If you're a Gen X'er, as am I, the term fiber optic probably calls to mind those groovy lamps of the '80s - the ones with all the deliciously fragile, lit up fibers protruding all over the place. You couldn't help it - you just had to touch them. Times have changed, but the technology now bringing us an incredibly fast online experience isn't all that far removed from those fascinating lamps.
You might also be surprised to learn that this technology actually began long before any of us were even alive. The history of fiber optics hearkens back to the mid-1800s when scientists first experimented with using water to transmit and bend light.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the first 100 percent fiber-based phone service networks were instituted. Medical uses for fiber also experienced great strides during that time period, in equipment such as the endoscope.
Fast forward again to present day, and this mind-boggling technology is quickly becoming the preferred delivery method of high-speed internet service providers and consumers alike. Interested in getting on the fiber bandwagon? Want to know the answer to "What is fiber optic internet?" In this guide, I'll provide you with the basics of fiber optic internet, how it works, and where you can get it.
What is Fiber Optic Internet? - In This Guide
What Is Fiber Optic Internet?
TechTerms defines fiber optic cable as:
"...a high-speed data transmission medium. It contains tiny glass or plastic filaments that carry light beams. Digital data is transmitted through the cable via rapid pulses of light. The receiving end of a fiber optic transmission translates the light pulses into binary values, which can be read by a computer."
This is a highly technical way of saying that tiny glass or plastic threads bundled into a protective cable can carry internet long distances by way of light pulses. Fiber optic internet is, quite literally, information traveling at the speed of light.
The fibers which facilitate this technology are roughly the diameter of a human hair (or smaller, depending upon the type of fiber). Each fiber has a core (the glass or plastic part), a cladding, and a coating.
When multiple fibers are bundled into a grouping to increase their data capacity, the coating is removed, and the entire bundle is surrounded by a protective jacket. Often, Kevlar fibers are used to add strength to the cable.
How Fiber Optic Internet Works
Information travels much more quickly along material with no obstacles. Optical fibers are clear, removing the barriers which can prevent data from moving at lightspeed. The cladding layer which surrounds the fiber core is there to keep the light signal from escaping. The data simply bounces off of this reflective layer back into the core where it can continue its journey to your computer.
- Its ultra-fast internet connectivity is up to 50x faster than the average high-speed internet connection (you'll receive emails from your email address in seconds).
- It's symmetrical - meaning download speeds and upload speeds are the same (you'll be able to send emails from your email address in the same amount of time you'll receive emails).
- Fiber optic cable is low-maintenance.
- It's more cost-effective than other high-speed internet connectivity types in the long term.
- Fiber loses only 5 - 10% of its signal strength over distance, as opposed to DSL which can lose up to 90%.
- It's thin and lightweight compared to copper cable.
- Optical fibers conduct light rather than electricity, reducing the risk of overheating.
- The initial install is more expensive for fiber optic internet service providers than other types. Costs to connect a home to the network fall anywhere between several hundred and $4000, according to TechCrunch.
- It's not widely available yet. According to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), fiber optic internet represented 9% of the market at the end of 2014, however, those numbers are changing rapidly as internet providers continue their rollouts.
- Fiber optic internet cable is susceptible to construction and wildlife damage.
Despite its (minimal) drawbacks, fiber optic internet providers continue to march forward in their efforts to increase coverage nationwide. This is especially good news for schools and businesses, which need the phenomenal bandwidth and speed capacity afforded by this technology.
Fiber is especially crucial to schools in order to meet the FCC's guidelines of 100Mbps per 1000 users.
Notable fact: In June of 2016, Google and its partners switched on their brand new, two-years-in-the-making undersea fiber optic cable running between the U.S. and Japan. The impressive stretch of cable was installed underneath the ocean's floor over a distance of more than 5500 miles.
How Fast Is Fiber Optic Internet?
While it is more expensive to install than cable internet or DSL internet, fiber truly shines when it comes to speed. It's called gigabit fiber internet for a reason - fiber can deliver up to 1000Mbps. The real kicker is that because it's symmetrical, that means you're getting the same upload speeds as download speeds.
That kind of speed makes high-demand tasks seem like child's play.
How fast is it in reality?
Fiber optic providers vary in their internet plans and prices, so if fiber is available in your area you may have a choice between speeds and rates. Plans generally fall into four categories - 100-150Mbps, 300Mbps, 500Mbps, and 1000Mbps. In other words, so much faster compared to dial-up internet. In fact, dial-up internet reaches speeds of up to 56kbps.
While other types of connections tend to deliver speeds below their advertised maximum, fiber differs in that it typically delivers the advertised speed. According to data from the FCC, fiber optic internet delivers about 115% of its advertised speeds.
For now, fiber optic internet is considered the fastest internet in America. While it is currently considered the fastest internet type available, there are other contenders showing up, like wireless broadband. Wireless broadband, as we will delve a little bit further into later, is another whole beast.
Read More: We offer comprehensive information on various internet plans and prices if you're on the hunt for a new internet plan.
Factors that affect Fiber Speed
There are a number of things which can affect your actual fiber optic internet speed, just as with any other connection. Because there are multiple other components involved in the end-to-end process, fiber optic cable still has to play nicely with everything else in order to achieve an optimized experience.
- In-home wiring - keep in mind that the connections between the fiber network box and your devices can have an effect on your internet delivery. CAT5e is capable of maintaining gigabit speeds as long as it's under 50m in length.
- Your NIC (network interface card) - this is the piece of computer hardware which interfaces with your internet connection. Be sure that it's gigabit-capable.
- Your television service - if you have fiber service for your pay TV channels, such as through Google TV, the video takes priority over data. This can affect the true speed of your fiber optic connection.
When you're ready to have fiber optic service installed, make sure you read and follow the provider's preinstall instructions as completely as possible.
Related: How to Speed Up Slow Internet
Notable fact on fiber optic internet speed: Just as with internet service through a phone service line, your fiber optic service is your own - it's not a shared connection. This means that your high-speed internet access will not be affected by the number of people online in your neighborhood during peak hours.
Fiber Optic Vs Cable
Each type of fiber optic connection offers benefits and drawbacks, however, as fiber optic internet providers increase access across the nation the balance seems to be tipping in its favor. Here I'll analyze a few of the main considerations involved when choosing between coaxial cable vs fiber.
Fiber optic cable is not vulnerable to electromagnetic interference, or changes in weather.
Fiber optic internet speed is impossible to beat in the current marketplace. Even when you consider that cable can technically offer up to 100Mbps downstream, the upstream rate is still under 10Mbps. Fiber gives you equal speed both ways. This means even if you subscribe to the lowest plan available, such as the 50Mbps offering from
Fiber gives you equal speed both ways. This means even if you subscribe to the lowest plan available, such as the 50Mbps offering from Verizon fiber optic internet (FiOS) you're still getting more combined power.
Related: What is a Good Download Speed?
When you compare internet providers in terms of security, the fiber network also comes out on top over cable. Hacking into a coaxial cable internet connection is fairly easy if one is particularly knowledgeable and determined.
It's nearly impossible to do the same on a fiber optic cable, however, due to the fact that data is transmitted via light rather than electrical impulses. Furthermore, it's very easy to detect an interruption in a transfer which would be caused by such an attempt.
Related: How to Secure Your WiFi
Pricing is where the question of fiber optic internet vs cable gets a little more fuzzy, at least for now. Fiber is certainly more expensive as far as monthly rates. High-speed cable internet can be had for between $20 and $60 per month, sometimes a little more depending upon the selection of cable and internet bundles you choose from. Fiber will set you back between $50 and $270 per month, although the price gap is expected to close over time due to expanded availability and competition.
One thing to keep in mind regarding the cost of fiber internet is that the majority of plans come with unlimited data. Cable internet providers put a data cap on many of their plans, charging as much as $10 per 50GB if you go over. Why is this significant? Because as activities like online gaming, streaming media (like 4k video), and other data-sucking tasks continue to demand more bandwidth, overages could end up costing you a small fortune with cable.
Both cable and fiber offer a respectably high level of reliability, however, there are a couple of areas in which fiber edges cable out. Fiber optic cable is not vulnerable to electromagnetic interference, or changes in weather. This means that a lightning strike is less likely to damage your computer if you have fiber optic internet service. This technology is also less susceptible to power outages. However, if a power outage hits your entire home, you're not going to receive power anyway for your internet connection.
On the other hand, radiation can damage fiber, causing it to turn opaque, which interrupts the signal being passed through it. It's also more difficult to repair than cable should a breakage or other damages occur.
What About Point-to-Point Wireless Internet?
Point-to-point wireless internet is becoming more popular, becoming an adversary to fiber optic service providers. The point-to-point wireless internet is fast and considerably high quality, even in comparison to fiber optic. Advantages of this wireless technology are lower latency, high reliability, high speeds, lower installation time, and lower cost (when constructed).
In other words, fiber optic needs to improve faster if it wants to continue to contend with this wireless technology.
Where Is Fiber Optic Available?
Megabit and gigabit fiber internet are gaining traction as select major high-speed internet providers enact rollouts across the country. At this time, availability is mainly concentrated in large metropolitan areas like New York, Washington D.C., areas of Florida and California, and some regions throughout the Midwest. According to the FCC, about 25% of users have access to fiber optic internet service.
While this form of broadband internet is not available in many rural areas as of yet, providers like AT&T fiber optic internet are taking advantage of the Connect America Fund to help make that happen. The CAF is a government initiative aimed at providing companies with additional funds to provide high-speed internet access to rural and underserved populations.
Over time this should help expand options for those who may only have access to dial-up, DSL, or satellite internet. After all, the highest speed you can get with - let's say, satellite internet - is 25Mbps.
Cities with Fiber Optic Internet
As I stated above, a small group of ultra-fast internet providers, like Verizon FiOS, Google Fiber, and AT&T Fiber, are focusing their efforts on large urban areas, for the time being, gradually expanding outward from each area into suburban towns. Some of the cities currently wired for the service include:
- New York, NY
- New Jersey
- Baltimore, MD
- Philadelphia, PA
- Washington D.C.
- Pittsburgh, PA
- Harrisburg, PA
- Richmond/Petersburg, VA
- Norfolk/Newport News, VA
- Boston, MA
- Providence, RI
- Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, and Montgomery, AL
- Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock
- Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose, CA
- Pensacola and West Palm Beach, FL
- Augusta, GA
- Indianapolis, IN
- Wichita, KS
- Louisville, KY
- Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Jefferson Parish, and Northshore, LA
- Jackson, MS
- St. Louis, MO
- Detroit, MI
- Reno, NV
- Asheville, NC
- Cleveland and Columbus, OH
- Oklahoma City and Tulsa, OK
- Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville, SC
- Memphis, TN
- El Paso and Lubbock, TX
- Milwaukee, WI
The above is not an exhaustive list. AT&T is rolling out new cities on a regular basis, and there are much smaller surrounding towns which also have access. You can check their coverage map here.
- Atlanta, GA
- Austin, TX
- Charlotte, NC
- Kansas City, MO
- Kansas City, KS
- Nashville, TN
- Provo, UT
- Salt Lake City, UT
- The Triangle, NC (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill and surrounding areas)
There are also many smaller broadband internet companies leasing infrastructure and reselling the service in the same areas. Take, for example, North State Communications. North State, which is based in North Carolina, offers fiber optic technology, specifically megabit and gigabit internet.
Gigabit internet features speeds of up to 1Gbps, but there are faster speeds available depending on the provider, such as 10Gbps.
Notable fact: Google has requested FCC authorization to test a powerful wireless service utilizing existing fiber infrastructure. If successful, this undertaking could lead to high-speed internet availability in locations with no previous access to these services.
Since we've been hearing about fiber optic internet for several years now, the rollouts seem painfully slow. However, the good news is that it is moving along, and it is affordable. If you're interested in finding out if fiber is available in your area, use our zip code checker tool to quickly and easily check for local service.
To see which providers offer fiber, and to compare their packages, check out our buyer's guide to Internet providers.