How Does Fiber Internet Work?

It sounds like science fiction: tiny strands of plastic or glass, about the width of a human hair, are bound together into cables and transmit coded signals in pulses of light. These cables, called fiber-optic cables, can give you the fastest internet service available in the world today.

Other forms of internet, like DSL and cable internet service, transmit electrical information through copper lines—which can be fast, but fiber-optic technology is way faster.

But both fiber-optic cable and copper lines use binary signals. Binary is a number system where the combination of only two numbers in sequence—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.

Fiber internet provider comparison
ProviderConnection TypeDownload speedsMonthly priceLearn more
AT&T FiberFiber1001000 Mbps$50$90*View Plans
CenturyLink InternetDSL/Fiber101000 Mbps$45$85View Plans
Frontier FiOS InternetFiber501000 Mbps$29.99$199.99View Plans
Grande Cable InternetCable/Fiber3001000 Mbps$35.99$69.99^View Plans
Verizon FiosFiber100500 Mbps$39.99$194.99°View Plans
Verizon FiosFiber100Up to 940 Mbps$39.99$79.99°View Plans
Windstream InternetDSL/Fiber251000 Mbps$5$85^View Plans
Data effective 11/19/18. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
* For the first 12 months with a 1-year agreement.
New customers only. Rate requires paperless billing and excludes taxes. Additional fees apply.
for 24 months with 2-year agreement. Actual speeds may vary. Installation, equipment fees, Internet Infrastructure Surcharge, early term, taxes & other fees apply. Services subject to availability and all applicable terms and conditions.
^ For the first 12 months.
° With autopay for 1 yr, plus taxes, equip. charges & other fees
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Wait, is it “fiber” or “fibre”?
You may come across these spelling variations, but they’re the same thing. It’s like “theater” and “theatre” or “neighbor” and “neighbour.” America English usually spells it fiber, and British English usually goes with fibre.

What makes fiber internet so fast?

Your internet speed depends on how much data the infrastructure can handle.

Fiber-optic internet lines transfer data using modulated light instead of electricity, which gives them much higher bandwidth capacity, since they’re not bound by the physical limitations of electricity conducting through metal.

Fiber internet connections work at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second—literally 100 times faster than those old copper wire connections.

Traditional copper wires used by DSL and cable internet were originally intended to transmit voice only, though, so they’re limited in the amount of data they can handle.

DSL and cable provider comparison
ProviderConnection TypeDownload speedsMonthly priceLearn more
AT&T InternetDSL5100 Mbps$40$50*View Plans
Buckeye InternetCable10200 Mbps$9.99$60**View Plans
Cable ONE InternetCable151000 Mbps$45$175View Plans
Cox InternetCable101000 Mbps$19.99$99.99*View Plans
Mediacom InternetCable601000 Mbps$39.99$79.99^View Plans
Optimum InternetCable200400 Mbps$44.99$64.99^View Plans
RCN InternetCable251000 Mbps$24.99$59.99^View Plans
Data effective 11/19/18. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
* For the first 12 months with a 1-year agreement.
** For the first 6 months.
^ For the first 12 months.

Simply put, you cannot ask for anything better than fiber internet for gaming or streaming high-quality video.

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Is satellite internet fast?
If you’re thinking about satellite internet, don’t expect to find faster speeds than fiber. 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 satellite has a higher latency.
Satellite internet provider comparison
ProviderConnection TypeDownload speedsMonthly priceLearn more
Viasat InternetSatellite12100 Mbps$50$150††View Plans
HughesNet InternetSatellite25 Mbps$59.99$149.99‡‡View Plans
Data effective 11/19/18. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
†† For the first 3 months.
‡‡ Requires 24 month agreement.

Only have access to satellite internet? Check out our comparison of the best satellite internet providers.

How is fiber internet better than cable or DSL?

Fiber internet has several advantages over cable and DSL.

Fiber is better for carrying information long distances

All electronic signals are negatively affected by long-distance travel, even light and electricity. The farther a signal has to travel, the more it degrades, and the weaker it’ll be when it reaches its destination.

To maintain signal strength, copper cable links are limited to a distance of 328 feet or less. But fiber-optic cables can run up to almost 25 miles before they lose signal strength, which makes them a better and stronger option overall.

Fiber isn’t affected by electrical or radio interference

Although copper is a great medium for conducting electricity, it’s not a closed system, which means other electromagnetic signals 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, on the other hand, are more insulated against outside interference, making their signal much more secure.

Fiber is less prone to damage and wear and tear

Fiber lines, despite their extremely small size, are much harder and more resistant than copper. Fiber lines can take between 100 to 200 pounds of pressure, but copper can withstand only around 25 pounds.

Also, 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.

If data speed, efficiency, and reliability are important to you, then your best choice for downloading and uploading your information is fiber internet.

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Is paying for fast internet worth it?
Fast internet speeds can be nice when your internet loads and works really quickly. But if you’re not streaming Blu-ray quality movies while several other household members are playing online games or uploading to Facebook, chances are you won’t get too much more out of the high-end bandwidth that fiber internet offers.

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 might not need that much speed

Most people don’t really need super fast speeds to enjoy most of the internet. According to the FCC, a single user only requires 1 Mbps for web browsing and 8 Mbps for higher-end needs like video streaming and gaming.1

If you want to stream HD 4K content on Netflix and other streaming services, you’ll want at least 25 Mbps. 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.

Fiber internet has limited availability

As of December 2017, the federal government’s National Broadband comparison tool showed that fiber-optic lines are available to just over 30% of the population.2 This is much less than the 90% availability of both DSL and cable internet (though some speeds are not available in all areas).

New fiber lines require new infrastructure

One of the reasons that DSL and cable internet options are both so widely available is that they’re able to use the existing copper wire infrastructure installed for phones and cable television. This way, customers don’t have to wait for new network build-outs.

Fiber-optic lines are much newer technology and so they require all-new infrastructure construction. Fiber internet companies will need to absorb the initial cost for fiber internet installation, which is a financial risk, so that explains fiber’s limited availability.

Is fiber internet right for me?

If your household is really into HD video streaming or gaming and you’re one of the lucky ones who live in an area with access to fiber internet, then the answer is an absolute yes.

Generally, you’ll pay the same or just a little more for a massive increase in internet speeds. Both Google and Verizon offer 1 Gbps plans, which cost about as much as the 25–50 Mbps plans offered by many cable internet companies (depending on your location).

And in some cases, you may even pay less for faster internet speeds with fiber than you would with your local cable internet company.

Unfortunately, fiber internet is not yet widely available, which means you’re probably one of the many Americans who have to wait for future fiber lines to be installed in your area.

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. But if you’re clamoring for faster speeds, let your local internet providers and government leaders know you’re ready for fiber internet.

Now that you know how fiber works, here are your next steps

Enter your ZIP code to see if a fiber provider is available in your area.

Looking for a new internet provider? Check out our top picks.

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Sources

  1. Federal Communications Commission, “Broadband Speed Guide”
  2. Federal Communications Commission, Fixed Broadband Deployment Area Comparison
  3. Federal Communications Commission, Fixed Broadband Deployment Area Comparison