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What Is DSL?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is a high-speed Internet service that competes with cable Internet to provide online access to local customers. It operates over standard copper telephone lines like dial-up service, but is many times faster than dial-up. In addition, unlike dial-up, DSL does not tie up the phone line. Coexisting with telephone service in this way allows users to surf the Net and use the phone at the same time.

The service requires a DSL modem, which connects to the telephone wall jack and computer. The device acts as a modulator, translating the computer’s digital signals into voltage sent across the telephone lines to a central hub known as a Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplier (DSLAM, or dee-slam). In lay terms, the DSLAM acts as a switchboard for local DSL clients, routing requests and responses between each client’s computer address and the Internet.

Voice calls and DSL can coexist on copper lines because each service utilizes its own frequency band. The bands might be thought of like lanes of a freeway. Voice signals are sent in a relatively low band, while Internet signals occupy a much higher band. To keep the voice band clear of bleeding signal noise, a small filter is commonly installed on all telephone lines in the house, blocking the higher frequencies.

The DSL “service lane” is split for two-way traffic, or downstream and upstream signals. When you click on a link, you are requesting something from the Internet, initiating upstream traffic. The returned webpage arrives as downstream traffic. Since requests only require small bits of data, the upstream lane can be fairly narrow (low bandwidth), but the downstream lane must be much wider (high bandwidth) to send webpages, multimedia, graphics, files and programs. Thus, standard DSL is called Asynchronous DSL or ADSL, because the download speed is much faster than the upload speed.

Businesses, however, might require sending large files, data and programs between non-local networked offices, in which case a different type might be preferred. Synchronous DSL or SDSL offers the same high speed for both downloading and uploading. Hard core geeks might also like SDSL for exchanging files, games and other multimedia. The drawback is that it is more expensive than ADSL.

With today’s ubiquitous use of cell phone service, millions of people have foregone landline service all together. In this case a service known as “naked DSL” might be offered in an area, which provides Internet service without telephone service.

In many areas, fiber optic cable service (FiOS) is replacing standard telephone lines. FiOS provides much greater bandwidth than copper lines with the ability to offer true high-speed Internet that is many times faster than DSL or standard cable service. Though availability differs between regions, FiOS services typically offer bundled options for television, digital telephone and Internet.

Among the various DSL packages, plans are based on speed, with slower speeds costing less than plans that offer higher speeds. The distance to the nearest DSLAM will determine in large part the actual speeds the service achieve. The closer to the DSLAM the better, as the signal degrades with distance, causing latency issues. If a user is at the outskirts of the service area, he or she might not see the full speed of the subscribed plan.

A DSL modem is commonly included with service as a “leased” item to be returned at the end of the contract, but this is typically a standard modem without router or wireless capability. If a person wants to share the Internet connection with another computer in the home or office wirelessly, he or she will likely require an upgrade. In some cases, the cost of this upgrade in the DSL contract is equal to buying a wireless router with built-in modem. Subscribers should the fine print; if they will have to return the device at the end of the contract period, they might want to opt to supply their own equipment.

What Does DSL Mean?

DSL stands for digital subscriber line. This phrase means subscribers of certain home telephone services can receive multimedia, photos and videos through modems. Homes that have existing telephone lines can use DSL to connect to the internet. DSL is the original high-speed internet and has been in use for decades.

A digital subscriber line describes a group of technologies used for data transmission. It is a type of broadband communication that is helpful for homes and businesses. Broadband refers to high-speed communications in general, like cable and fiber. DSL is much faster than dial-up, which is another internet connection option. A digital subscriber line is suitable for everyday use by small groups but not for intensive gaming or other high-bandwidth activities. Everyday use includes:

  • Internet browsing
  • Emailing
  • Social media usage
  • Video conferencing

How Fast Is DSL?

Speeds vary for DSL services. Depending on the provider, download speeds may be faster than uploads. There are different types of connections, one being asymmetrical DSL. ADSL offers higher bandwidth for downloading data. Many people choose this option because downloading is much more common than uploading. Symmetrical DSL is a choice as well, but both upload and download speeds are the same. Providers will often advertise how fast their upload and download connections are. Since needs vary by household, you should see if the rates provided are suitable for you.

Basic packages may offer speeds of 1 to 7 megabits per second. These speeds help you accomplish tasks like sending emails and streaming music. However, if you want the best quality for video streaming, you will need higher speed rates. Your provider may offer tiers of connection speeds, ranging from lower to higher.

Higher speeds are available depending on the price. Newer connections are available, like very high-speed DSL and ADSL 2+. Rates may vary depending on a few factors:

  • Phone line quality: It is essential to have a quality phone line. Otherwise, your connection will be slower. Some areas have better phone lines with higher-grade copper, which make for faster connection speeds.
  • Service glitches: These issues are typical, and subscribers can do little about them. If the service provider has technical difficulties, customers will have to wait until they restore service.
  • Distance from your home to the hub: The farther you are from the service hub, the slower your connection will end up being. Take this into account when signing up for your service.

Other factors affect your speeds, like your network setup and computer. Older computers may have trouble with high-speed connections, especially if they lack memory or processing power. The quality of your home network also affects your internet. Ethernet connections and up-to-date modems are essential if you have gaming computers or other bandwidth-intensive devices. When you are signing up for DSL, see what items you can hardwire to speed up your internet connection.

How Does DSL Work?

Digital subscriber lines use the same wires that power your telephone. Most homes have telephone lines already installed. As a subscriber, you do not need to have an active phone line; you only need the wires, a modem, a line splitter and a phone jack. If you do not have an active phone line, your internet service provider can give you a naked DSL line. This line has phone access, but without any dial tone, making DSL more accessible and affordable for customers.

DSL internet works by converting signals sent by the ISP. Your modem receives these signals and then translates them into what you need to get online. Unlike dial-up, you can still use your home phone. DSL operates on a higher frequency than dial-up, so your phone lines are not blocked when you are using the internet.

Your ISP will give you a modem that only works with DSL and their service. Most of the time, you cannot use a modem you already have, as each device is unique to the ISP. All you need to do is plug your computer into the modem, which connects to a splitter. A splitter separates the voice data from the internet. It is an advantage because it speeds up your connection. The lines then run outside and through the phone lines to the ISP.

As mentioned, the farther you are from the hub, the slower your service will be. If you do not want to install the equipment yourself, you can pay to have someone from the ISP come to your home or business and do it for you.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon129889 — On Nov 25, 2010

Be sure that you are going to take dsl plan but before giving application for taking the service it is very important to know if the speed of dsl is slow because of problem in cables. mostly you will not get that speed you want. So there will nothing to do after. it will be good to get all the information first.

By dkarnowski — On Jul 11, 2010

If there is cable internet services available in your area, I would highly recommend using this type of connection as opposed to DSL. The technology is better in general.

The data rates are consistently and statistically faster for cable than DSL. If you are a gamer the faster ping times will surely make your lag time much less noticeable, if it even continues to occur. Cable is the only way to go for internet aficionados and bandwidth hogs.

By winterstar — On Dec 18, 2009

Before you spend the money and sign the contract for DSL service make sure your phone company will let the DSL "piggyback"!! I fought with Qwest for a month before someone finally told me they don't "work" with the company I was going to get DSL service with. Qwest insisted I use THEIR service, which was more expensive of course..just double check before you start the process!

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