as of November 2019, by State,” July 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.