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Nowadays, most computer users jump online daily without a second thought. But have you ever wondered what types of internet connections actually allow us to connect to the internet?
Let’s walk through the different types of internet connections used throughout the years and today. We’ll see how internet access has evolved over time, and the basics of how each method works.
Defining “Internet Service Provider”
Before we begin, it’s important to know what an Internet Service Provider (ISP) is. While anyone can use their computer as a standalone unit or connected to other computers on a local network, you need to go through an ISP to connect to the vast resources available on the internet.
An ISP is simply a company that provides its customers with access to the internet. Examples include Comcast and Verizon. These companies have vast network infrastructure that enables widespread and easy internet access.
What technology your ISP uses to connect you to the internet has changed over the years, and varies depending on your area. Let’s walk through some of the most common forms.
Types of Wired Internet Access
First we’ll look at the wired technologies for internet access. These typically enable you to get online at home.
Cable is a common delivery method for high-speed internet. This utilizes the same type of copper cable that you might have for cable TV service. Using a standard called DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification), a compatible modem can sort the TV signals from the internet data signals so both work on one line.
While cable is still a common method for broadband, it has competition in more modern methods. You can still expect solid speeds from cable internet, but it’s not the most powerful technology.
Fiber internet connections, offered by companies like Verizon FIOS, are one of the fastest home internet options available. Instead of traditional cable, they use light to transmit information.
At the originating end, a transmitter converts electrical signals to light. This light then bounces along a special cable made out of glass or plastic. When it reaches its destination, the receiving end converts the light back into data that your computer can use.
As you might expect, light travels a lot faster than electricity flowing through a wire. Unfortunately, fiber networks aren’t as ubiquitous as cable, and it’s expensive to run new lines. Thus, this type of connection isn’t available in some areas.
We use the term “fiber to the home” to describe this type of access. However, fiber optic cable is used in many other ways, such as lines across the ocean. Fiber optics can effectively send data across much longer distances than cable can, making it useful for these situations.
We’ve looked more closely at the differences between fiber and cable if you’re curious.
DSL, which stands for Digital Subscriber Line, uses existing telephone lines to transmit digital data. Because the data transfers at a higher frequency than voice calls, you can use the internet and talk on the phone at the same time.
With DSL, you install a physical filter that separates the voice and data signals. Otherwise, you’d hear a high-pitched hiss when talking on the phone.
The term almost always refers to asymmetric DSL, which means that your upload and download speeds are different. This makes sense, since most people download content from the internet more than they upload.
DSL is still offered today, mostly in rural areas without reliable cable infrastructure. It’s passable if you don’t need a fast connection, but increasingly limiting with today’s internet.
Dial-up is rare now, but it’s worth briefly mentioning as it was the first widely used method for internet access.
Like DSL, it uses phone lines to connect to the internet. However, unlike DSL, only one type of communication can go through the line at a time. A dial-up modem converts digital signals from a computer into analog signals that go over the phone line by running a “phone call” to the ISP’s server.
Of course, this setup has a lot of limitations. The analog signal of dial-up is inefficient compared to digital signals. And infamously, placing a phone call while you were online would kick you off the internet.
The sound of a dial-up connection is nostalgic to many, but for the most part it’s now a connection technology that’s confined to the past.
Types of Mobile/Wireless Internet Access
It’s becoming more common to access the internet wirelessly outside of your home. Let’s next take a look at types of wireless internet services.
Satellite internet, as the name suggests, is a wireless solution that uses satellite dishes in the sky. It’s a line-of-sight technology, so you need a professional to set up a dish attached to your house that’s pointed at the service satellite.
As you probably know, the further a signal travels, the more it degrades. Because satellite dishes can be 40,000+ miles away, they often have high latency. This makes satellite connections poor for real-time activities like gaming.
The other issue with satellite internet is that it beams a signal into a large area. Everyone near you using a satellite connection has to share the bandwidth, which could be a large group.
This is the only internet access option for a lot of people in remote areas, but we don’t recommend it if you have other options.
Internet access over a wireless network can take several different forms.
Similar to satellite internet, wireless broadband for the home allows you to pick up a signal from your ISP without cables. It’s not ideal since it has the same drawbacks, including slower speeds and interference susceptibility.
Most of the time when we say “mobile internet,” we mean wireless access technologies on mobile phones. Smartphones transmit and receive wireless radio waves, which allows them transfer digital data as well as voice calls. See our explanation of LTE, 4G, and 5G to learn how this technology has evolved.
Mobile internet also allows you to get your laptop online pretty much anywhere and can double up as in-car Wi-Fi. Cell phone providers sell USB modems and other mobile internet devices that allow you to connect to your provider’s network through mobile technology like LTE. Just like your cell phone, this allows you to access the internet without connecting to a Wi-Fi network.
Now You Understand the Main Types of Internet Services
We’ve surveyed the basics of internet connection technologies, both wired and wireless. In a lot of cases, what you use is limited to what’s offered in your area. Unless you live in an extremely remote location, you probably have cable or fiber optic internet access at home and an LTE connection on your phone.
If you’re interested in more about the technology behind the web, find out where the internet comes from and if whether you could make your own.
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