Cable. Fiber. 4G. DSL. There are a lot of Internet network technologies on the market these days, but none are so maligned or misunderstood as good ol’-fashioned DSL.
While cable and fiber are often held up as the “gold standard” of Internet connections, DSL isn’t always a bad choice. In fact, it’s often a good one — particularly for rural customers.
In this post we’ll walk through the five most common myths about DSL and explain how the technology actually works.
Myth #1: DSL Requires Land Line Telephone Service
It’s commonly assumed that in order to get DSL Internet, you have to pay for a landline phone as well. This is false.
DSL no longer requires that subscribers also have landline telephone service. Qwest, Verizon, AT&T, and all of the other major players offer what is called “naked” DSL, meaning DSL without local phone service (it is also called “dry-loop” or stand alone DSL). This is not required by FCC regulation, although it has in the past been included as a limited-time condition of merger agreements. 
MYTH #2: DSL Isn’t “Always On” Like a Cable Modem and Requires You To Log In Each Time You Use It (Like Dial-Up)
DSL is an always-on technology just like cable, and the average Internet user won’t be able to tell the difference between using a DSL vs cable connection. There was a time, pre–2004, where DSL Internet access required a login sequence, but the vast majority of DSL providers now offer always-on service through DSL.
MYTH #3: Cable is Always Faster Than DSL
DSL signals can and do diminish in strength over distances because the twisted copper wire used to carry DSL (and telephone) signals is vulnerable to data loss due to a phenomenon called attenuation. It’s also true that the maximum speeds offered by DSL modems are lower than cable modems in a laboratory scenario.
There are some caveats here, however. Since cable networks “share” bandwidth within a neighborhood, cable speeds often slow down dramatically (50% or more) during peak use times due to streaming traffic. DSL, meanwhile, is a direct connection that is not shared. So, while the top speed might be slower, the consistency of the connection has value for some customers and can even beat competing cable connections during peak use times.
While the distance between your home and the actual headquarters of your provider used to matter most in determining your DSL speed, these days the distance to your local DSLAM matters more.
A DSLAM is a DSL user’s gateway to the ultra high-speed lines that form the Internet’s backbone. It’s a device that takes many DSL signals in a given area (from homes, offices, schools, etc.) and combines them into one signal that is then broadcasted over the high-speed Internet backbone lines.
At the inception of DSL in the early 2000’s, DSLAMs were located exclusively at telephone company offices. This meant that DSL users living more than a few miles away experienced slower connection speeds due to attenuation.
DSL providers quickly realized that if they deployed many remote DSLAMs near neighborhoods, schools, and etc., they could reach many more customers. And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing since that time.
If you live in a heavily populated suburban or urban area, there’s a very good chance that you now live quite close to a DSLAM.
MYTH #4: You Can’t Get Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Phone Service With DSL
VoIP means “Voice over Internet Protocol.” By definition, it can work over any broadband Internet connection. The commonly held notion that DSL can’t support VoIP is just plain wrong and probably stems from a general misunderstanding of what VoIP really is. You can absolutely get Vonage or any other VoIP-based broadband phone service with a DSL connection. All broadband phone requires is a fast connection — naked DSL is no exception.
MYTH #5: DSL Providers Want To Switch To Fiber Optics, So They Won’t Be Servicing Their DSL Infrastructure
This one has a grain of truth to it, but it’s a grain of truth that mostly benefits customers.
While Verizon and other DSL/fiber providers definitely have an incentive to push their fiber service to customers, they are still actively marketing and maintaining DSL service.
These companies realize that it will be awhile before their fiber infrastructures can truly “take over” from their traditional copper networks, and it makes more sense for them to upgrade gradually rather than cut customers off and do it all at once. This can be a pain if you’re stuck in a neighborhood without fiber access, but DSL is quite fast enough for the vast majority of home Internet uses.
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Jessica Sims is a technology blogger and broadband industry veteran. Her background as an administrator and customer support employee for a major ISP informs her passion for helping consumers understand their service options.