Which is faster or better, ADSL or cable internet connection?
July 30, 2008 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Which is a better broadband connection type: ADSL or cable? Plus a couple of other smaller (and simpler) questions.

In Toronto (actually Richmond Hill, a suburb) I have a choice of ISP types. Which is better? I am now with Bell Sympatico on an ADSL line.
I've just tested my speed with speedtest.net and with pcpitstop.com and they give me download speeds of between 2547 kbps and 2897 kbps. Is this good?

Is there any way of finding out what speed Sympatico claims to provide (really)? I'm paying for what they call "Total Performance" for which they say "Enjoy up to 7 Mbps".

Can others tell me what they are getting from Sympatico, or is this discrepancy a known issue?


I now rent from them a Speedstream 5200 'modem'. It's about 4 years old. Should I ask for a new one?

Is there any way they will let me not rent a modem from them (that is, buy my own and spare the rental fee - $2.00 a month)?

I have a Netgear RP614 router. Does it provide me with a firewall, or do I still need a software firewall in addition?
posted by feelinggood to Computers & Internet (10 answers total)
Cable is typically an order of magnitude faster than DSL.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:49 AM on July 30, 2008

For me, the choice depends more on the ISP than cable vs. DSL. I've had big problems with reliability from both Sympatico and Rogers (not to mention the atrocious tech support from either one), and they both have limitations on what you can do with their service (e.g. running a server).

In the Toronto area, you have more than 50 choices for DSL providers, but only one choice for cable. If you search Ask MeFi for questions about recommending a DSL provider, you'll find many enthusiastic recomendations for TekSavvy.com. Outages are rare, I get about 4 to 4.5 Mbps on the "up to 5 Mbps" service, and when I call tech support I get someone who not only knows what they are doing but if the problem is on their end the person I'm speaking to can actually go and fix it while I'm on the phone.

You can buy a modem pretty cheaply these days. TekSavvy will let you use whatever works. I don't know what Bell says.
posted by winston at 10:59 AM on July 30, 2008

DSL: Non shared primary link (you are shared at the DSLAM point.) Much lower latency. Much more often able to get static IP, if you want to run services.

Cable: Often cheaper, esp. in bundles. Fast as hell if you're the only one on the segment. Can be a nightmare if your segment has a couple of bitorrent users with aggressive clients.

~2.5Mbps is pretty decent. There are DSL technologies that can go faster -- ADLS2 over a "dry pair" -- a phone line without phone services provisioned can reach to 12Mbps, but that depends on your distance.

I don't know if I'd replace the modem -- it seems to be working.

As to "Up to?" I don't buy based on theoretical peaks. I also have little trust in cable companies when they advertise performance, I've been burned too many times. The primary reason I don't have cable internet in my current location is I can see the cable termination box, and it's an unbelievable mess. I don't know if the signal would be bad -- but I do know that if it was, it would be a nightmare to fix.

Personally, I pay extra money for Speakeasy DSL, and I've never regretted it. The line works. The few times it hasn't, I got a real, english speaking engineer on the line instantly who started to do real diagnostics. We were all afraid when Best Buy bought them, but so far, they haven't messed them up. I may call in the next month and get a bigger fraction, though -- all these remote desktops to various offices are a bit hard on the bandwidth.
posted by eriko at 11:01 AM on July 30, 2008

(hit reply too soon)

Do you have a specific need for bandwidth? Unless you have some application that won't work unless you get a certain transfer rate, I don't think comparing the speed of various broadband connections is really going to make a huge difference. If you need a guarantee that the speed won't be below a certain threshold, then you need a business service -- no residential service will give you that.
posted by winston at 11:02 AM on July 30, 2008

In my experience, cable provides faster speeds, but cable services are generally provided by slightly more evil companies than the ones that offer DSL service. Having said that, DSL speeds vary based on how far away from the central office you are, and cable speeds vary based on how many people use it in your neighborhood, so it's somewhat random.

I have a Netgear RP614 router. Does it provide me with a firewall, or do I still need a software firewall in addition?

"Firewall" is kind of a catch-all term for a lot of different technologies, so it really depends on what you want you expect a firewall to do. If you want it to prevent random people on the internet from connecting to ports on your machine, yes it will do that. If you want it to prevent you from connecting to sites using any protocol other than HTTP or HTTPS, it won't do that. If you want it to prevent applications on your machine from using the internet without permission from you, it won't do that (you need a software firewall to do that).
posted by burnmp3s at 11:10 AM on July 30, 2008

"Cable is typically an order of magnitude faster than DSL."

I have now what is in my region the highest available tier of cable service: a 16 megabit/s pipe. I was previously a very satisfied DSL customer, and the highest available tier of service was... 12 megabit/s. There's not quite as dramatic a difference in speeds as "typically an order of magnitude."

It's true that the cheapest tier of cable service tends to be quite a bit faster than the cheapest tier of DSL service, but that difference rapidly vanishes when you get above the el cheapo tiers.

"Is there any way of finding out what speed Sympatico claims to provide (really)? "

No, you're on a shared circuit, so there's no CIR (committed information rate) because they can't make commitments on line rate. Even then, the CIR is purely the line rate -- there's no guarantee the ISP's connection to the Internet can sustain that level of traffic (although with the DSL providers I've used, they do).

"Which is a better broadband connection type?"

That depends highly on what you want. For my general needs? DSL, hands down. Latencies to the network with cable are highly variable and tend to be worse than DSL. Few to no DSL providers are doing things like injecting RST packets into customer traffic or doing throttling of encrypted traffic, but cable ISPs are notorious for it; most cable providers have to be tortured on pain of death to even acknowledge it's possible for an end user to have a static IP address, let alone actually allocate a block of them. The DSL providers I worked with made that no problem at all. Cable providers tend to have explicit policy against providing services (HTTP, SMTP, SSH, remote desktop, or whatever), and the better DSL providers are perfectly happy to have you do your thing and in the case of my previous ISP they even notified me by telephone when they saw a security vulnerability had been exploited on my end and offered to shut the line down until I could get home to address it. I've railed a DSL line at 100% bandwidth for weeks at a time without complaint (in fact Speakeasy was perfectly helpful when the line rate declined because of a hardware issue -- it was saturated at my CIR again within an hour of talking to them), but cable customers often seem to be expected to heel to an unknown and undisclosable monthly traffic level under penalty of termination.

The only reason I'm using cable now is because it's the only option available where I currently reside. It's also slightly cheaper than what I was paying for DSL, but the service is worse, I'm highly limited in what I can do with it, and I'm subject to any of a number of mysteriously undisclosed policies. Sure, the total available bandwidth is higher that what I had, and that's neat, but half the perfectly normal, legal Internet stuff I want to do with that is forbidden by policy or broken by devices that snoop my traffic and break connections.

If you really just want something that'll let you browse the web or play some games, and don't actually do anything with the Internet, cable's fine. But it's so consumer-oriented and Internet-hostile that it's not a very good choice for some of us.
posted by majick at 11:28 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Having used both, I can say that sometimes the cable is faster, up to say five times, but it varies with time of day. 10 or 11 am the cable speeds up, 11 pm, when the kids are in bed I guess, it slows down. Sunday evening it crawls.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:54 AM on July 30, 2008

My answer to this question is always "It depends on where you live." Some areas have lots of cable users sharing bandwidth, others have very weak ADSL signals. Ask your neighbors about their Internet service.
posted by mmoncur at 12:37 PM on July 30, 2008

I am surprised no one mentions the age or quality of the copper in the area. My DSL (after moving) had to be dropped from 1.5Mbps to 256Kbps (Same price, sadly. Their price schedule is not at all granular). Same distance to the nearest DSLAM and everything.

I am currently using DSL from a very lassez faire ISP for hosting, and cable for everything else, but I am afraid, due to speed issues, and additional physical plant issues (It rains? There goes the DSL! And that is with a hypersensitive Westel modem.), I will be migrating soon to business grade cable.
posted by Samizdata at 6:52 PM on July 30, 2008

Oh, and blood sacrifices do not seem to be getting FIOS to my neighborhood any sooner.
posted by Samizdata at 6:57 PM on July 30, 2008

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