Internet connections can be roughly broken down into two categories: physical and wireless. A physical connection, as the name implies, uses a physical wire to connect directly to a computer, while a wireless connection sends signals over the air. Since Internet was first popularized in residential homes in the 1990s, physical connections have evolved, and faster technologies have been created.
Dial-up is the original physical connection. To use dial-up you must connect a modem to a phone line using a standard phone cable. Then, the user must plug another phone cable into the modem, and then connect this cable into the back of his computer. As of January 2012 dial-up is still sold by some Internet providers, but it's the slowest connection available, with the ability to download only 56,000 kilobits per second. The term 56k comes from this capacity.
DSL, short for digital subscriber line, is the next fastest physical Internet connection commonly in use. DSL also uses a standard phone line to send and receive Internet signals, but unlike a standard dial-up connection, it utilizes the digital space of a copper wire telephone line to achieve faster speeds. A DSL connection can download information from anywhere between 128 kbps to 8Mbps, or up to 50 times faster than dial-up.
A cable connection is a physical connection that's even faster than DSL. Unlike DSL and dial-up, however, cable connections don't use standard telephone lines to send and receive information. Instead, a coaxial cable is used. This is the same type of cord that's used to stream cable TV. Information can stream much faster on a coaxial cable than it can through a phone line. In fact, cable can be over twice as fast as DSL. However, cable Internet connections are shared with your neighbors, so speeds will vary depending on usage throughout the neighborhood.
As of 2012, the fastest physical connection is fiber optics. FiOS cables differ from anything that has come before them, although on the outside, they look similar to a coaxial cable. Inside, however, is a different story. Extremely thin wires made from glass transmit light that can be converted into information. Fiber optic cables are capable of sending and receiving large amounts of information at incredibly fast speeds. An FiOS connection can be up to 10 times faster than a cable connection, making it the fastest physical connection.
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