Data has traditionally traveled across wires comprised of metal, even before the dawn of the digital age. In fact, the use of flexible metal wires for data transmission dates back to at least the early 1800s, which certainly makes one wonder why they have not been replaced by newer technologies. Of course, modern wires bear only passing resemblance to their ancient predecessors, but there is an alternative: fiber optics. In order to understand the benefits of fiber optics, it might be worth first investigating the shortcomings of metal wires that prompted the invention of fiber optics in the first place. The best place to start this exploration is with the metal wiring versus fiber optic cables.
Trip The Light Fantastic!
The biggest fundamental problem with wires is that they require electricity, and often a great deal of it. This might seem to be an obvious statement on the surface, but consider the practical implications of operating a data network that relies heavily on electricity to transmit signals. Energy prices are always going to be a concern for companies with extensive wire-networks in place, especially those that are bound to honor contracts with numerous clients. Fiber optical cabling uses light to transmit data, which is significantly less costly for a handful of reasons.
One of the primary reasons is that the amplitude, or strength, of an electrical signal degrades as it travels through metal wiring. Light also degrades as it travels through fiber optical cabling, but at only a tiny fraction of the rate that electricity traveling the same distance over metal wiring would degrade. Signal degradation means that more hardware and sub-stations need to be installed to interpret signals and ensure proper transmission from one point to another. The more complex the signal(s) being transmitted over metal wiring, the greater the need for substations is.
A side effect of the degradation in electrical signal is heat, and metal within wires can slowly lose their resistance to heat and thus be more susceptible to melting and becoming effectively useless. Worse, molten metal hast the potential to burn through the protective plastic coating that most wires are coated with. Other wires in a bundle can be affected when this happens, and fires may even result. For this reason, most network architects deploy far more cabling than they actually plan to use, as continually testing the performance limits of a metal-based wire data network is a recipe for an expensive and potentially dangerous failure.
Fiber Optics Don’t Mind It When Things Get Complex
On the subject of signal complexity, fiber optical cabling offers another advantage over traditional metal wiring: upgrades are easy. Providers are always looking for ways to increase performance of their existing network, but there are always limits. The limits related to sending electricity over metal wiring are far greater than those of sending pulses of light over great distances of fiber optical cabling. This is due to the fact that there are three ways to improve network performance as it relates to transmission of data: increase fidelity, go multi-spectrum, and/or improve compression techniques.
Increasing fidelity requires hardware updates at all substations in most cases, which is also true of fiber optical networks. The only difference is that metal-wire based networks typically need to send higher amplitude signals to compensate for the degradation. The higher the amplitude, the quicker the degradation and the lower the lifespan of the wires comprising the bulk of the network. Fiber optics do not have this problem due to their limited signal degradation. The result is that fiber optical cabling can generally be used through several hardware upgrades, and thus serve a very long and useful lifespan.
Going multi-spectrum is a very similar problem for metal wiring, and yet again a situation where fiber optics prove to be highly advantageous. The thermal and electrical characteristics of the metal wiring are finite, and can easily be pushed to their limits when using multi-spectrum technologies that the wires were not designed to tolerate. The results are potentially expensive infrastructure damage and outages, both of which result in higher costs to consumers in the end. Fiber optical cabling does not have this problem, and a recent deployment of an upgraded fiber optic backbone by Verizon’s FiOS team shows just how impressive this advantage can be. Scaling from under 1 Mbps to over 50 Mbps in just a few years is nothing short of impressive, and the new upgrades to their network might enable even greater speeds.
Compression algorithms can always help both traditional metal wire networks and fiber optical systems, but relying on consumers to spend a lot on expensive modems capable of handling the latest packet encode/decode and compression techniques may not be feasible in all cases.
Is It All In The Cables?
While the big news regarding fiber optic networks is the fiber optical cabling itself, there are other factors that make fiber optic-centric networks promising. Most major networks operate on networks that are at least partially based on fiber optics, it is a question of how far their fiber optical cabling extends. In the case of Verizon’s FiOS, it extends all the way to the property of the consumer, but in other networks the fiber optical cabling might be used to take large volumes of data to sub-stations where it is transferred to traditional metal wiring. For this reason alone, consumers should be very careful to evaluate claims made by service providers of all kinds that tout their fiber optical networks.
OK, So Fiber Is Great…But What Does It Mean To The Consumer?
In the end, it is what fiber optics is used to offer consumers that is ultimately important. Again, Verizon’s FiOS system is a great example of how digital television, digital phone services, and broadband data plans can all use the same fiber optical network without congestion creating serious bottlenecks. The low cost of fiber optical networks has even allowed Verizon to stay competitive in terms of price, performance, and features. That is no simple task in very aggressive industry.