While fiber optic cable has been around for a while, it is only in recent years that new innovations have made the technology economically viable. Fiber has not quite hit the same low pricing as ethernet but is well within the realm of being cost-effective. With the issue of cost set aside, the real question becomes: “Why choose fiber over Ethernet?” These two cables may both be used for data transmission, but they have a few differences along with their similarities.

What are Ethernet Cables?

Ethernet is a tried-and-tested form of cabling, having been in use commercially since the 1980s. These cables are made with copper and use electrical signals to transmit data. Electrical pulses are sent through the cable with each pulse (or lack of a pulse) representing a 1 or 0. This happens very quickly with thousands of signals per second, allowing those 1’s and 0’s to be translated into computer code.

There are a few different types of Ethernet out there. Data speeds can change greatly depending on what type of cable is used plus other factors. While Ethernet signals transmit very fast, they are not quite as fast as fiber optic signals. Using electrical signals also has a major potential drawback: interference. Equipment that gives off electromagnetic interference (EMI) or radio frequency interference (RFI) can disrupt Ethernet signals. This can cause problems in buildings with heavy machinery, such as factories or data centers, or even in homes if you live near someplace like a power substation or a radio tower.

What are Fiber Optic Cables?

While fiber optic cables have technically been around since the late 1960s, it is only in recent years that they have started to see widespread use. Each fiber cable is filled with shards of glass that act like tiny mirrors. One or more lasers are bounced off these mirrors down the length of the cable. These lasers flicker on and off to represent 1’s (laser on) and 0’s (laser off) for data transmission.

Because light moves faster than electricity, fiber optic cables can send signals much faster than Ethernet. There are different types of fibers with some being faster than others. Additionally, fiber can be made with multiple strands. More strands allow more lasers to be used, which results in faster signal speeds. Notably, light signals do not suffer from any kind of interference problems the way electrical signals do.

Fiber Optic & Ethernet Compare/Contrast

Speed is the first and most obvious difference between fiber optics and Ethernet. Fiber is clearly faster, being able to sustain data speeds more than 100x faster than Ethernet under ideal conditions. That being said, it becomes a question of whether an environment needs data speeds that fast. Do you need data speeds measured in hundreds of terabits per second to stream Netflix? No, you do not. But would you need those speeds to transmit high data volumes in an environment like a data center or financial institution? Likely so.

There are a number of additional reasons beyond speed to use fiber optics over Ethernet. Fiber optic cable has a greater maximum distance, measuring in miles instead of a few hundred feet. Fiber suffers less attenuation (signal loss) than Ethernet, giving it a maximum distance of anywhere from 984 feet (300 meters) for a single cable to over 24 miles depending on the type of fiber and supporting equipment being used. By comparison, Ethernet can go from 328 feet (100 meters) with a single cable to 1.76 miles with supporting equipment.

Since fiber cable uses light (lasers) for signal transmission, it is not vulnerable to EMI or RFI interference. It does not produce any sort of electrical interference the way Ethernet does either. The lack of an electrical current also eliminates the threat of a fire hazard. Lasers used for fiber optic cables are low-powered and controlled, incapable of starting a fire. The electricity going through Ethernet is more than powerful enough to create a fire hazard if a cable is old, mismanaged, or otherwise damaged.

Despite all the benefits of fiber, Ethernet does still have its merits. Primarily, the cost of the cables. While fiber is relatively inexpensive compared to what it once was, Ethernet is even less costly. Ethernet also has the advantage of being more widespread. Commercial-use fiber is still new and gradually being implemented by telecom companies and other major industries. Most electronics, such as computers, are also built for Ethernet connections rather than fiber optics. Media converters can translate signals between the two but going fully fiber with no Ethernet is next to impossible with the technology on the market today.

Is Fiber Better Than Ethernet?

In terms of performance, the simple answer is yes. But in real-world settings the answer is more likely to be “maybe”. When looking purely at the specs, fiber comes out on top in almost every way. Whether or not to go with Ethernet instead will depend on two key factors: budget and project needs. At the moment, fiber optic cables are a little ahead of their time. For buildings like smaller businesses and homes, fiber can be considered overkill.

However, fiber will eventually become the industry standard. It will likely be a while before Ethernet is phased out, but it will happen eventually. Data usage has increased exponentially within the last few years and those numbers will continue to rise as technology keeps improving. One day, Ethernet is going to hit a wall while fiber will have the capability to keep advancing. Implementing a fiber optic system today can remove the need for a complete network overhaul in the future.

But regardless of whether you choose Ethernet or fiber, ShowMeCables has the cables you need to complete your network today. Our stock includes both patch cables and boxes of bulk cabling for projects of any size. With every sort of connector and tool you can imagine, ShowMeCables is ready to assist you today. Any cable we do not keep as a stock item can even be custom-made.

Have questions about Ethernet, fiber optics, or any of our other products? You can reach our Sales team at 1-888-519-9505 or Sales@ShowMeCables.com