There are two primary mediums for data transmission when considering wired connections: fiber optics vs. cable environment.
The old cabling environments relied on copper wires for data transmission, while the more recent long-distance communication relies on fiber-optic cables with solid plastic or glass cores.
Each type has its strengths and weaknesses, and we will compare them to see which technology wins when considering several factors. Take a look!
Table of Contents
- What Is Optical Fiber Cabling?
- What Is Copper Data Cable?
- Where Optical Fiber Wins Over Cable
- Where Copper Cable Wins Over Fiber Optic Cables
What Is Optical Fiber Cabling?
Fiber cables resemble electrical cables but contain one or several optical fibers for transmitting data as light pulses.
Each optical fiber is a solid glass or plastic strand covered in a cladding layer to create a refractive index difference that provides total internal reflection.
Above the cladding layer is an outer jacket that protects the two inner layers from damage.
A fiber optic cable with multiple strands
What Is Copper Data Cable?
Regular data cables transmit data as electrical pulses in metal wires, usually copper. The typical copper network cables are twisted-pair, copper telephone wires, and coaxial cables.
A coaxial cable
Where Optical Fiber Wins Over Cable
Fiber networks have the following advantages over their copper broadband wire counterparts.
Comparing the transmission speed of optic fiber and copper is similar to contrasting the speed of photons and electrons.
Photons travel at the speed of light, while electrons travel at about 2,200 km/s, which is less than 1% of the speed of light.
A network server with multiple fiber optic cables connected
Fiber cables don’t attain the speed of light in data transmission but reach about 31%. So they are still faster than copper by a wide margin.
High Bandwidth Capacity
In addition to fast speeds, fiber cables can handle large amounts of data each second. Their standardized performance is about 10Gbps minimum but can achieve terabits per second speeds.
On the other hand, copper cables usually max out at 10Gbps, with the average performance being about 300Mbps.
A shielded twisted pair of copper cable
Light pulses in optical fiber cables can travel over 100 times further than electrical signals in copper cables. The limit for unshielded twisted-pair copper cables is about 100 meters without a booster.
These cables can run for a longer distance, but there will be higher chances of signal losses or interference.
Fiber experiences less attenuation, allowing for a transmission distance of up to 100 km (single-mode fiber) before going through a regeneration point.
A single-mode fiber optic cable
The typical bandwidth-distance product when handling multi-mode fiber is 500 MHz/km, meaning you can send 1GHz across a 500-meter cable. And the signal loss will be negligible.
On the other hand, cat-6 twisted-pair copper cables can only handle 500 MHz every 100 meters. Plus, signal losses are higher in copper cables when transmitting at high frequencies.
A twisted-pair cable
So while fiber can transmit at speeds of 10Gbps at a distance of over 12 miles, copper can only handle 1Gbps at a distance of 300 feet.
Tiny, Lightweight Cable
Fiber cables are thinner, lighter, and more durable than copper, yet they can carry more data at higher speeds.
Fiber optic, twisted pair, and coaxial cables. Note the size difference between the strands
Therefore, building a structured cabling environment using fiber takes up less space than copper-based networking environments. Also, the cable weighs about four pounds per 1000 feet, while copper can go up to 39 pounds.
Fiber is more flexible than copper, as well. So it is easier to manage when setting up a structured cabling environment.
Also, you can submerge the wire in water and expect minimal interference, which explains why we have several undersea fiber cables to connect the continents with high-speed internet.
An undersea fiber optic internet cable
But all the above factors affect copper wires, making data transmission unreliable unless you take multiple precautions.
Copper cables transmit low electrical pulses that radiate outwards. Hackers can tap these signals, causing the entire system to fail.
Also, a copper wire carrying current can short and cause a fire in the worst-case scenario if the system lacks efficient monitoring techniques.
But it is impossible to tap light pulses. And any breakage along the line is easy to spot using several techniques, such as pilot-signal or power transmission monitoring.
Fiber optic cabling is safer because it is a passive media with zero circuit protection concerns and line power requirements.
Data consumption increases exponentially daily, and modern fiber optic infrastructure can handle these increases in the future due to their high-speed, high-bandwidth transmission capacity.
So a solid optical fiber internet backbone will last for decades without requiring a replacement. Plus, these cables have a life cycle of 30-50 years.
Technicians installing optical fiber cables.
But any technician in his (or her) right mind cannot try implementing an internet backbone using copper. The technology is already outdated and has a relatively short lifespan of about five years. So it will need upgrades and replacements more frequently.
Fiber is the most energy-efficient type of broadband technology because it consumes about 2W per user, while copper exceeds 10W per user.
A European Commission study found that a 50Mbps fiber link generates 1.7 tons of carbon per year, while a similar link using copper produces 2.7 tons.
Multiplying this ratio by the bandwidth we consume shows a significant difference in carbon emissions when comparing the two technologies.
A fiber optic cable plug
Where Copper Cable Wins Over Fiber Optic Cables
Copper cables only win in one category: cost. Fiber cables, components, and hardware are more expensive than their copper counterparts.
However, this difference is narrowing daily as optical fiber technology advances and more customers adopt it.
The benefits of fiber far outweigh the single advantage offered by copper, and fiber might even be cheaper than copper in the future.
So it is clear that fiber wins. But it doesn’t mean we will do away with copper cables completely.
For instance, twisted pair cables are still ideal for connecting end devices like TVs or consoles to routers. But we would like to hear what you think.
Leave a comment below to make your contribution, and let’s keep the discussion going. Have a good one!