Fiber Internet is the latest change to the way data is transferred around the globe. It’s much faster than cable, way faster than dial-up, and can carry large amounts of data in a single line, often reaching multiple terabits of data transfer fairly easily.
Before Fiber: DSL and Cable
Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) used the existing telephone lines to transmit data, which were usually made of copper. DSL is slow, old, and has been phased out for the most part in favor of cable, but it remains in some rural areas. The average speed for DSL is around 2 Mbps.
Cable internet uses coaxial cable, also made from copper, and is generally bundled with the same cables used to run the television network. This is why many ISPs offer bundled plans with a TV subscription and Internet Access. The average speed for cable varies but ranges from around 20 Mbps to 100 Mbps
The Fiber Revolution
Fiber optic cables use small glass fibers to transmit data using pulses of light. The light travels much like electricity would through a copper wire, but the advantage is that fiber cables can carry multiple signals at once. They’re incredibly small, so they’re often bundled into larger cables called “fiber optic trunk cables,” each containing multiple fiber lines. Fiber cables carry huge amounts of data, and the average speed that you’ll see at your house is around 1 Gbps (often called “gigabit internet”).
Fiber trunk cables form most of the backbone of the modern internet, and you’ll see the benefits of them even if you don’t have “fiber internet.” This is because the Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)—the switching and routing stations that connect your house to the rest of the world—use fiber optic trunk lines to connect to other IXPs.
But when it comes time to connect all the houses in the city to your local IXP (a run usually referred to as “the last mile”), your service provider will usually run traditional coaxial cable to your house. This run becomes the bottleneck for your internet speed. When someone says they have “fiber internet,” what they mean is that the connection from their house to the IXP is also using fiber, eliminating the speed limit of copper cable.
The Limits of Fiber
There’s a reason fiber Internet isn’t common—cost. Fiber is a lot more expensive to run and doesn’t justify the cost when cable lines are often already available. For most people, the 20-100 Mbps speed they get on cable is enough, as most downloads from the internet aren’t going to max out that connection anyway.
Your speed is only as good as the weakest link, and while fiber is certainly better than copper, a lot of times you won’t see an increase in actual download speeds because of limits on the server from which you’re downloading. An app like Steam downloading a 10 GB game seems like it would take only a few seconds on 1000 Mbps fiber connection, but in reality you’ll only get around 50 Mbps maximum speed from Steam’s servers.
If you’re using an application that can take advantage of the increased speed, or have multiple computers in the house, then fiber might be a good option for you. Right now, though, it remains a service only available in a few select cities.