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Over the past several years, fiber-optics have been the talk of the town. Maybe you’ve seen people in other cities talking about their new fiber-optic service. Perhaps a fiber-optics company has even been in your neighborhood installing new lines recently. Naturally, this has led to the formation of a new debate: Cable vs. fiber. Is this new technology the way to go, or is it worth sticking with your cable provider? As it turns out, the answer is not a simple one. Let’s take a look at the key differences between the two in hopes of clearing things up a bit. In the end, we’ll know which is best.

Cable vs. Fiber: Side-By-Side Comparison

CableFiber
First Introduced19481965
Services ProvidedInternet, television, phoneInternet, television, phone
Availability90% of U.S.43% of U.S.
Average Speeds10-200+ Mbps250-1,000+ Mbps
Max. Speeds1,200Mbps10,000Mbps
Average Monthly Cost$20–$110$30–$200
ReliabilityLessMore
SecurityLessMore

Cable vs. Fiber: Key Differences

The above section does a good job establishing the basic specs of cable vs. fiber. Nevertheless, some time deserves to be spent on the key differences that exist between the two internet-television-phone options. Let’s break down these key differences between cable vs. fiber below.

Price Per Month

Comparing the price of cable per month vs. the price of fiber per month can be tricky. One is obviously cheaper than the other, but the other’s price gives you faster speeds at an overall lower cost by comparison. The average cable plan will run you as little as $20 a month for the slowest speeds (about 10 Mbps). The more expensive end of things will run you closer to $100 for around 200Mbps. Fiber’s cheapest tier — which, at 250Mbps, is still faster than cable — is around $30 a month. Its most expensive tier can reach $200 or higher for speeds of 1,000Mbps or more.

fiber optic
Fiber may seem more expensive, but it gives you faster speeds at an overall lower cost by comparison.

©asharkyu/Shutterstock.com

Reliability

Another important consideration is reliability. When the weather gets bad or the power goes out, what can you depend on to maintain your internet, television, and phone service? By and large, the answer is fiber. Cable is beholden to electricity, needing those currents in order to deliver its data from one place to another. Fiber optic, by comparison, does not use electricity to deliver its data. This puts it at a clear and major advantage over its cable competitors. Fiber is the far more reliable option here.

Availability

While fiber might give you more bang for your buck and deliver more reliable service overall, it does have one major disadvantage not yet discussed: availability. More than 90% of American households have access to broadband internet and cable television services. By contrast, only around half that number — about 45% — have access to fiber at this time. While that number is growing more and more by the day, fiber is nonetheless available to fewer households than traditional coax service is. Cable wins this round by a landslide.

Speeds

What fiber lacks in availability it more than makes up for in speed. A vast majority of the coax cable lines installed across the nation top out around 1,200Mbps. Some are capable of speeds as high as 2,000 Mbps, but this kind of speed will come with a hefty sum for cable subscribers. Fiber, by comparison, is inherently faster. Even its lowest available speeds (250Mbps) are much faster than the average top-tier cable plan. Fiber-optic cables are known for their high speeds, after all. Fiber takes the crown here, without question.

Security

This leads directly into a discussion of security. Because cable relies on electric signals to deliver its data, it’s not hard for hackers or criminals to tap into those signals and intercept them for their own nefarious purposes. Fiber-optic, on the other hand, depends on pulses of light to send and receive information. These signals are much harder to co-opt than their electrical counterparts. So, with this in mind, cable proves to be less secure than fiber-optics on the whole. With cyber attacks more prevalent (and more advanced) than ever, you should take this security advantage seriously.

Services Offered

Lastly, there’s the difference in services offered between cable vs. fiber. As you know, internet, television, and phone providers across the nation depend on coaxial cable. It’s been an integral part of these services since the 1950s and earlier, and it’s offered across the country to boot. Fiber-optic offers internet, television, and phone over the internet. This differs from cable, which treats these three services as three distinct offerings from three different sources.

Cable vs. Fiber
Coaxial cable has been an integral part of internet, television, and phone services since before the 1950s.

©By FDominec – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1799992 – License

The History of Cable

Today, we see the word “cable” used in reference to internet, television, and phone services alike. Across the board, this word “cable” is referring to one particular kind of cable: Coaxial cables. Sometimes shortened to simply “coax,” coaxial cables consist of a concentric conducting shield wrapped around an inner conductor with an insulating material — called a dielectric — between the two. They’ve been used to transmit television signals since the late 1940s, phone signals since the late 1950s, and broadband internet since the mid 1990s.

At the start, way back in the late ’40s, coaxial cable was introduced as an easy solution to a complex problem. In remote, hard-to-reach areas of states such as Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas, television providers needed a way to get broadcast signals to places they otherwise could not reliably reach. As a result, TV companies invested in a new idea: Community antennas. These antennas would effectively boost television signals, and then the TV companies would hard wire a signal delivery system into remote customers’ homes. Thus, cable television was born.

The power and potential of coaxial cables spread practically as fast as the signals they carried. By the end of the 1970s, more than 15 million American households had embraced cable in one form or another. The late 1950s saw the implementation of coaxial cable in telephone lines, and the advent of the internet made coaxial cables the first choice in delivery method for the newfangled technology. Today, coaxial cable — or just plain cable, as it is often referred to as — remains the most popular delivery method. More than 90% of the country has access to cable in one form or another.

How Fiber Came to Be

The embrace of coaxial cable for broadband internet services actually marked the true beginning of the cable vs. fiber debate. You see, throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, coax and fiber-optic cables were embraced simultaneously. The two worked together to bring a wider range of cable television channels, more reliable phone lines, faster internet services, and higher-definition digital video setups into the home. It was all part of a $65 billion investment into the technology, and the two were largely viewed as mutually beneficial. The two were better together, it seemed.

Then, something interesting happened. The internet broke Moore’s Law. As it turned out, this so-called law was really a mere observation. (And one that no longer proved reliable, at that.) In its simplest form, this “law” argued that technology doubled in performance capabilities every two years. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was advancing at far faster speeds than this. From rapidly increasing internet use to the growing popularity of video-on-demand services to the rising amount of online traffic, coax just couldn’t cut it forever.

It wasn’t an immediate problem, clearly, as coax cable is still a trusted option for 90% of the country. However, it was nevertheless a pressing problem in need of a solution. It still is, in fact. From streaming to gaming to video conferencing and beyond, the average person’s cable internet is reaching a breaking point. Fiber-optic cables are the solution. Internet, television, and phone providers have put in big money to grow fiber-optic’s availability in recent years. This rapid growth is expected to continue into the 2030s, as fiber-optic has many clear advantages over coax.

Cable vs. Fiber: Pros and Cons

Pros of CableCons of Cable
Readily available in a vast majority of the countryUses more energy to transmit its internet, television, and phone services
Cheaper than competing fiber servicesMore susceptible to outages
Offers speeds of up to 1,200Mbps or moreRuns a greater risk of security breaches
Easy to bundle internet, television, and phoneSlower than fiber at a higher price
Pros of FiberCons of Fiber
Speeds reach 2,000Mbps or moreMore expensive plans than cable
More energy efficient than cableNot nearly as available as cable
Safer than cableCan only send information in one direction
More reliable than cableMore fragile than cable

Cable vs. Fiber: 5 Must-Know Facts

  • Traditionally, fiber is regarded as the faster and more reliable option, but one that comes at a higher cost. Conversely, cable is regarded as the more affordable and more accessible option, but one that comes at overall slower speeds.
  • Fiber-optic cables deliver information about 30% slower than the speed of light. That’s about 56,000 miles per second.
  • Before the integration of coaxial cable into phone lines, every home had its own direct line to the phone company. This resulted in a truly spectacular number of cables stretching around cities and towns. Talk about an eyesore.
  • Fiber-optic cables are made up of thin strands of glass or silica. Each strand is significantly thinner than even a piece of human hair.
  • The first U.S. city to embrace fiber-optic telephone lines was Long Beach, California — all the way back in 1977.

Cable vs. Fiber: Which Is Best?

There’s simply no denying it: Cable falls short in comparison to fiber in nearly every way. Cable is slower, it offers less bang for your buck, it’s less reliable, it’s not nearly as secure, and its max speeds fall short of even the lowest fiber-optic tiers. Fiber-optics are the future for a reason: their speeds are much faster, they’re far more energy efficient, they’re safer and more reliable, and the cost is not much more than cable, especially considering what you’re getting for the price. Cable charges as much as $100 or more for speeds fiber offers at just $30 or so. Fiber wins.

Cable vs. Fiber: Key Differences (Price, Reliability, and More) FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

When will fiber optics be available in my area?

While fiber optics are being embraced at a faster and faster pace, there’s still a long way to go until it’s as readily available as cable. Today, about 45% of Americans have access to fiber optic internet, television, and voice compared to 90% of Americans with access to cable.

What's so great about fiber-optics?

Fiber-optic internet, television, and voice delivers faster, safer, and more efficient service at a much better bang for your buck than traditional cable.

Is cable better than fiber-optic?

Cable falls short of fiber-optic in several ways, including less efficiency, greater security risks, slower speeds, and overall higher costs per Mbps compared to fiber optics.

Why is fiber-optic so expensive?

While fiber optic might seem more expensive compared to cable, the truth is that you’re getting overall superior service with fiber-optic compared to cable. It might be $10 or $20 more per month, but you’re going to be significantly increasing your internet speeds as a result.

What are the downsides of fiber-optic?

While fiber optic has many clear advantages to cable, there are still some negatives. For one, its upfront costs are higher. Furthermore, it’s notably more fragile than cable.

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More from History-Computer

  • CCTA Available here: https://calcable.org/learn/history-of-cable/
  • TechTarget Available here: https://www.techtarget.com/searchnetworking/definition/fiber-optics-optical-fiber
  • FOA Available here: https://www.thefoa.org/Timeline/index.html
  • Timbercon Available here: https://www.timbercon.com/resources/blog/history-of-fiber-optics/
  • FOA Available here: https://www.thefoa.org/tech/fo-or-cu.htm