Fibre optic cable is becoming more mainstream – Internet providers are even marketing it as a differentiator for their service. We’ve touched on fibre optic cable in the past, but now is a great time to delve into it more. So, what is it all about, and should you use it?
Pipe for light
Fibre optic cable is a solid ‘pipe’ of glass (or plastic) that allows light to travel down it. It’s actually a glass core surrounded by a cladding layer of another type of glass. This layering arrangement helps the light bounce nicely off the sides of the core as it travels down the cable. Technically this is called a strand of fibre. Each strand of fibre is slightly thicker than a thick human hair. One or more strands are wrapped with Kevlar or similar (for durability for pulling through walls, etc.). These are then protected by a plastic cable jacket.
You can’t see it with your eye, but fibre optic light is turned on and off very quickly to create light pulses. These pulses carry data that can include Internet, phone and video. If you use the right fiber (multi-mode), you can also send different frequencies of light (basically different colours of light) for more signals over the same fibre optic cable.
Fastest way to move data (i.e. video data)
Yes, fibre optic cable is the best way to get Internet and video to your home and around in it. Phone company Internet providers need something better, as their old technology, two wires, is maxed out. (It’s really quite impressive how much stuff they were able to put over those two wires though – phone, internet and TV!) Alas, two wires just can’t provide 100 Mbps or faster internet, let alone 4K video. They’re the first to roll out fibre optic, as they had to to keep up with cable companies. (Cable companies can push cable TV wiring a bit more, but they’ll have to go fibre optic eventually.) That said, you might not need the fastest Internet service available though and will be fine with non-fibre service.
Video is the hungry data hog in your home. Regular HDTV is bad enough, but full 4K TV can use up to 18 Gbps. (That’s a lot of data, and much more that copper wires can handle over any longer distances.) Tweaks can be made to make metal (usually copper) wire mostly handle this large amount of data over shorter distances, but fibre optic cabling is the right cable moving forward. If your 4K TV isn’t close enough, you’ll need fibre just to get a 4K signal from your TV gear.
Fast, plus now quite strong and bendy
Fibre optic is best suited for faster data and longer runs as the light pulse can travel far (up to Kilometres, depending on the fibre cable) and still be bright enough at the end. It also doesn’t suffer from issues like impedance (resistance, capacitance and inductance) that metal wires do. Impedance can be a signal killer by simply making it too weak at the end of the cable or make it impossible to move an electrical signal fast enough down the cable. Even with a whole bunch of engineering wizardry, those wires just can’t handle anything faster.
Fibre optic cable is also immune to electrical interference. Metal wires are effected by magnetic forces that are around electricity wires (e.g. power wires). This interference can make data harder or impossible to run though a metal wire.
The knock against using fibre used to be its price – it was very pricey to buy and work with, but that is quickly changing now. It’s increasingly easy to work with and has improved costs of cabling and putting plugs on the ends. Fibre optic cable is also not as fragile as it used to be. It’s often easier to install since it’s thinner and can be bent and pulled as much as or more than metal cable. (It will break though, where a metal wire may still barely work, sometimes sporadically, when kinked or bent too far.)
What should you do?
If you’re building or renovating a home, consider running fibre optic cable. Running to/from your network hub (i.e to/from the street) and TV/media areas are the first places to consider. Next, think about other areas that could use a lot of data, e.g. den. You can consider pulling it to Wi-Fi access points too, as when Wi-Fi data rates increase, fibre can feed it. You might not use your new fibre cable for a while, but it’s likely you’ll leverage it when 4K video hits the mainstream. Its a whole lot more affordable and less messy to install wire in the walls at build time than trying to do it later when your walls are all finished.
Our current minimum recommendation is duplex (two cables together) multimode OM3 (up to 100 Gbps) fibre optic cable, as current fibre equipment expects duplex, and its fast enough for the foreseeable future. The cost of fibre and related equipment will only come down. Sometime in the future when you’re setting up a new 4K TV system (or 8K TV!) or other data hogging gear, you’ll be happy you have your fibre optic cable ready.