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Copper vs. Fiber cable: What is the Real Difference?

Many people have trouble assessing the best network choice for them, confused by conflicting information they have heard over a grapevine. Well, we will steer away from the noise of misconceptions and focus on hard evidence: Copper has the widespread presence working for it, as well as lower costs of connecting network devices. Fiber is more expensive, but it blows copper out of the water when it comes to bandwidth and reliability.

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Comparing notes

Telephone technology is over a century old, but today, the analog voice signal is digitized and sent off on a fiber optic cable, which constitutes most phone systems. This choice is not surprising when you take into account that fiber links offer 1,000 times more bandwidth and over distances 100 times further. Namely, copper has a distance of 2.5 km, 1.5 Mb/s bandwidth, and 24 voice channels. On the other hand, fiber is able to cover 200 km, support 2.5+ Gb/s, and has 32,000 + voice channels.

That capacity comes at a price, but it is worth it. So, what is the controversy here, why do people compare the two at all? The debate gravitates around LAN or premises cabling. LAN has grown in capacity dramatically, from the 10 Mb/s Ethernet to the 10 Gb/s Gigabit Ethernet. Copper cabling manufacturers have managed to expand the capacity of UTP cabling, but the problem is when the installation is faulty and you cannot get the maximum performance out of it.

The weight of choice

When it comes to fiber, it is fairly easy to pull the cable, and it is resistant to kinking and damage. Still, many people do not realize that it is not always easy to install. For example, terminating the fiber optic cable is more complicated than copper. It is clear that users want the high-quality structured data cabling for both copper and fiber, which raises concerns here. Fiber bandwidth is certainly appealing, but it is not infinite, at least that is not the case with multimode solutions used in the majority of premises networks.

On the contrary, single-mode fiber of CATV networks and Telco has an infinite bandwidth. Alas, it harnesses the power of higher cost components that could be an overkill for shorter links. It is the price of electronics that makes a difference: A 10/100 Ethernet card for Cat is priced $10-100, while a 10/100 fiber card can be acquired for $100-200. The price tag of optics is easier to swallow when you take into account that copper hubs have some additional costs like data quality grounds and HVAC.

In the end, the fact remains that the vast majority of desktops (estimates go as high as 99%) use copper connectivity. It seems that providers and users are more comfortable with the familiar option than fiber, and are also driven by the possibility of money savings. Beyond that, the companies most often opt for fiber-made backbones. For them, the reliability and bandwidth of fiber are guiding principles that are worth the extra cost in the long run.

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Cherry picking

So, the great debate has come to a conclusion, not a stalemate. A typical user will be fine with a Cat 5e, but business and power users will find this to be insufficient for their needs. They want to make the most of the current bandwidth and want to prepare for future 10 GBE applications. Both approaches make sense in their own right. Just bear in mind that the Fast Ethernet is slowly evolving into a Gigabit Ethernet, and that both cable solutions demand proper installation.

Dan Radak is a marketing professional with ten years of experience. He is currently working with a number of companies in the field of digital marketing, closely collaborating with a couple of e-commerce companies. He is also a coauthor on several technology websites and regular contributor to Technivorz.

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