Fiber Optic vs. Copper Cables: What's the Difference? | Cable Matters Blog (2023)

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By Douglas / Aug 17, 2022 / BLOG / Networking

Fiber Optic vs. Copper Cables: What's the Difference? | Cable Matters Blog (1)

The two core material technologies used in almost all cables are fiber optic, and copper wiring. Whether you’re looking at an HDMI cable, a USB cable, Ethernet patch cable, or any other kind of network of data transmission cabling, they are all built using copper or fiber optic internal wiring.

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Fiber optic tends to be the more premium solution, while copper wiring is far more common, but why is that? What are the differences between these two cable types, and why might you want to pick one over the other?

Here’s everything you need to know about fiber vs. copper cables, to help you pick the right cable for your needs.

The Differences Between Fiber and Copper

Fiber optic and copper cables are built with very different materials, and as such are used in different circumstances for different tasks.

Fiber optic cables are built with a silica glass fiber core, about the width of a human hair. It transmits data via light, by allowing it to bounce back and forth down the length of the glass core, while a glass cladding surrounds the core and ensures the light is retained within it. This is then wrapped with additional insulating material, including a layer of plastic to strengthen the core, followed by a layer of gel-filled sleeving or kevlar (depending on the manufacturer) and then a layer of colored plastic to identify the fiber optic cable type.

The outer layers also deliver a measure of fire resistance, as well as dictate whether the cable is rated for running behind walls, or not.

Copper cables have a core of copper wiring, though come in a few different types. There are solid copper core cables, like coaxial cables, which are then covered by multiple insulating and protective layers, and twisted pair copper cables, which have between one to four pairs of insulated copper wiring that are twisted together in pairs and then enclosed within various protective and insulating layers.

The specific configuration of the copper cables is dependent on their intended use, but the ultimate design is the same: a copper core, surrounded by insulating and protective coatings. Some will also include additional strengthening measures like splines.

Fiber Optic vs. Copper Cables: What's the Difference? | Cable Matters Blog (2)

You’ll find copper and fiber optic cable options for all sorts of cable types, but in all cases fiber optic cables are the more premium solution. They offer greater performance, with much higher data rate ceiling than copper – several hundred times higher in some cases; they support greater cable lengths; they’re more reliable, being less susceptible to electromagnetic interference (EMI); they’re more durable, with a much greater pressure resistance than copper cables, and they’re harder to snoop on too, with any compromise of the cabling easily detectable.

If you’re trying to pick between fiber vs. copper cables, then you’ll want to factor cost too, (fiber optic cables are typically more expensive) but from almost any other perspective, fiber cables are the clear winner.

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Advantages of Copper Cable

In the fiber vs copper cables head to head, there aren’t many metrics that copper comes out on top. It’s not going to win a face off on performance, distance, resistance to EMI, or physical durability, but there are some areas where copper still holds a significant advantage.

The first is cost. While the price per foot of fiber optic cabling has come down significantly over the years, copper wiring is still the cheaper solution. Part of that is the reduced cost of the cabling itself, but a greater part plays in to copper cabling’s other great strength: existing infrastructure.

Fiber optic cable is seeing increased usage in all manner of digital infrastructure, but the majority of what already exists, especially when involving legacy networks and systems, is still copper cabling. With additional costs involved in replacing even outdated or failed copper cables with fiber optic, and even greater costs and complexity when trying to run copper and fiber optic cables as part of the same network, running pure copper cabling can often be the cheaper solution.

Long term, the fiber vs copper cable debate will be easily won by fiber, but there is always likely to be a place for affordable copper cables.

Advantages of Fiber Optic Cable

Fiber optic cables are a superior cable solution to copper in almost every way. For starters, the performance, or maximum data rate they can support is so much greater than anything copper cables can achieve. Where copper cables are limited to around 10 Gigabits per second in the absolute best case scenario, fiber optic cables can manage as much as 60 terabits per second, theoretically. While in reality that figure is more realistic and viable for existing network equipment, it’s still possible to get hold of fiber optic network patch cables that can handle 100 Gibabit network speeds.

When it comes to fiber vs copper cable lengths, too, fiber optic holds a significant advantage. While individual copper cables have a maximum range of around 330 feet, some fiber optic cables can carry data up to 25 miles. That is only the most capable of single mode fiber optic cables but even more affordable and typical multimode fiber optic cables can manage 1000 feet per cable.

For more information on fiber optic cable types, read out complete guide.

Despite being made of glass, fiber optic cables are more durable than their copper counterparts too. Standard fiber optic cables can withstand a pulling force of up to 50 lbs, while the most sturdy of them can manage a pulling force of up to 200 pounds. The maximum rating for a standard copper patch cable is a mere 25 pounds, making fiber optic cables far less likely to experience wear and tear during deployment, or if there is any significant stress placed on the cable.

That added durability plays into fiber optic cable longevity, too. Where copper cabling needs to be replaced every five year so due to degradation – and can degrade to the point of complete signal loss if ignored – fiber optic cables can last far longer, with many not needing to be replaced for up to 50 years in ideal conditions.

Even when copper cabling isn’t failing due to degraded wiring, they can also fail due to interference, as copper cables are susceptible to electromagnetic interference; fiber optic cables are not. Although quality copper patch cables from manufactures like Cable Matters employ robust shielding to help prevent EMI affecting copper cable signal quality, interference can occur on cheaper cables, especially older standards like Cat 5 Ethernet cabling, which weren’t designed with additional shielding in mind.

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Fiber optic cables are more resistant to deliberate interference, too. Where copper cables can be ‘tapped’ by connecting to the electrically transmitting wire, fiber optics can’t be tapped into in the same way. Any attempts to do so can be quickly detected by the network, too, allowing administrators to shut down that cabling and investigate any potential breaches.

On a cost front, fiber optic is the more expensive solution generally, however, long term it can actually be the more cost effective solution. Due to fiber optic cables being able to run so much longer than their copper counterparts, you have to install far fewer distributed cabinets to repeat the signal over longer distances. The lack of any need for additional EMI shielding or fire protections, can help keep costs down too.

With an eye to the future, where most networks will be built on fiber optic technology, it doesn’t necessarily make much sense to install copper cabling which will be outdated and require replacement in the future, where a fiber optic network would be scalable and less in-need or maintenance over the ensuing years.

Fiber Optic vs Copper Cables: Selecting the Right Cable for Your Needs

Fiber Optic vs. Copper Cables: What's the Difference? | Cable Matters Blog (3)

As much as the fiber vs. copper cable debate may seem settled at this point, that’s not to say that copper cables can’t still be useful. If you’re building a home network, or any network where the necessary speeds aren’t greater than 10 Gigabit per second, then copper patch cables are perfectly viable. You can even mitigate the problems with copper cable shielding by opting for a modern design, like a Cat 6a cable, which features capable shielding and can also have additional durability through a reinforcing spline.

Fiber optic cables are the superior solution for longer network cables, however, especially if they need to be run through walls, or buried under the ground, and when building network infrastructure where the ability to transfer masses of data to a number of individual systems at a time is important.

If you’re building an A/V setup that needs a long video transmission cable, too, you’ll want to use an active HDMI cable. Those are fiber optic and deliver the kind of performance necessary for high-bandwidth data delivery over distances that passive copper HDMI cables just can’t manage.

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What is the difference between copper cable and fiber optic cable? ›

Copper cable is made from copper wire and sends a signal using electrical pulses while fiber optic cable is composed of single or multiple strands of glass fiber and sends a signal using light pulses.

What is the greatest benefit of fiber optic cable when compared to copper cable )? ›

Fiber optic cables transmit data much faster than copper wires do because fiber optics use the speed of light rather than the speed of electrons. Fiber optic Internet connections can range from 5 Mbps to 100 Gbps. This ensures no wasted time or productivity due to a slow Internet connection.

What is the difference between fiber optics and traditional copper cables do signals really travel faster in fiber optics explain the principle behind fiber optic communication? ›

Optical fiber carries more information than conventional copper wire, due to its higher bandwidth and faster speeds. Because glass does not conduct electricity, fiber optics is not subject to electromagnetic interference, and signal losses are minimized.

What are the advantages of copper cable over fiber optic? ›

Copper vs fibre
  • Higher Bandwidth Capabilities. ...
  • Longer Distances Supported. ...
  • Lower Cost. ...
  • Light Weight and Small Diameter. ...
  • Electromagnetic Immunity. ...
  • Security. ...
  • Reliability.

What are the disadvantages of copper cable over fiber optic? ›

Likewise, it doesn't transmit information nearly as far or as quickly as fiber optics. This means that, over long distances where it is necessary, copper wire is not practical, cost-wise. It takes way more cable to complete what a fiber optic cable could complete with less material.

Why do professionals choose fiber optic cable instead of copper? ›

The Takeaway for IT Pros Choosing Fiber or Copper Cables

As we've seen, fiber optic cabling allows for greater ROI via its faster speeds, increased durability, cleaner signaling, and smaller physical footprint. Copper cables has its applications, and will help reduce upfront cost.

Which is better fiber optic or copper? ›

Distance. All data signals degrade over a range, but fiber offers significantly better signal durability. Fiber only loses 3% of the signal over distances greater than 100 meters, compared to copper's 94% loss of signal.

Which cable is more secure copper or fiber? ›

Fiber is much more secure and less easy to tap into than a standard copper cable. Because fiber cables do not need to be grounded in the same way that copper cables do, it means that there is much less chance for other digital interferences.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of fiber optics over copper wire? ›

It is flexible, bends easily and resists most corrosive elements that attack copper cable. The raw materials for glass are plentiful, unlike copper. This means glass can be made more cheaply than copper. The optical fibers are difficult to splice, and there are loss of the light in the fiber due to scattering.

What are the advantages of using fiber-optic cable compare to other types of cable? ›

Fiber optic cables have a much greater bandwidth than metal cables. The amount of information that can be transmitted per unit time of fiber over other transmission media is its most significant advantage. An optical fiber offers low power loss, which allows for longer transmission distances.

What are the disadvantages of fiber optics? ›

Disadvantages of Using Fiber-Optics

Fragility – As fiber-optic cables normally consist of glass they are much more fragile compared to other electrical wires. Installation – Fiber-Optic cables are much more difficult to install and can easily get damaged during the process.

Is AT&T fiber optic better than cable? ›

Fiber-optic internet services is faster compared to the cable network with a speed of not less than 250-1,000 Mbps in both directions. Many people can access the fiber network at the same time without affecting the overall performance.

What are the common problems with copper cabling? ›

Copper cabling is slow, unstable, and prone to signal leakage and interference issues, all of which make it a risky proposition going forward.

Should I switch to fiber optic internet? ›

Reason #1 Why Fiber is Better than Cable: Bandwidth

Investing in fiber optic Internet can significantly increase your bandwidth potential. Coax cable infrastructure is limited in nature. Because it was originally designed for transmitting data at higher speeds on downloads only.

What is the maximum distance for fiber optic cable? ›

OS1 fiber optic cable is designed for premises where the maximum distance is 2,000 metres with transmission speeds of 1 to 10 gigabit Ethernet. OS2 fiber optic cable is designed for larger transmission distances in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 metres with similar transmission speed of 1 to 10 gigabit Ethernet.

Can fiber optic cables replace copper wires? ›

Optical fiber cables offer various advantages over copper cables, and these cables offer much more bandwidth than copper cables. Unlike copper cables, we can use optical fiber cables for long-haul networking as well. Fiber is the preferred networking medium as it offers great flexibility.

Which fiber cable is best? ›

OS2 is the fiber optic cable type that provides the best performance over longer distances, and they're more durable to boot.

Is there a cable faster than fiber optic? ›

5G will give us speeds 10 times faster than fiber optics - without wires.

Which cable is best for communication? ›

Coaxial Cables

For anyone transmitting data, video, radio, digital audio, and cable TV, the coaxial cable has proven to be the best option available for decades.

How do I know if I have fiber optic or copper? ›

How do I know if I have Fiber-Optic Internet? If you have an Optical Network Terminal (ONT) like this on the outside of your location, your connection is fiber-optic. If you have a Network Interface Device (NID) box like one of these on the outside of your location, your connection is copper.

Which is faster copper cable or Fibre optic cable? ›

In addition to offering data transmission speeds ten times faster than copper, fibre optic cabling also: Weighs less. Is non-flammable.

What is the greatest disadvantage of fiber optic cable? ›

Disadvantages of Using Fiber-Optics

Fragility – As fiber-optic cables normally consist of glass they are much more fragile compared to other electrical wires. Installation – Fiber-Optic cables are much more difficult to install and can easily get damaged during the process.

Do I need a special router for fiber optic? ›

Fiber Routers

A fiber optic router is able to get all of the fiber optic speed through to your network, whereas a non-fiber router isn't equipped for that. If you have fiber Internet installed in your home, you need a good wireless router to support it.

What does home fiber optic cable look like? ›

Fiber optic cables, from the outside at least, don't look drastically different from many other kinds of cabling, since their outermost layer tends to be a colored plastic or silicon tubing. It's common for them to be white, grey, or black in color, but there are more colorful options available if that's useful.

Does fiber optic use a modem? ›

Since the optical wiring is designed for data connections, Fiber doesn't require a modem. Instead, it uses an ONT at each endpoint, which is short for Optical Network Terminal.

What is the maximum distance for fiber-optic cable? ›

OS1 fiber optic cable is designed for premises where the maximum distance is 2,000 metres with transmission speeds of 1 to 10 gigabit Ethernet. OS2 fiber optic cable is designed for larger transmission distances in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 metres with similar transmission speed of 1 to 10 gigabit Ethernet.

Which cable gives the fastest Internet speed? ›

A CAT 8 cable, for example, is the fastest you can get right now, while a CAT 5 cable is the slowest. An Ethernet cable should also have shielding.

Which is cheaper copper cable or Fibre optic cable? ›

Overall, fibre is more expensive than copper in the short run, but it may actually be less expensive in the long run. Fibre typically costs less to maintain, has much less downtime, and requires less networking hardware.

Why is copper cable still used? ›

Ever since the first telegraph in the 1820s and the invention of the phone in 1876, copper was found almost everywhere there was a communication cable. That's quickly changing as fiber optic becomes more widespread. But, even now we still rely on copper cabling because of its many excellent qualities and lower cost.

Are copper wires obsolete? ›

With upgrades to high-speed Cable modem services—which can easily include a phone line or two, as well as the increased usage of easy and convenient VoIP solutions— copper has become more and more obsolete.

Is fiber optic cable obsolete? ›

The short answer is no – Fiber optic cables have been around since 1952, and although the digital landscape has changed, fiber won't become obsolete anytime soon.


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