If you're a Gen X'er, as am I, the term fiber optic internet probably calls to mind the 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% fiber-based phone 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 providers and consumers alike. Interested in getting on the fiber bandwagon? 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?
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.
You can download 25 songs in one second. Yes, one. HD movies can be beamed into your computer in under a minute.
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.
Pros of fiber optic internet:
- It's up to 50x faster than the average high-speed internet connection.
- It's symmetrical - download and upload speeds are equivalent.
- Fiber optic cable is low-maintenance.
- It's more cost-effective than other high-speed internet 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.
Cons of fiber optic internet:
- The initial install is more expensive for fiber optic internet 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 on fiber optic cable: 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 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 - something other types of broadband internet providers cannot claim.
That kind of speed makes high-demand tasks seems like child's play. You can download 25 songs in one second. Yes, one. HD movies can be beamed into your computer in under a minute. Online interactive gaming is made fluid, and cloud-based storage no longer requires long wait times for large files to upload.
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.
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.
Factors that affect fiber internet 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 internet connection.
When you're ready to have fiber optic internet service installed, make sure you read and follow the provider's preinstall instructions as completely as possible.
Notable fact on fiber optic internet speed: Just as with internet service through a phone line, your fiber optic service is your own - it's not a shared connection. This means that your speed will not be affected by the number of people online in your neighborhood during peak hours.
Fiber Optic Internet Vs Cable
Each type of 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 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 Verizon fiber optic internet (Fios) you're still getting more combined power.
When you compare internet providers in terms of security, fiber also comes out on top over cable. Hacking into a 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. Further, it's very easy to detect an interruption in a transfer which would be caused by such an attempt.
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 outages.
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 damage occur.
Notable fact on fiber optic internet vs cable: fiber optic cable can withstand up to 200 pounds of pulling pressure, whereas standard cable can only withstand about 25 pounds.
Where Is Fiber Optic Internet Available?
Fiber is 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 fiber 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.
Cities with Fiber Optic Internet
As I stated above, a small group of the best internet providers 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 many 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 companies leasing infrastructure and reselling the service in the same areas.
Notable fact on fiber optic internet availability: 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.
Fiber Optic Internet Recap
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.