How Does Fiber Internet Work?

Man at computer using fiber internet connection

If you’ve looked into installing or upgrading your internet service, you’ve likely heard of fiber internet. The U.S. government is talking about expanding access to fiber internet, and chances are your internet provider is promising to bring it to your area soon. Fiber internet is set to be the future of digital communication, and we’re going to explain why.

AT&T and Verizon both have fiber options depending on where you live.

Internet 100
AT&T Fiber
Download speed:
100 Mbps
$50 a month
Fios Internet 100/100
Verizon Internet - Fios Gig
Download speed:
100 Mbps
$39.99 a month

What is fiber internet?

Fundamentally, fiber internet is any internet access through fiber-optic lines. What makes this access unique is that, unlike DSL and cable internet services that transmit electrical information through copper lines, fiber-optic lines use tiny strands of plastic or glass (just slightly thicker than a single human hair) to carry binary transmissions of light. Binary is a number system where the combination of only two numbers—0 being “off” and 1 being “on”—represent more complex symbols or instructions. This method of data transmission makes fiber internet the best option for fast speeds and reliability.

What makes fiber internet so fast?

Internet speed depends on how much data the infrastructure can handle. The traditional copper wires used by DSL and cable internet were originally intended to transmit voice only, so they’re limited in the amount of data they can handle.

If you’re thinking about satellite internet, don’t expect to find faster speeds. Thanks to the massive distances that satellite information has to travel, satellite internet is about the same speed as DSL and cable and internet but has a higher latency. For more details on the pros and cons of satellite internet, see our guide to satellite internet.

Average speedHigh-end speed
DSL internet768 Kbps – 1.5 Mbps3 Mbps – 7 Mbps
Cable internet4 Mbps – 6 Mbps10 – 100+ Mbps
Satellite internet5 Mbps – 10 Mbps12 Mbps – 25 Mbps

In contrast, fiber optic lines transfer data using modulated light instead of electricity, which gives them much higher bandwidth capacity. Fiber internet connections work at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second—literally 100 times faster than those old copper wire connections. Simply put, you cannot ask for anything better than fiber internet for gaming or streaming high-quality video.

Average speedHigh-end speed
Fiber internet50 – 100 Mbps1 – 10 Gbps

How is fiber internet better than cable or DSL?

In addition to providing the fastest-possible internet connection, fiber internet has several other advantages over cable and DSL.

Fiber-optic lines are better for carrying information over long distances.

Even light and electricity are negatively affected by long-distance travel. Signal strength degrades the farther it has to travel, which can result in a weak signal or lower bandwidth. Copper cable links are limited to a distance of 328 feet to maintain signal strength. Fiber-optic cables can run up to almost 25 miles, which gives them better signal strength for less cable.

Fiber-optic lines are not affected by electrical or radio interference.

Although copper is a great medium for conducting electricity, it is not a closed system, which means electromagnetic or radio interference can negatively affect it. High levels of interference will reduce signal strength and risk cutting the signal entirely. Glass and plastic fiber optic lines are more insulated against outside interference, making their signal much more secure.

Fiber optic lines are less prone to damage and wear and tear.

Copper is a soft metal and conducts heat, which means that older systems are prone to damage from the environment (including impacts or fire hazards) and will break down over time. Fiber lines, despite their extremely small size, are much harder and more resistant. While copper can withstand around 25 pounds of pressure before being damaged, fiber lines can take between 100 to 200 pounds of pressure.

If you consider the importance of speed, efficiency, and reliability when transmitting data, then your best choice is fiber internet for downloading and uploading your information.

Shortcomings of fiber internet

There’s a lot to fiber internet that makes it the hands-down preferred choice for online access. However, there are some things to consider before you decide to go all-in on fiber.

You probably don’t need that much speed.

Most people don’t need super fast speeds to enjoy many of the features of the internet. According to the FCC, a single user only requires 1 Mbps for web browsing and 4 Mbps for higher-end needs like HD streaming and gaming. The federal government’s current standard for “advanced telecommunications” speeds is 25 Mbps, which is the upper tier already offered by many cable internet providers. So unless you’re streaming Blu-ray quality movies while several other household members are playing online games, chances are you won’t get too much more out of the high-end bandwidth that fiber internet offers.

 Fiber internet is currently very limited in availability.

In 2014, the federal government’s National Broadband Map listed fiber-optic lines as being available to less than 30% of the population. This is much less than the 90% availability of both DSL and cable internet (though some speeds are not available in all areas). Reviewing the National Broadband map shows that direct fiber connections are extremely limited outside of the Midwest and north Atlantic coast. While companies like Google and Verizon promise nationwide expansion of their fiber optic networks, it could take a long time to reach some areas of the United States.

New fiber lines require new infrastructure.

One of the reasons that DSL and cable internet are both so widely available is that they are able to use the existing copper wire infrastructure installed for phones and cable television. Fiber-optic lines are much newer technology and so require all-new infrastructure. Fiber internet companies need to absorb the initial cost for fiber internet installation, which explains its limited availability.

Is fiber internet right for me?

If you don’t play the latest games or stream the highest-definition movies, then DSL or cable internet will most likely meet your needs.

However, if your household is heavy into HD video streaming or gaming and you’re one of the lucky ones who lives in an area with access to fiber internet, then the answer is an absolute yes. 1 Gbps speed plans offered by both Google and Verizon are comparable in price to the 25–50 Mbps plans offered by many cable internet companies (depending on your location). Generally, you’ll pay the same or just a little more for a massive increase in speed and capacity.

Unfortunately, for now, the limited availability of fiber internet means you are probably one of the many Americans who has to wait for fiber lines to be installed in your area. Let your local internet providers and government know that you’re ready for the future of digital communications—you’re ready for for fiber internet.

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