The Best DSL Internet
We’ll be honest: Finding the best DSL internet for you probably won’t involve any shopping around. The vast majority of people only have one provider that covers their area, and the speeds available to you will depend on your specific address.
We got a lay of the land with the help of BroadbandNow — an organization that’s working to make the internet more transparent for consumers — and data from the Federal Communications Commission. Then we sifted through availability, speeds, and contracts to find out what it’s like to be a customer with the biggest DSL providers in the U.S. We summarize available information about each of the providers below so you know what to expect from contracts and customer services.
The Best DSL Internet
How To Find the Best DSL Internet
DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line, internet uses existing copper telephone wires to get data back and forth between your computer and the “backbone” of the internet. Unlike traditional dial-up, information is transmitted at a frequency separate from the one used for voice calls — making it a less intrusive, much speedier option. That’s also why you don’t have to wait for people to get off the phone to use the internet.
MbpsMegabits per second is a measurement of how quickly your internet is transferring Megabits of data. If you ever see the confusingly similar abbreviation MBps, it’s referring to Megabytes per second, which is 8x a Megabit.
There are several types of DSL, but the one available to most residential customers is ADSL, or Asymmetric DSL. The term “Asymmetric” comes from its uneven upload and download speeds — as with cable, download speeds are generally faster. ADSL plans can reach 24 Mbps for downloading, and about 3 Mbps for uploading. That’s enough bandwidth for one person to stream “Atlanta” on Hulu while another Skypes their long-distance partner. And because DSL is a direct line, it bypasses the bandwidth congestion issues faced by cable users when their neighbors are online at the same time.
First, evaluate your speed options.
DSL is one of the most widely available types of internet in the U.S., covering 90 percent of the country. The catch is that there isn’t much overlap in the areas different providers cover: In 2016, the FCC reported that 74 percent of developed census blocks had access to ADSL, and nearly 70 percent were only serviced by one provider. Only four percent had a choice between two providers, and a miniscule 0.2 percent had access to three. In other words, it’s highly likely that you won’t have a say in what DSL provider works “best” for you — it’s more of a “you get what you get” situation.
Once you have your search narrowed down to the provider or providers in your zip code using our tool above, you can go to individual provider websites and type in your specific address to see available speed tiers.
How you and anyone else on your network will be using the internet determines how much speed your household needs. A frequent Netflixer, for example, will need much higher download speeds than someone who’s sending the occasional email to catch up with family. Figuring out the right range for you is a personal venture, but this chart from the FCC can help:
When you enter your address at a provider’s site, there’s a good chance an array of options will be presented, and a provider may not advertise what type of internet connection a given plan uses. Different technologies can reach different speeds. Here’s how they typically stack up:
Know upfront that DSL isn’t going to win any awards for speed. The most popular plans average max download speeds of 13 Mbps, and maximum upload speeds of 2.5 Mbps. Those speeds are less than what other technologies (like cable) can offer, and available DSL speeds are increasing at a slower rate than cable, too. If the plans offered at your address top out around 13 Mbps, you’re likely seeing DSL options.
DSL’s slow upload speeds may become an issue for users who plan on uploading videos to the internet, video chatting, storing files in the cloud, hardcore gaming — any upload-heavy online activity. BroadbandNow recommends looking at upload speeds of at least 1 Mbps if video chat, specifically, is a concern. And Jameson Zimmer, Director of Content for BroadbandNow, told us that users who need high upload speeds would be happiest with cable or fiber. But most people can get plenty of bandwidth from DSL The average download speeds of 13 Mbps are enough for streaming HD video and even online gaming, as long as you don’t have a whole house full of people trying to do everything at the same time.
“Unless you're a ‘techie’ or plan to stream Netflix all day long 24/7, DSL should be fine.”
We looked at the five biggest companies’ speed offerings, contracts, and customer service scores.
The best DSL provider for you may very well be the only DSL provider that services your address, so we looked into the ones most people are likely to encounter. Each of these companies offers service to more than 10 million people and at least 3 percent of the country. If you have access to DSL internet, chances are it comes from one of these five: AT&T internet, Verizon High Speed internet (not to be confused with FiOS, its fast fiber cousin), CenturyLink, Frontier Communications, and WindStream.
We wanted to know what it was like to be a customer of one of these providers: what plans are broadly available, what bundles might consolidate and lower service bills, what contracts require, and the quality of resources when you run into problems. So we spent a month interacting regularly with internet service providers, digging through online reading materials, and sifting through FCC and BroadbandNow data.
We found data on the most commonly offered speeds.
A typical provider’s main page will show a wide range of speeds, many of which are outside the capabilities of DSL internet. When we asked providers for a general range of DSL speeds and prices, we were (apologetically) turned away unless we gave them an address. Rather than plugging in an array of potential zip codes and giving you information that may or may not apply to you, we’re using the FCC's data from 2016 as a guidepost to more realistically set your expectations of what might be offered. Here are the plans most customers are signed up for from each provider:
Although AT&T’s IPBB internet has impressive upper speeds, a customer service representative told us it’s not considered DSL. On this chart, Verizon appears to be the most transparent about its speeds. But, in keeping with the trend of “things are more complicated than they look,” the speed you actually experience will depend on how close you are to your provider and the technology available in your area.
To realistically set your expectations of what you might actually experience, we consulted FCC data on actual vs. advertised speeds:
That’s a lot of colors and numbers, but the short version is that only about two-thirds of DSL customers get most of the speeds that were advertised to them. By comparison, cable speeds are generally more accurate, with roughly 90 percent of customers getting advertised speeds. So, when looking at plan options, we recommend multiplying the speed numbers by 0.8 to get a more realistic sense of what you’ll probably end up with.
We also dug into contracts for information about fees and limitations.
Some DSL providers require contracts, which can hide additional fees and restrictions. The most common fees include:
- Activation Fee: AT&T, the only specific source we found, waives this fee if a technician installs your hardware.
- Installation Fee: Can be either a customer installation fee or a technician installation fee, depending on what you decide works best for you.
- Repair-Related Fees: For example, AT&T charges a fee for sending a truck to your home for repairs, and charges extra if you “refuse to troubleshoot” the problem yourself.
- Late Payment Fee: Most ISPs charge on a monthly basis.
- Equipment Fees: You may be able to rent or buy a DSL modem and DSL filters from a provider.
- Early Termination Fees: Charged for ending service before your contract is up.
We searched each provider’s website for detailed information on required contracts, data caps, and early termination fees. We also wanted to see which companies were transparent about their fees and restrictions (spoiler alert: just one), and which ones hid behind contract language.
Contracts can be limiting — especially if you might move or consider other providers in the near future. Verizon and Windstream are the only two providers we looked into that don’t require users to sign a contract; the others advertised contracts that range from one month to two years. Providers that do require a contract will likely charge an Early Termination Fee (look for “ETF” in your terms and conditions) should you choose to end your service. You can weigh whether that fee is worth it to you, given your budget and your potential to move or switch services.
And although it might sound like contracts will at least keep you safe from price hikes, we found that wasn’t necessarily true. Most contracts will include fine print that allows providers to up your price without notice. One structure we did appreciate was Century Link's “Price for Life” no-contract philosophy that guarantees no price increases.
Beyond those major factors, we found that most providers aren't forthcoming about their contract terms. AT&T surprised us by being the only provider that offered a straightforward way to view fee dollar amounts, and Frontier gave us a sample bill that was easy to read (though it's not clear if the same terms would also apply to us).
Every other provider had vague information buried in terms and conditions that weaved in vague language like “You agree...to pay: (a) applicable taxes, (b) surcharges, (c) recovery fees, (d) telephone charges, (e) activation fees, (f) installation fees, (g) set-up fees, (h) equipment charges, (i) ETFs, and (j) other recurring and nonrecurring charges associated with the Service plan you have selected.” Not very helpful, Verizon.
Windstream offered up some scary, but not specific, language with this clause: “Payment in full is due no later than the due date indicated on your bill and we may apply a late fee, interest, and other charges (including, but not limited to, collection fees) up to the maximum amount permitted by law.”
And when signing up for any DSL service — contract or not — look out for data caps: AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon put a limit on the amount of data you can use each month, similar to a cell phone plan. If your main online activity is sending and receiving emails, that won’t be a problem, but if you know you’ll be downloading and uploading movies regularly, those limits will be a consideration.
We kept a running dialogue with customer service reps, too.
Internet providers are notorious for making you spend lots of time on hold, and then providing little help when they do pick up. To help us measure service, we turned to two sources: J.D. Power, which scores the biggest providers on customer service, and BroadbandNow, who asks customers whether or not they’d recommend their current service to other users. We looked to those scores for a general consensus of these companies. Keep in mind that neither source is DSL-specific. Rather, J.D. Power and BroadbandNow aggregate the experiences of customers buying fiber, cable, business, etc. But we feel these numbers are generally representative of the service you can expect from each company.
When we looked into J.D. Power ratings, we weren’t surprised to see that Frontier, CenturyLink, and Windstream had dismal scores across the board. What did surprise us were AT&T’s and Verizon’s high scores: AT&T scored 4.3/5, while Verizon impressed with a perfect 5/5. Of course, “high” scores are relative — AT&T beat out the competition with just 41.2 percent of users saying they’d recommend it.
We spent a lot of time chatting online with customer service representatives from each of the top five providers consistently throughout writing this review and found them to be both helpful and responsive. But we had less success getting prompt and honest help over the phone (AT&T redirected us to its main voice-automated software after a brief and confusing conversation). If you end up needing help, we recommend using online chat to problem-solve.
If you’re concerned about price hikes and negotiating with your DSL provider, Zimmer gave us an internet pro’s perspective: “DSL providers are usually more transparent in their pricing [than other types of providers]. CenturyLink, for example, has been charging my parents the same price for DSL for 10 years. My cable provider at home ups the rate every 6 months just to see if I notice.”
That information is anecdotal, but comforting. We recommend keeping an eye on your bills, and if you see a jump in price, reach out to a representative. If your experience is anything like ours was, you’ll get prompt and informative help.
Best Overall Customer Experience
AT&T InternetThe biggest name in the game, ATT has speeds high enough for regular surfing, as long as video chat isn’t a priority and a one-year contract is realistic for you. We were impressed by its customer service track record and a transparent fee schedule that’ll help you predict the extra charges on your bill.
Upload: 0.384, 0.512
AT&T is the biggest DSL provider out there, offering coverage in 21 states to about 120 million people. If you live in one of the states in red on the map below, this may apply to you.
A customer service rep told us that AT&T’s DSL plans can reach download speeds between 1–10 Mbps, but FCC data tells us that most customers are topping out at 6-Mbps downloads. That max speed is enough for two users to be surfing the web at once, or one to be streaming “Selma” on a smart TV. But both popular upload speeds are well below the threshold recommended by BroadbandNow if you’ll be doing a lot of video chatting. That makes its most popular plans great for an individual user that plans on streaming Netflix sometimes and shooting off emails daily, but not ideal for a big family of users with multiple devices or anyone who plans on lots of upload-heavy activity (cloud interaction, video chat — stuff that requires your computer to send big files to the internet).
Be warned: Like most sites, AT&T’s can feel misleading if you’re looking for solely DSL. You’ll see an array of snazzy names like “AT&T U-Verse” (TV), “AT&T Fiber” (fiber internet), and “AT&T Internet” (DSL internet) — often all on the same page. The difference between Fiber and the others is clear, but AT&T U-Verse vs AT&T Internet might throw you for a loop. When we reached out to a customer service representative via chat, though, he explained that U-Verse is very much separate from DSL (A.K.A. “AT&T Internet”): U-Verse doesn’t use phone lines, and offers much higher speeds. We also recommend being wary of advertised speeds here — AT&T promotes its much faster Fiber speeds wherever possible. Following the industry standard of typing in your address first before judging plans will come in handy; the plans you see should be available to you, whatever internet connection they employ.
If AT&T’s your DSL option, keep in mind its limitations. Opting into AT&T’s one-year contract means paying $15 for each remaining month on your contract. And it’s one of three big providers that enforce a data limit. If the words “data limit” bring back sad memories of cell phone bill late fees and doomsday text messages that say “You’ve gone over,” take heart. According to AT&T’s data usage calculator, one terabyte is enough to send and receive 40,000 emails, stream Kendrick Lamar’s new album for 8,500 hours, surf the web for 2,000 hours, post 5,600 selfies on social media, stream every single episode of Seinfeld’s nine seasons in high definition, spend 1,650 hours online gaming … and still have plenty of room left over. Given that none of AT&T’s DSL plans are fast enough to support several people doing heavy-lifting activities online at once, we’d be impressed if you managed to meet that limit. If you’re in doubt, you have the option of purchasing unlimited data for an extra $30 per month.
AT&T customers should count themselves lucky in at least this respect: AT&T’s transparency surpassed all others’. Unlike the aforementioned foggy language of every other provider’s fees, AT&T offered us actual dollar amounts that we can expect to pay for activation, installation, service repair dispatch, and late payments. We have no way to compare the actual cost of those fees against other providers, since none of them gave exact dollar amounts, but we do appreciate the fact that AT&T’s are available, not hidden. We also appreciate that AT&T’s DSL technical service line is open 8 a.m. to midnight Eastern Time — it’s reassuring to know in a worst-case scenario, there’s support available. Knowing all of that, we weren’t surprised that AT&T’s J.D. Power customer service was top-notch.
Best Customer Service Record
VerizonThe tortoise of big DSL providers, Verizon offers the slowest download speeds of the bunch. That makes it an unlikely choice for anyone prone to Netflix binges, plus you’ll have to commit to a phone plan. But no contracts means no commitment if you want to give it a try.
Upload: 0.512, 0.768, 0.896, 5
Verizon is likely an option if you’re in the Northeast. But, as with CenturyLink, you’ll have to order your internet with a side of phone service.
Verizon DSL’s popular download speeds are the slowest around. That makes it all the more ironic that the official name for Verizon’s DSL is “Verizon High Speed Internet.” It’s plenty of bandwidth for one or two light users sending emails and checking Facebook, but it’s stingy compared to other providers’ popular plans.
However, the FCC found that Verizon’s DSL median download speeds average at 121 percent of what’s advertised — the highest percentage of any of the five biggest providers. Verizon’s philosophy for DSL seems to be, “Underpromise and overdeliver” Verizon’s popular upload speeds are more impressive than its download options, too, and offer some variation. It offers an unheard-of 5 Mbps option that will be particularly attractive to YouTuber contributors and upload-heavy users.
While its download speeds may feel cruel, there are redeeming qualities that give Verizon customers freedom: We liked that Verizon doesn’t require signing a contract, leaving users free to move homes or providers without penalty. And its 1.5 terabyte data limit won’t be an issue for even the most Netflix binge-prone users (though perhaps its low download speeds will).
Our experiences showed Verizon’s customer service is just as helpful and warm as AT&T’s. And it receives the highest J.D. Power score for customer service possible: five out of five stars. However, keep in mind that Verizon FiOS — its rarely available fiber option that dominates its website — is included in that rating. But our interactions suggest that the customer service is stellar across the board.
Most Plan Options
CenturyLinkIf you’re willing to buy a phone plan, CenturyLink has far and away the biggest variety of popular DSL plans at the highest potential speeds. One-month contracts let you stay flexible, but low data caps make it much more likely you’ll end up paying overage fees, especially if you’re paying for a higher speed tier.
Upload: 0.384, 0.512
600GB for more than 7 Mbps
If your state is shaded in red or pink below, you might have access to CenturyLink’s DSL coverage. It’s the second-biggest DSL provider in terms of population, providing coverage to about 48 million people across 39 states.
Before we go any further, we want to point out that CenturyLink only offers DSL as part of a bundle with a phone plan. But CenturyLink’s DSL service has a few benefits that might make it worth signing up for, even if you’re not in the market for phone service.
First, its Price For Life guarantee make it a good option for people looking to stay put for a while, and the lack of contracts make CenturyLink a good fit for apartment-renters on the move. The company also has the highest number of popular DSL speed tiers and highest speeds of any of the top five providers. CenturyLink’s most popular plans have upload speeds that are high enough for frequent Facetiming and download speeds that are nearly unheard of in the ADSL world. So as a team of Netflix bingers and gamers who Skype our parents regularly, we initially rejoiced.
But we promptly stopped rejoicing when we found out about CenturyLink’s low data caps. While 600 gigs of data probably won’t cause problems for an individual user — or even two users — who stream Netflix and Skype regularly, households of heavy downloaders might come up on some overage fees. And if you’re subscribing to a plan with download speeds of less than 7 Mbps, you’ll need to keep extra close tabs on that 300GB limit.
However, the actual dollar amount of those overage fees is unclear. CenturyLink’s terms and conditions are frustratingly devoid of specifics about fees. The closest resource we could find was this tariff library, the name and structure of which felt entirely too complicated. In fact, CenturyLink’s lack of transparency was a red flag we saw several times. While one member of our team contacted customer service quickly and successfully received quick and helpful feedback, another got this message:
Still, we like that Century Link's online chat service is open for technical support 24/7. This, plus impressively high speeds make it the best option for multiple-user households and individual users with download- and upload-heavy habits.
We also liked short-contract, Price for Life policies. But anyone signing up for CenturyLink DSL will have to keep a close eye on data caps to avoid overages.
No Data Caps
Frontier CommunicationsIts popular speeds and customer service experience are average compared to other providers, but no data limits means you can stream HD video to your heart's content. Be prepared for a commitment, though: Frontier’s two-year contracts only make sense if you know you won’t be moving anytime soon and are happy with Frontier’s plan offerings in your area.
Upload: 0.384, 0.768
Frontier’s coverage is more scattered than the other providers we looked at, but it still offers the fourth-largest coverage area of any DSL company out there. Its popular speeds are average, but provide enough bandwidth for the sort of activities you can expect on DSL internet (basic internet use for a few users, streaming video for one or two).
We like that you don’t have to commit to a phone plan to take advantage of Frontier DSL. But there’s a catch: You’re looking at a two-year contract regardless of the plan you choose, the longest commitment of any of the big providers. For that reason, we can only recommend Frontier if you’re established in your residence and don’t foresee another (possibly faster or cheaper) provider coming to your area in the near future. The issue of early termination fees is unclear with Frontier, like the fees with almost every other provider. The information we found says it should stay under $200 but “depends on the plan you have.”
However, we were impressed to find that Frontier offers a resource for understanding a bill on its site. It didn’t get specific about possible fees in its terms and conditions for DSL users, but this sample bill for residential services did give us an idea of what’s typical:
It’s not quite the same level of transparency as AT&T, and it’s hard to know whether it’ll be applicable to your specific situation, but we liked it better than the lack of resources on most other providers’ sites.
One red flag for Frontier is its customer service, which receives an underwhelming J.D. Power score. It scores reliably poor, with twos across the board except “cost of service” in both the North Central Region (it got a 4/5 there) and the East region (3/5) and “billing” in the North Central region (3/5). When we took advantage of the chat feature online, though, we found the conversation to be easy enough and the representative to be helpful. Still, we recommend being mindful that you’ll be on contract for two years with Frontier’s service — make sure to ask questions about unforeseen bill increases and other customer service-related issues that could arise that’ll make you regret your decision to sign.
No data cap means that you can take advantage of Frontier’s average DSL speeds to your heart’s content. But its two-year contract will lock you in for longer than the others, and will require you to think long-term while you decide whether you should commit.
Most Flexible Service
WindstreamLots of flexibility, not much transparency. You won’t have to worry about contracts, a phone plan, or data caps — the most freedom offered by any provider. And popular plans include one of the fastest DSL download speeds we encountered. But we can’t tell you what fees you might run into, since its website doesn’t offer that information up-front.
*Windstream is the only provider that isn’t specified DSL on FCC tests — this could be referring to other type(s) of internet
Windstream’s a bit of a mixed bag, but let’s focus for a moment on what we love: the flexibility it gives its customers. Windstream doesn’t have contracts, phone plan requirements, or data caps, which means you’re free to use your internet however often and for however long you choose. Out of all the top providers, this arrangement left us feeling most “no strings attached.”
Windstream’s most popular plans have download speeds that vary enough to make most users happy — that 12-Mbps plan is good news if you like to stream “Orange is the New Black” while your roommate watches Ken Burns’ latest doc series. On the other hand, upload speeds leave a lot to be desired: They’re generally below the threshold of recommended video call bandwidth, and we could only find reports of one popular upload speed. That made us skeptical that there are any other options at all.
One place we ran into trouble with Windstream was its fees. The only information we could find was buried in its terms and conditions, featuring sentences like “As a convenience to you, Company may include charges for third-party services on your monthly bill.” That vagueness was also typical across the board.
As with other providers, we didn’t run into any issues getting quick help via online chat (and we loved that its support is available 24/7) — but be aware, J.D. Power gives it a low score overall for customer service (though ratings are only available for the “South” region of the U.S.). Again, we suggest keeping a close eye on your bill to ensure that no unforeseen rate hikes or fees have been applied.
Windstream a solid option to explore for any user thanks to its flexibility and available speeds. However, the confusion around available speeds and potential fees make it all the more important to scrutinize any contract you’re given.
Did You Know?
Some assembly is required to get your home DSL-ready.
At minimum, a DSL customer needs a DSL modem (your provider will likely provide one — potentially for a fee). If you want internet to be accessible throughout the house wirelessly, a router is also necessary. Sometimes, the router and modem can be one device.
If you plan on connecting anything besides your DSL modem to your phone jacks, you’ll need to know about filters and splitters:
- Filters: Filter DSL signals out from your phone jack. Plug a filter into your phone jack, then your phone into the filter and you won’t have any problems with DSL signal interference. You won’t need a filter for the phone jack where you plug in your DSL modem.
- Splitters: Split one phone jack into two jacks, one for DSL and one for phone. This way, you can still use both out of one jack.
There’s another type of splitter that a technician might install for you, which will split the DSL signal for your phone line apart from the signal for your DSL at a sort of “origin point” (network interface device, or NID) leaving you with no work to do on your end.
If a technician hasn’t installed a splitter at your NID or you aren’t going to use a landline alongside your DSL, you won’t need to worry about filters or splitters. Your phone jacks will already work for your DSL.
Hold your provider accountable with speed measurements.
If you feel like your internet is running slow, a low measurement of your actual speed is a good piece of evidence to present to your provider. Google “[your provider’s name] speed test” and you’ll likely be pointed to a test that’s specific to your ISP. But you can test the connection speed of any provider on sites like measurementlab.net and speedtest.net.