In today’s modern age, it feels as though we’re constantly pushing the envelope in terms of what kinds of content we can consume and share using the Internet. Gone are the days when uploading a single video to Youtube took what felt like an eternity; now, we can accomplish more in a few minutes on the web than we might have in several hours just a few short years ago.

So, what makes this advancement in speed possible? Though there isn’t any single answer to this question, one of the primary reasons why we’re able to enjoy the conveniences we do today online is that we’ve made huge strides in terms of the methods we use to connect the world together. One such technology underpinning these efforts is fiber optical cabling.

What are fiber optics?

Fiber optics might seem like a fancy new form of data transfer, but the truth is that the backbone of the Internet was built on this technology. Back in 1988, the first fiber optical cable connected the US to France and Britain when it was run across the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean floor. Today, we have hundreds of fiber cables ran throughout the world’s oceans, and we’re also beginning to see more widespread implementation on land, as well.[1]

Fiber map.
Map showing submarine fiber-optic cables worldwide.

Fiber optic cables use light to transmit data, instead of the electrical charges used by other technologies such as coaxial and ethernet cables. Fiber is seen as the gold standard of Internet connectivity, and for good reasons that we’ll get into in just a moment. These cables transfer binary (think ones and zeroes) data by converting it into light pulses, which are then received by the opposite end where they can be converted back into information that a computer can use.

Although fiber optic connections are only available to about 25 percent of the US population at the moment, that number is growing.[2] As the technology becomes easier to implement down the road, we can expect to see much higher utilization rates in both the US and elsewhere around the world.

The benefits of fiber optic connections

Perhaps the single most talked-about benefit relating to fiber optic cables is that they can achieve upload and download speeds that are much faster than other conventional connection types. In fact, fiber’s top speed is orders of magnitude higher than what most providers can offer today, leaving the technology open to future optimization by leaving it plenty of room to grow.

Fun Fact

A recent test proved that these sorts of cables can operate at speeds up to 43 Tbps — that’s terabytes per second! For reference, the top providers in fiber currently max out at anywhere from 500 Mbps (megabits per second) and 1 Gbps (gigabits per second).[3]

These impressive speeds are due to the fact that light itself is able to travel at seemingly impossible speeds–186,282 miles per second–making it the absolute perfect delivery method for large amounts of video and audio data.

The phenomena of total internal reflection allows light to “bounce” through the strands of fiber optic cables.

In addition to better speeds, however, fiber also has a host of other benefits that make it an attractive option, such as its lack of vulnerability to certain weather phenomena that would otherwise have an impact on lesser connections that rely on coaxial and other cable types.

For example, if you had two strands of wiring ran for 2 miles, one fiber and the other copper, you would see that the fiber optic connection was able to navigate this expense with virtually zero signal degradation; something you couldn’t say for its competitor. According to Scienceabc.com, almost 99.7 percent of the signal reached the end-user with fiber.[4]

Fiber is also a very green technology[5], in that it produces little heat and doesn’t require a lot of power to run. As we become more and more aware of our planet’s fragile ecosystem, technologies like this will become more important than ever before.

Finally, fiber is more durable than copper-based cable setups. A single strand of fiber can usually withstand about 200 pounds of pressure, while many robust types can hold as much as 800 pounds before snapping.

Limitations of fiber

Men at work signage.
The cost of installing fiber cables can run into the tens of thousands per mile.

Although the benefits of fiber optics are many, it isn’t without its own set of issues. The largest single blocker currently facing the industry is that of extremely high implementation costs. As it turns out, laying fiber all over the country is a behemoth of a task financially, and thus far, no one network has been able to pull it off. Verizon Fios and Google Fiber are two of the most well-known, but even these powerhouse companies have slowed to a trickle when it comes to expansion.

This can also be due in large part to political lobbying, as well as complicated state laws that prohibit cities from running their own fiber lines, due to the fact that this would cause a situation where the state is competing directly with private businesses.

Finally, although fiber is certainly an exciting prospect for the future, at the moment, most providers can’t even offer speeds fast enough to incentivize them to roll out fiber optic connections on a wider scale. According to international speedtest records, the average download speed in US households is right at 22.69 Mbps, while the average upload speed is just 8.51 Mbps.

These numbers are quite low compared to what fiber can handle, but the reality is that for many Americans, it’s more than enough for what they need. All the same, the tremendous potential of fiber alone will likely continue to energize expansion efforts over the next decade, however slow it may be.

The future of fiber

As America’s network infrastructure continues to mature and expand, it’s becoming more clear by the day that fiber optics hold the keys to the future of data transfer for the nation, and even the world at large.

Projects like Google Fiber are poised to continue to shape these efforts over the next several years, and as more companies get onboard with fiber technology, competition will begin to pressure others to follow suit. When this happens, we can expect to see that 25 percent fiber availability rate to skyrocket.

Even in developing countries around the world, governments and private businesses alike are beginning to invest more in communications infrastructure like fiber than they are in transportation, because they realize how important good quality Internet access is to the future of the global economy.

With all of this in mind, one thing is for certain; fiber optics have already enabled us to make great strides in connecting the world through the Internet, and it is very likely to continue to pave the way towards a more interconnected tomorrow in the months and years ahead.

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Experts

Jameson Zimmer

Jameson Zimmer

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.

Tyler Cooper

Tyler Cooper

Tyler Cooper is a former networking consultant and current technical writer in the IT industry. He enjoys sharing his expertise through articles about topics like PC gaming, cord cutting, and technology trends.

Questions & Answers

1 ANSWERED QUESTIONS

Fiber optics vs "Fibre optics." What's the difference?

There’s no difference between “fiber” and “fibre” in an Internet context — it’s just a difference in spelling conventions. “Fiber” is the commonly accepted American standard.

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