Comcast vs Frontier: Comparing New High-Speed DSL and Cable Internet

For a few days I had both Frontier DSL (the new high speed kind) and Comcast Xfinity Internet running side by side. This gave me a chance to do a analysis of the two providers. What follows is some of the detail from that.

For some of us this is useful because Comcast has a 1 TB monthly cap on usage (though you can pay $50 a month to remove the cap or pay extra for the overage) while Frontier doesn't. If you watch a lot of streaming video (cord cutters?), especially 4k UHD, or do much work from home with large files this could make a difference.

There are also those who just really want to ditch Comcast and are looking for alternatives.

It turns out that DSL can now do things like 100 Mb/s down and higher. It depends on how close you live to the switch, of course, but this can compete with the speeds of cable Internet providers.

&tldr;

For those of you who are interested in a quick conclusion... it will depend on what you are doing. For average users, the cost for performance is competitive and you could consider using high speed DSL. Just make sure you're close enough to a DSL switch to have that offered to you.

Cost For Performance

When it comes to internet connectivity, you can get pretty much what you want but you'll have to pay for it. Comcast provides gigabit speeds for hundreds of dollars a month (plus a fee to remove the data cap of 1 TB/month). But, do you need it?

The Data Cap

Comcast has a data cap of 1 TB (1024 GB) per month. If you go over that, as of the day this is being written, you can be charged for the extra usage. They do offer a 2 month grace period per year. To remove the cap will cost $50 per month.

Frontier doesn't have a data cap.

Most people, at this point, won't go over the data cap. Even if you stream Netflix or cord cut (even using services like Playstation Vue). Most shows are in HD and don't use that much bandwidth. But, if you watch a lot of 4k content, which is now coming to Netflix and some other services, you'll start to use a bit more bandwidth. If all of my streaming TV content were 4k a data cap would be a problem for me from that alone.

Performance

Several years ago, engineers figured out how to make DSL much faster than the speeds it's traditionally known for. If I understand it right, this includes using techniques like multiple wire pairs in a similar manner to how cable uses multiple channels. The hardware to support this is now out in the wild.

The cost difference? For me, it was right on par with cable (minus the cap cost). I'll give you an example. Frontier gives me a rate of 10 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up less than cable at the same price at the package level. In my testing, I wasn't able to exercise that extra difference due to other factors in the network outside of a speed test (more on this below). Frontier doesn't have a data cap so I don't have to pay for overages (which I have).

Performance Measurements

So, lets talk numbers and what they mean in practice...

Netflix

A lot of people use Netflix and want to make sure that works well. For this I didn't just look at speed tests but dug into actual usage and needs.

Comcast has a deal with Netflix to have their content on CDNs in Comcast locations. When I use fast.com to measure performance (to Netflix) on Comcast I got speeds of 180 Mb/s. This is in excess of my data plan. Frontier provided rates to fast.com that averaged about 50 Mb/s. Does it matter?

To test this I tried a practical setup. I had 4 devices streaming Netflix (one of them was 4k) at the same time. Would there be buffering issues? There were no issues. Streaming all that content used less than 10 Mb/s on average. Turns out, you don't need that much constant download bandwidth to watch streaming video.

If you want to understand why the CDN happened with Comcast it's worth going back the connections between Internet providers and drama from a few years ago.

Netflix has also entered into peering relationships with numerous companies to make their content delivery better. You can learn more about this at https://openconnect.netflix.com/.

Other Video Providers (Amazon Prime, Playstation Vue, etc)

Amazon Prime, Playstation Vue, PBS, Sling TV, DirectTV Now, and numerous other providers provide content or full streaming services online. How do these fair?

I've tested several including Prime, Playstation Vue, PBS, and others. There was no noticeable difference.

Gaming

Gaming folks have some needs for low latency. There's nothing like an extra 100ms on a ping time to cause you to loose more. So, how did things measure up? I looked at two games and the routing to them to understand how things changed.

Ping times for PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

These are the ping time I personally experienced. All ping times are averages.

On Comcast:

  • US: 27ms average, 3.5ms deviation
  • EUW: 103ms average, 4ms deviation
  • EUNE: 111ms average, 4.7ms deviation

On Frontier:

  • US: 18ms average, .6ms deviation
  • EUW: 112ms average, .5ms deviation
  • EUNE: 120ms average, .5ms deviation

The difference in ping times has to do, in part, with routing. For me, the traffic to Europe is routed on a shorter physical path via Comcast. Yet, the traffic to the US west coast is routed more quickly with Frontier through similar paths as Comcast (both through Level 3). It appears that Fronter is routing the traffic faster through their network.

The deviation between pings was much smaller with Frontier than Comcast. This occurred in all measured cases for all tests.

Rust

For Rust I looked at ping times to a select set of servers.

Server Comcast Frontier
Rusty Moose (Main) 14ms 21ms
Rustified.com - Medium II 14ms 26ms
Rustified.com - Barren 16ms 24ms
Rustified.com - Medium 17ms 27ms
Rustified.com - Small 18ms 21ms
Rustopia (US) 23ms 32ms
Viking Republic Vanilla 16ms 19ms
Rustified.com - Odd 17ms 22ms

It's worth noting, this was just a select group I choose. There were other servers that had lower ping times on Frontier than Comcast. The idea here is that they are fairly similar and all under 50ms.

In practice, the difference has not made a difference.

Saturating Bandwidth

One thing I've found difficult with both Comcast and Frontier is to have a single connection saturate the bandwidth. Even when I've tried. That is, if I get 100 Mb/s from Comcast being able to use that on a single connection.

The exception to saturation appears to be speed tests. It would not surprise me if there was special logic in the routing to saturate connections for those.

There are a few reasons this might be happening:

  1. There is something called TCP slow-start. You don't start downloading something at full throttle. Instead, you start small and scale up. Many files aren't large enough to cause the scaling up to really use a connection. Exceptions to this are things like downloading full movies (streaming works a little differently) or large application (like video games).
  2. While the connection to my home may provide ~100 Mb/s down there could be other points in the network for my provider that limit this. For example, where they link to backbone providers like Level 3. An internet provider may not provide enough bandwidth at an uplink.
  3. The servers and network delivering the download may not provide enough of an upload to saturate a connection.

While I've not attempted to trace why I can't saturate a connection I've noticed the download rates are the same for both. For example, downloading Rust on Comcast and Frontier are at the same rates.

But, what about upload rates? Same thing.

Conclusion

In my case, the option to choose is the one with the best overall price point. I don't have the luxury of low cost gigabit speeds, yet. At the speed I can get, Frontier DSL can compete with Comcast Cable. It's nice to have competition. With competition I can really negotiate on price.

Now, if only I could get gigabit speed competition.

Note, please read the fine print for what ever provider you go with. And, details on their plans may change or be different for different people in different places. What's recorded here is just my experience in a specific location at a particular point in time. Your experience will likely be different.