In this guide, we’ll explore the different types of internet connections available for home use and compare their speeds so you can find the best option in your area.
Choosing the right internet service depends on three main factors – availability in your location, speed, and price. Let‘s look at how today‘s most common connection types work and the download/upload speeds you can expect.
Overview of Residential Internet Connections
Most homes today connect to the internet using one of five main methods:
- DSL – Uses telephone lines
- Cable – Uses coaxial cable lines
- Fiber optic – Transmits data over glass fiber
- Satellite – Wireless connection beamed from satellites in space
- Fixed wireless – Tower-to-home radio signal transmission
Mobile data networks like 4G LTE and 5G can also provide home internet access in some cases.
Legacy technologies like dial-up are still around but I don‘t recommend them for anything beyond very basic web surfing.
Below we‘ll dig into the details of how each works and the speeds they offer.
Digital subscriber line (DSL) internet transmits data faster over telephone lines by converting the analog signal to digital. This allows you to surf the web and talk on the phone at the same time.
DSL connections link your home to the provider‘s facilities via copper telephone lines already installed throughout neighborhoods.
There are two types of DSL:
- Asymmetric DSL (ADSL) – More common for homes with faster download than upload speeds
- Symmetric DSL (SDSL) – Equal download and upload, used more by businesses
Maximum download speed: Up to 100 Mbps
Maximum upload speed: Up to 20 Mbps
Speed is affected by the distance between your home and the provider‘s networking equipment. According to the FCC, most major DSL providers supply download speeds of 1 to 40 Mbps.
But under optimal conditions, DSL download speeds can reach up to 100 Mbps. Upload speeds tend to top out around 20 Mbps.
Cable internet uses the same coaxial cables that deliver cable TV service to your home. A cable modem connects to the provider‘s high-speed data network to access the internet.
Like DSL, your distance from the provider‘s connection point affects speed. But cable offers faster speeds overall.
Maximum download speed: Up to 1 Gbps
Maximum upload speed: Up to 50 Mbps
According to March 2022 data from Ookla Speedtest, the average cable download speed in the U.S. is 183 Mbps. Uploads average 19 Mbps.
With an optimal connection, you can see speeds up to 1 Gbps down and 50 Mbps up.
Fiber Optic Internet
Fiber optic internet converts data into light and sends it through flexible glass fibers using lasers. This allows for incredibly fast speeds.
It transmits data digitally as pulses of light through the fiber optic cable. The glass fiber carries more data simultaneously than copper telephone or coaxial cable.
Maximum download speed: Up to 10 Gbps (5 Gbps residential)
Maximum upload speed: Up to 10 Gbps (5 Gbps residential)
Because it‘s transmitted optically rather than electrically, fiber has nearly unlimited bandwidth potential. Current fiber networks can reach speeds up to 10 Gbps, though most residential plans top out at 1 to 5 Gbps.
Ookla reports average fiber download speeds at 349 Mbps and upload at 399 Mbps in Q1 2022 – substantially faster than cable or DSL on average.
Satellite internet beams data wirelessly between your home and an orbiting satellite using a small exterior dish antenna. It‘s primarily used in rural areas without access to wired broadband connectivity.
The satellite dish has a clear line-of-sight with the service provider‘s satellite to transmit and receive data.
Satellite latency is high due to the physical distance data has to travel, but speeds have improved with modern networks.
Maximum download speed: Up to 500 Mbps
Maximum upload speed: Up to 100 Mbps
Major providers like Viasat advertise download speeds up to 100 Mbps and uploads around 20 Mbps for their base plans. Higher-tier plans offer increased speeds, with Viasat‘s top-level service advertising download speeds up to 500 Mbps.
According to June 2021 FCC data, the average satellite download speed is 25 Mbps. Uploads average 3 Mbps.
Fixed Wireless Internet
Fixed wireless internet uses radio signals to deliver home internet from a provider‘s tower. A small exterior antenna installed on your roof communicates with the tower.
This allows homes and businesses to connect to the internet without cable or fiber lines running to their location. The signal beam provides the last leg of connectivity.
Maximum download speed: Up to 100 Mbps
Maximum upload speed: Up to 20 Mbps
Fixed wireless speeds are affected by factors like distance and obstructions between the antennas. But under optimal conditions, download speeds can reach up to 100 Mbps and uploads up to 20 Mbps.
Average speeds range from 10 to 50 Mbps down and 2 to 10 Mbps up, making fixed wireless a great option for rural areas unreachable by wired networks.
4G LTE & 5G Mobile Internet
Modern cellular networks like 4G LTE and the emerging 5G also provide options for accessing the internet from home. You‘ll need an external antenna or hotspot device.
4G LTE offers the following speeds:
- Maximum download speed: 30 Mbps
- Maximum upload speed: 15 Mbps
Early 5G networks provide substantial speed improvements:
- Maximum download speed: 1 Gbps
- Maximum upload speed: 500 Mbps
But your actual speeds depend on coverage, network traffic, and plan. Ookla reports average 5G download speeds of 115 Mbps as of March 2022 – faster than 4G LTE, but still below wired broadband.
As 5G coverage expands, speeds and availability will continue improving.
Comparing Maximum Internet Speeds
This table summarizes the maximum download and upload speeds of each internet connection type:
|Connection Type||Max Download Speed||Max Upload Speed|
|DSL||100 Mbps||20 Mbps|
|Cable||1 Gbps||50 Mbps|
|Fiber||10 Gbps*||10 Gbps*|
|Satellite||500 Mbps||100 Mbps|
|Fixed Wireless||100 Mbps||20 Mbps|
|4G LTE||30 Mbps||15 Mbps|
|5G||1 Gbps||500 Mbps|
*Residential fiber connections typically top out at 5 Gbps down/up.
However, your provider and plan determine your actual speeds. Just because a technology offers gigabit speeds doesn‘t mean every plan will. Compare options in your area to find the optimal balance of speed and affordability.
Factors Impacting Internet Speeds
While connection type sets maximum speed boundaries, several other factors influence your real-world internet performance:
- Distance to provider infrastructure – Being further from connection equipment leads to slower speeds for DSL, cable, and fiber networks.
- Network capacity and congestion – Peak usage times often lead to more network congestion and throttling.
- WiFi limitations – Older routers, interference, distance from router all limit in-home speeds.
- Provider throttling – Some ISPs intentionally limit speeds during congested times. Using a VPN can prevent throttling.
- Time of day – Internet speeds are often slower during peak evening hours when more people are online.
- Device capabilities – Older computers/smartphones can‘t take full advantage of fast connections.
- Website server capacity – The website‘s hosting infrastructure affects download speeds too.
Running periodic speed tests and monitoring speeds at different times of day can provide insight on any issues impacting your connectivity. Contact your provider if speeds are consistently below the advertised rates for your plan.
Internet Availability by U.S. Region
High-speed internet connectivity still has significant geographic gaps, especially in rural areas. Here‘s a breakdown of internet access by technology and region of the country according to June 2021 FCC data:
Urban vs Rural Access
- 98% of Americans in urban areas have access to fixed high-speed broadband at 25/3 Mbps speeds compared to 79% in rural areas.
- 13% of rural Americans completely lack access to any fixed broadband compared to 1% in urban areas.
- DSL availability is highest in the Northeast at 92% of the population and Midwest at 91%, compared to 87% in the Western states.
- Cable internet availability ranges from 94% in Mid-Atlantic states to 83% in the Mountain West.
- Fiber access is expanding but remains lowest in the South at 25% and Midwest at 29%, compared to highs of 69% in New England and 61% on the Pacific Coast.
Satellite internet helps provide broadband in areas unreached by wired networks. Fixed wireless options continue growing too, especially for rural connectivity.
Major Residential Internet Providers
Most Americans choose between providers available in their local market. Here are some of the top home internet companies and the types of connections they offer:
|Provider||Connection Types||Max Speeds|
|AT&T||DSL, fiber, fixed wireless||100 Mbps|
|Verizon FiOS||Fiber||5 Gbps|
|Cox||Cable, fiber||1 Gbps|
|Optimum||Cable, fiber||5 Gbps|
Fiber and cable networks make up 82% of fixed broadband connections in the U.S. Most offer a range of speed tiers based on your budget and needs.
DSL is still used by 15% of broadband subscribers as of 2020, according to Leichtman Research Group. But the technology faces decline as providers switch focus to upgrading networks to fiber.
Choosing the Right Internet Speed
With so many options, how do you determine what internet speed you really need?
Here are some tips for choosing the right plan:
- Consider the number of connected devices in your home and average simultaneous users. More devices require higher speeds to avoid congestion.
- Think about data-intensive uses like 4K streaming, gaming, video conferencing, and smart home devices. These require faster speeds for optimal performance.
- Compare internet provider plans and speed tiers in your area. No need to pay for 1 Gbps fiber if 50 Mbps cable meets your needs for less.
- Try tools like the FCC Speed Guide to recommend the right speeds for your household size and usage. Most homes need at least 25 Mbps for light use up to well over 100 Mbps for heavy use.
- Factor in costs since faster connections at higher tiers mean pricier monthly bills. Balance speed with affordability.
- Check provider contracts carefully. Many enforce a minimum term like 1-2 years and charge fees for early termination.
As technology improves, internet speeds continue getting faster. But gigabit speeds aren‘t always necessary. The sweet spot for most households today is in the 100 to 500 Mbps range. Pick a plan that provides enough bandwidth for all your connected devices and online activities.
The Bottom Line
When choosing a home internet provider, start by checking which connection types are available in your neighborhood and the speeds offered. Cable, fiber, and DSL make up most residential broadband today.
Fiber optic delivers the fastest speeds, followed by cable internet on average. DSL and fixed wireless offer decent speeds in some areas as well. Satellite fills in the gaps unreached by wired networks but with higher latency.
Compare plans and speed tiers in your area to balance speed and affordability. Gigabit fiber sounds appealing but lower-cost plans around 100 Mbps may sufficiently handle your usage.
I hope this overview gives you a better understanding of the different internet connection types available for homes today. Let me know if you have any other questions!