For the last 7 or 8 years, cable has been the dominant player in high speed internet access. Like Kleenex with tissues and Q-Tips with cotton swabs, cable companies have carved out such a dominant position within the industry that many people now view “cable” and “high speed internet” as terms that can be used interchangeably.
Now is a particularly interesting time to be discussing cable because it is facing a major challenger to its market dominance in Verizon FiOS.
How It Works
Cable networks form the bridge between your home computer and the high-speed data lines that are the backbone of the internet. As mentioned above, the main data transmission lines within cable networks are fiber, but the individual lines (or “last mile”) that are run into people’s homes are coaxial cable.
This is similar to how DSL networks operate: fiber optics for most of the network, legacy twisted copper telephone lines for the last mile to individual homes. However, unlike DSL, coaxial cable is shielded which means that it does not suffer from the signal loss issues that twisted copper telephone lines do over distances.
This is probably the single biggest reason why cable has successfully dominated DSL in the US, because cable companies were so effective at reminding consumers that “cable is always fast, whereas DSL isn’t fast if you are too far away from the provider”.
That is not an entirely true statement however, as cable has its own speed-related issues. If you live in a population dense area where many people use cable (i.e. an apartment building), your connection can be slowed because you are sharing the same coaxial cable lines as other people.
Cable is like DSL in that a single transmission line is used: the same transmission lines used for cable television are also used for cable internet. In order to give you both cable television and internet, a splitter is installed on the coaxial cable coming into your home, with one end going to your cable television box and the other end going to a cable modem.
Keys to Cable
1) Don’t Be Dense – If you live in an apartment building or other population dense area, it is good idea to investigate how fast a cable connection will be. Seek out neighbors who have cable internet service and find out how fast they think the service is or see if they will actually let you test drive their connection.
2) Know Your Limits – Cable internet service is usually offered at 3 (or even more) different speed levels, each at various price points. Making an initial speed selection is important, but not as important as testing the actual speed that you are getting once it is installed.
You sometimes won’t be able to get the speeds that are advertised do to the speed issues identified above. So if you’re paying for a higher speed than you’re capable of getting, make sure you adjust your plan down to a lower speed level so you don’t overpay month to month. Click the “Internet Speed Test” link on the right-hand side of the page to test your speed once you are up and running to see if any plan adjustment is necessary.
3) Make a Deal – Cable internet connections are generally offered by cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner that are well-known for offering discounts on bundled services, like VoIP phone, cable television and cable internet service. Make sure you take advantage of these deals by bundling your services together.