One of the biggest questions about cable internet today is “Are cable connections ‘fiber optic’ connections just like Verizon Fios, Google Fiber, and etc?”
The simple answer is “no”, but it’s slightly more complicated than that — particularly as cable networks often incorporate fiber on the back end.
Here’s a quick and simple summary of how most cable networks work and how they differ from Verizon Fios.
Cable Networks vs Fiber Networks
Cable networks are actually comprised of 2 different types of cable: fiber optic and coaxial. Fiber optic cable is like the Cadillac of cables: it’s far superior for transmitting data than coaxial cable, offering much greater bandwidth, higher top-end transmission speeds, and higher quality data transmissions. Note: This is a fairly basic description of the differences between coaxial cable and fiber. We dive into this in a bit more detail in our Fios vs Xfinity comparison.
Historically, cable companies’ have used fiber optic cable for the main transmission lines that form the backbone of their network, and coaxial cable for connecting individual homes to those lines. This setup is known as FTTN, or Fiber to the Node (or Neighborhood) because fiber is run from the cable company headquarters to neighborhood communications boxes that are in turn connected to many homes via old-school coaxial cable. It is also commonly called “hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC).”
Why Not Go With Fiber For the Entire Network?
The 2-cable approach was adopted mainly because, when cable companies were replacing their legacy networks with fiber optic cable in the 90’s, it was much cheaper and less labor intensive to replace just the main transmission lines with fiber, rather than replacing both the main transmission lines and every single cable that runs between people’s homes and the main lines.
It was in the best interest of the cable companies to upgrade as much of their network to fiber as possible, and the main transmission line approach was good way to do it at a lower overall cost. Also, demand for higher-bandwidth internet/TV features like song and movie downloads, video conferencing, HD television on demand, etc., was much less. So FTTH, or Fiber to the Home, seemed like expensive overkill at the time they were upgrading their networks.
This has left cable companies with what is now known as an 80/20 network: 80% fiber optics and 20% coaxial cable. Just like the “80/20” rule of productivity, cable gets the job done with much less cost.
So getting back to our original question “Is my cable network a ‘fiber’ network?”, the real answer is “yes” cable companies utilize fiber optic cable for part of their network, but “no” they are not truly fiber optic networks like Verizon Fios.
This could definitely change as cable companies seek to compete with the increasingly popular fiber providers like Google Fiber, Ting, and etc.
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Jessica Sims is a technology blogger and broadband industry veteran. Her background as an administrator and customer support employee for a major ISP informs her passion for helping consumers understand their service options.
Jameson Zimmer is a technology and telecom expert hailing from Charlottesville, Virginia. His work with data-driven companies like BroadbandNow has helped bring attention to consumer issues like municipal broadband.