Whether you’re a small business or have offices and clients across the globe, having a fast, reliable Internet connection is pivotal to your business. If you don’t have knowledgeable IT staff on hand to help you understand the options available, you run the risk of experiencing IT headaches down the road, not to mention wasted resources.
There are multiple factors that impact both reliability and speed, including the type of Ethernet cable, whether you’re running cable short distances or long (e.g., down the street to your ISP), and the type of connection itself. Here’s a quick primer on the differences between fiber optics and copper cabling.
Light vs Electrical Waves
Fiber optic cable is made up of strands of incredibly thin optically pure glass that carry digital information with light. Very little signal loss occurs during transmission, and data can move at higher speeds and greater distances. The result is an extremely fast Internet connection. Copper, on the other hand, uses copper wire to transmit electrical currents and is subject to environmental factors that are more likely to degrade transmission quality.
While you may be able to get good speed within your building with copper (which is when higher quality Category-5/Category-6 cables are used), as soon as you go outside to another building or up the road to your ISP, things change. Outside of buildings the big telecom companies tend to use copper wiring that is decades old and not set up in pairs and twisted together like Cat-5 and Cat-6 cables.
Speed, Bandwidth & Distance
Copper used to have a reputation for being much slower than fiber optic cable, though that has started to change. Once limited to 10 megabits per second (Mbps), copper Ethernet now offers speeds of up to 100 Mbps, and Gigabit Ethernet can provide speeds of up to 1000 Mbps. Optical fiber still typically transmits data faster than copper Ethernet cable and has the potential to be incredibly fast. Data transfer rates of 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) over fiber are now the norm, with 40 or 100 Gbps quite common.
Bandwidth is a measurement of available or consumed data resources expressed in bits per second; it’s also referred to as channel capacity or maximum throughput. Fiber provides far greater bandwidth than copper and has standardized performance up to 10 Gbps. For example, a Cat-6 cable can relay 600 megahertz (MHz) over 100 meters, but a multi-mode optical fiber cable can relay 1000 MHz over the same distance.
When you get into long-haul fiber systems, for example between cities, there are other methods for increasing capacity, leading to the terabits per second (Tpbs) ranges you sometimes hear about.
Because they work through electrical signals, copper cables are vulnerable to electromagnetic interference, for example, from lightning, nearby utility or power lines, or radio signals. Fiber is immune to many of the environmental factors that affect copper cable, resulting in extremely reliable data transmission. The core is made of glass, which is an insulator, so no electric current can flow through. Fiber is also less susceptible to temperature fluctuations than copper and can be submerged in water.
In addition, certain copper cable systems longer than a couple of kilometers require signal repeaters for satisfactory performance. Because copper is distance-sensitive, the further you are away from the source of transmission, the slower it may become. In contrast, it is not unusual for optical systems to go over 100 kilometers (62 mi) with no active or passive processing. Because fiber signals need less boosting than copper ones do, the cable performs better.
Cost & Availability
The costs associated with copper or fiber optics can be looked at from several vantage points. Depending on where you’re located, fiber might not even be available to you. The largest telecom providers won’t invest in fiber installation unless they think a community is large enough to support their investment. (That’s why Digital West has taken it upon ourselves to get San Luis Obispo and nearby communities connected by laying our own fiber.)
The one-time set up costs associated with connecting fiber directly into your building may be substantial, but in the long run the investment will more than pay for itself in terms of reliability, speed and availability (i.e., percentage of uptime compared to copper). Long-term maintenance costs for fiber are extremely low due to its resistance to corrosion and deterioration due to environmental elements.
So when it comes to copper vs fiber, we’d sum up the pros and cons like this: optical fiber is generally chosen for systems requiring higher bandwidth or spanning longer distances than copper can accommodate.