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What is Cable Internet?

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According to Statista, 41% of American households subscribe to cable internet service, making it the most common way for people to get online today. This is largely due to the fact that the necessary infrastructure - coaxial cable - is already present in most households. Although numbers vary according to the source, the general consensus is that roughly four in five households still subscribes to pay television.

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Adding cable internet is very appealing because many of the best internet providers are also cable television companies, thus giving you just one bill.

Cable Internet - Sorting It All Out

With several different options for the internet available today - from dial-up to fiber optic - it can be difficult to decide which choice is best for your household. If you live in an area with cable access, this type of service is no doubt a strong contender on your list of possible connection methods. Yet you may still not be sure if this option is right for you. Below I've broken down the essentials of cable internet in order to help you make an informed decision.

Related: The Best Internet Service Providers

What is Cable Internet?

Cable Internet - The Pros

There are several benefits to having a cable internet connection.

1. Convenience

If you're one of the vast majority of households with existing cable service, it's fairly simple to add the internet because the wiring is already in place, for the most part. All you really need is to have a modem installed and your service activated. There's no need to have additional infrastructure installed and you'll probably even get a discount just for having all your services with one company through the various cable and internet bundles.

2. Connection Quality

Wired connections in general naturally offer better and more reliable quality than, say, mobile broadband or satellite internet. Environmental factors such as weather do not cause interruptions in data transmission. Cable internet service is also largely unaffected by distance, meaning your connection will be as good if you live far from the provider's central office as if you live right near it.

3. Speed

Cable internet providers offer plans up to 75Mbps (megabits per second) or more for download speed. This is significantly faster than any other widely available option except fiber optic internet. For instance, when we compare DSL vs cable, the top speed DSL is currently capable of on a large-scale consumer basis is 52Mbps. In reality, the vast majority of DSL plans max out at between 15 and 20Mbps. Satellite internet is even slower, at a maximum of 10 - 15Mbps download speed. Cable internet speed can be affected by certain factors, however, which I will cover later in this guide. No matter which plan you have, cable internet upload speeds are always significantly slower than download. Upload speeds range between under 1Mbps and 5 - 8Mbps.

Notable fact on internet speed: High-speed internet providers are increasingly using FTTN (fiber to the node, or fiber to the neighborhood) to increase the speed of their cable internet offerings. This means they're installing fiber optic lines from the hub to the street, which gives you faster speeds even though the wiring to your home is still via coaxial cable.

Related: The Best Satellite Internet

Cable Internet - The Cons

No technology is perfect, and all types of internet connections come with downsides. Some of the disadvantages of cable internet include:

1. Slowdowns During Peak Hours

It's true that cable internet doesn't really suffer from line attenuation (slowing caused by distance from the provider's hub), however, that doesn't mean you'll never experience irregularities in your connection's speed. Because the wiring outside your home is shared with others in your neighborhood, high traffic levels at peak times can compromise your speed. In other words, if a whole bunch of people in your neighborhood are online, say on a Sunday afternoon when many people have the day off from work, you might notice slower download and upload rates.

The problem is that technology is marching on, and things like 4K and HDR streaming, along with ever-increasingly graphics intensive online games, tend to drink up data like a bone-dry sponge.

2. Price Increases

You've probably gone on a cable internet provider's website and seen a seemingly great bargain on high-speed internet plans. Or maybe your cable TV company sends you a promo card in the mail which says something like "add internet now for only $XX per month!" The issue with these offers is that typically the best cable internet deals are temporary. If you read the fine print, you'll see that the great price is often followed by "for the first 12 months" (and sometimes a contract is required as well).

To make matters more convoluted, it's like pulling teeth just to find the actual retail rate that will show up on your bill after that first year is up. The best thing to do is call your cable internet provider and make sure all of the details are crystal clear before signing on.

3. Data Caps

There are many consumers who don't even realize they have a data cap (a limit on the amount of data your internet plan provides you with per month), and then there are many others who are downright agitated about it. Data caps have become an issue of contentious debate, but regardless of public opinion, they are a reality for the time being.

The good news is that at least two cable internet providers - AT&T Internet (U-verse) and Comcast Internet (Xfinity) - have recently raised their data allowances across popular plans. AT&T has changed the cap on their mid-level cable offerings from 250GB per month to 1T (terabyte - 1000 gigabytes) per month. Comcast is also now providing a terabyte on many of its plans, up from the previous cap of 300GB.

Most households don't even go through a terabyte of data in three months, much less one. In fact, Comcast claims that their customers used an average of just 75GB per month in the first half of 2016. The problem is that technology is marching on, and things like 4K and HDR streaming, along with ever-increasingly graphics-intensive online games, tend to drink up data like a bone-dry sponge. Even now, Netflix reports that Ultra HD (4k) streaming uses about 7GB per hour. Multiply that by your viewing hours per month and add in any other devices your family is using for such activities, and you can see how in the very near future it won't take long at all to use up a whole terabyte.

Notable fact on data caps: When the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) approved the merger between Charter Cable Internet and Time Warner Cable Internet in April of 2016, they wrote language into the order, preventing the newly formed company from imposing data caps or usage-based pricing for a period of seven years.

The Big Picture

There are definitely some drawbacks to cable internet. When it comes to the above issues, however, the question of DSL vs cable may still tip toward cable internet on certain fronts. Particularly of note is the fact that DSL data allowances are much smaller than those offered by cable internet providers. For example, AT&T puts a 150GB per month cap on its DSL users. There are unlimited data options for cable internet for an additional cost, which I will cover below.

Cable Internet - The Cost

Costs associated with cable internet vary because of promotions and thus included fees, change on a regular basis. The following are average costs cable internet providers charge for your service and other associated activities:

  • Monthly service: $20 to $60 (or more) per month, depending upon the speed you choose. These prices are often introductory and could go up after your initial promotional period is over.
  • Installation: $0 to $100, depending upon location and plan. Some companies, such as Time Warner Cable, also charge a one-time setup fee.
  • Equipment rental: $10 per month is the norm for renting a modem from the company. Most providers allow you to buy your own modem if you wish, as long as it's on the approved model list.
  • Data overage: $10 per 50GB over your data cap, with a maximum charge of $100 - $200 per month in overages.
  • Unlimited data: $30 to $50 per month from major providers.
  • Early cancellation fee: varies among cable internet providers, may run as high as $200 or more for breaking your contract.

Be sure you know exactly what you're going to pay for before you sign anything and make sure it's all in writing.

Notable fact on cable internet fees: You can request installation or setup fees to be waived. Your provider may not acquiesce, however, they often do and it certainly doesn't hurt to ask.

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What Affects Cable Internet Speed?

Internet speed is a fussy beast regardless of what flavor of connection you have. Each type of service harbors its own little quirks and sensitivities in terms of maintaining optimum speed, and slowdowns may be on the provider side, or they could be caused by a bottleneck on your end. Whatever the cause, it's frustrating when you pay for 25Mbps and your speed test says you're only getting 10 or 15.

Simply using a wireless connection via a wireless router can result in slower speeds.

Although you can't control factors such as web traffic in your area, or data throttling (a practice in which cable internet providers slow your connection on purpose if you're using too much bandwidth), what you can control is what's inside your home. The main thing to keep in mind is that your connection is only as fast as the slowest link. In other words, all of your hardware must be able to facilitate the speed of your internet plan. Here are some of the basic equipment-related issues which can interfere with your cable internet speed.

Modem

The modem is not the issue with speed as often as other equipment unless you have a particularly outdated model. If your cable internet provider supplied you with your modem, then you may simply need to power cycle it (remove the power cord from the power source for a period of about 60 seconds, then plug it back in). This allows updates from your provider to be pushed through, which will help maximize your speed.

Router

The problem here may lie in that your router is either too old to handle the high-speed internet of today, or you may need to restart it to allow updates, as with the modem. You can also follow your router's configuration instructions to try to boost its efficiency.

Simply using a wireless connection via a wireless router can result in slower speeds. Wired connections always deliver the speed closest to what you're paying for. In my experience, this effect isn't always dramatic, however - at least not to a detrimental degree for the average home user. To illustrate this point, I visited a speed test site to see exactly how close to my plan speed I'm getting out of the wireless router. The cable internet plan I am subscribed to should give me download speeds of up to 18 Mbps, and uploads up to 1.5Mbps. Using a wireless connection with my device located at least 50 feet from the router, my download speed was 15.38Mbps, with upload of 1.34Mbps. Not bad, and sufficient for routinely streaming Netflix and other media with no problems. Try it out to check the effectiveness of your wireless connection.

Related: How to Test Your Internet Speed

Cabling

The coaxial cable providing your connection to the outside world could create a bottleneck if it's outdated. Cat-5 is the older version of this cabling and is also the slowest, incapable of handling Gigabit speeds. Cat-5e (or enhanced category 5) is the better choice for maximizing the speed of consumer cable internet connections.

Your Computer

There are a number of computer issues which could interfere with your internet speed. Obviously, if your device is outdated, that will have an impact. Other things like malware, a non-Gigabit capable network interface card (NIC), or too many programs running in the background could also have an effect on your connection speed.

Notable fact on cable internet equipment: Whether you buy your own modem or rent one from your provider, these devices are often now integrated with a wireless router into one simple piece of equipment.

Read More: We delve further into the ways of speeding up your internet in our guide "How to Speed Up Slow Internet."

Recap

Even though other technologies like fiber optic and G.fast Gigabit-capable DSL are gradually moving into the consumer internet landscape, cable internet isn't going anywhere anytime soon. This type of service is still plenty fast for the typical household. It provides a convenient and affordable way for the whole family to enjoy their online activities. If you're shopping for the best cable internet deals, check out our easy zip code checker tool to see what's available in your area.

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