So you’ve just moved into a new neighborhood and, depending on where you are, you have an important choice to make.
You don’t want 56K dial-up because it’s far too slow for the modern web. Satellite internet is currently too expensive and problematic, mainly suffering from high latency and limited practical usage. You could get by okay with DSL but there are faster options out there.
In the end, your best bets are cable and fiber, but which one is better?
How Cable Internet Works
Cable internet uses the same technology as cable television: data travels through a coaxial cable, often called “coax” for short. The contents are a copper core surrounded by a dielectric insulator, a woven copper shield, and an outer plastic layer.
Cable internet requires a cable modem at your home or office and a cable modem termination system at your operator’s location. The latter is what connects your modem to the internet.
A coax cable is more than capable of supplying an internet connection and television access at the same time, with plenty of bandwidth to spare. This is why the two services are often bundled together.
How Fiber Internet Works
A fiber optic cable contains glass or plastic fibers that transmit light instead of electricity. Your data, be it a phone call or a podcast, is contained within this light.
This process works because of total internal reflection. Anytime light hits a material, it may be absorbed, reflected, or refracted. If light gets absorbed trying to escape the cable, there’s no connection at the other end, and if it refracts through the cable, the data doesn’t make it to the other end. To work, light needs to continuously reflect from one end to the other.
For this reason, fibers consist of two layers: core and cladding. The inside and outside layers are both made of glass, such as silicon dioxide, but the exterior cladding may have other materials mixed in to achieve a lower index of refraction than the core. If the cladding had a higher index, the light would escape the cable during transmission.
But Which Is Faster?
Fiber is faster, plain and simple. Google Fiber, for example, promises speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s. By comparison, Comcast’s cable plans max out at around 200 Mbit/s. In terms of potential, fiber is the clear winner.
But that doesn’t mean that if you sign up for fiber internet, it’s going to be faster for you.
Internet connection speed depends on a number of factors. If there are many people in your neighborhood accessing the internet at the same time, your videos may buffer more often. This is especially true with cable, but fiber isn’t immune either.
Then there’s the negative effect of competition. Verizon FiOS can theoretically offer faster speeds than Comcast Xfinity — since the former uses fiber optical cables and the latter uses coax — but Verizon’s plans are usually provided at a similar speed for a similar price.
As such, when deciding between fiber or cable, you may find yourself asking a different question.
Okay, Which Is Better?
Fiber has many benefits over cable other than speed.
Since fiber optic cables send data faster, they’re better suited for long distance communication, which is why they power much of the internet. They’re also less likely to go out during a power outage as there’s no electricity involved. Since they’re made of glass or plastic, they’re less susceptible to interference from power lines, electrical equipment, or lightning.
Cable internet has the advantage of availability. It’s typically offered wherever cable television exists, which means most non-rural areas have access to it. On the other hand, fiber is often limited to certain cities — and even within a city, it’s possible for only certain areas to have access to it.
As for cost, there’s a trade-off. Cable internet relies on a company’s existing infrastructure (because cable TV has been around for decades) while fiber often requires laying down new cables in an area. On the other hand, fiber is cheaper to maintain over time. As for what consumers pay, plans are pretty comparable regardless of which one you choose.
In my area, the options come down to Comcast or Verizon, and in my case, I prefer Comcast because I get to use my own modem and router. Using your own router with Verizon FiOS or Google Fiber is possible, but it’s not easy.
What About the Future?
Between cable and fiber, fiber is the future. We all know about Google Fiber, but more companies are getting into the game. AT&T Fiber is now making its way to cities all throughout the U.S. Comcast’s own fastest plans utilize fiber. Smaller players like Ting have also gotten into the game.
That doesn’t mean that fiber is the future of residential internet access — not if people like Elon Musk have anything to say about it. Satellite internet is currently plagued with high latency, but the potential is there for it to provide speedy access to people all over the planet. This approach would give people in rural areas access to reliable broadband, and urban residents would have an alternative to cable and fiber when companies have monopolies in their areas.
And that’s still not all. For example, Google is experimenting with the idea of balloon-powered internet access while Facebook is working on a solution using drones and lasers.
We also shouldn’t overlook the rapid advancement of LTE and cellular internet. More and more people are increasingly using smartphones as their primary computers. Portable hotspots already deliver speeds that rival or beat what customers can get from traditional internet plans. As companies continue to build out their networks and improve their technology, we can expect this to become a more enticing option. But for the time being, small data allotments limit cellular networks from connecting all of the devices in your home.
Which Is Right for You?
Cable delivers great speeds and will likely be around for many years to come. It’s not technologically the best option, but it’s more than enough for getting the job done. Still, fiber is fast becoming an affordable option for millions of people. Between the two, the future is in favor of fiber.
For more info on this, have a look at our comparison of all internet access technologies.
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