Copper, Fiber or Wireless?

By Jim Hayes | May 15, 2008
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While the debate over which is better—copper, fiber or wireless—has enlivened cabling discussions for decades, it is becoming moot. Communications technology and the end-user market, it seems, already have made decisions that generally dictate the media. The designers of cabling networks, especially fiber optic networks, and their customers today generally have a pretty easy task deciding which media to use once the communications systems are chosen.

Designing long-distance or outside plant applications generally means choosing cabling containing single-mode (SM) fiber over all other media. Most of these systems are designed to be used over distances and speeds that preclude anything but SM fiber. Occasionally, other options may be more cost effective. For example, if a company has two buildings on opposite sides of a highway, then a line-of-sight or radio optical wireless network may be easier to use, since it would have lower costs of installation and more easily obtainable permits.

Other than some telco systems that still use copper for the final connection to the home, practically every cable in the telephone system is fiber optic. CATV companies use a high-performance coax into the home, but it connects to a fiber optic backbone. The Internet is all fiber. Even the cellular antenna towers you see along the highways and on tall buildings usually have fiber connections.

Premises cabling is where the fiber/copper/wireless arguments focus. A century and a half of experience with copper communications cabling gives most users a familiarity with copper that makes them skeptical about any other medium. And in many cases, copper has proven to be a valid choice. Most building management systems use proprietary copper cabling-—for example, thermostat wiring—as do paging/audio speaker systems. Security monitoring and entry systems, certainly the lower cost ones, still depend on copper, although high-security facilities, such as government and military installations, often pay the additional cost for fiber’s more secure nature.

Surveillance systems are becoming more prevalent in buildings, especially governmental, banking or other buildings that are considered possible security risks. While coax connections are common in short links, and structured cabling advocates say you can run cameras for limited distances on Cat 5e or Cat 6 UTP like computer networks, fiber has become a much more common choice. Besides offering greater flexibility in camera placement because of its distance capability, fiber optic cabling is much smaller and lightweight. This allows for easier installation, especially in older facilities, such as airports or large buildings that may have available spaces already filled with many generations of copper cabling.

LAN cabling often is perceived as the big battleground of fiber versus copper, but the reality of the marketplace has begun to sink in for many users. The network user, formerly sitting at a desktop computer screen with cables connecting their computer to the corporate network and a phone connected with another cable, is becoming a relic of the past.

People now want to be mobile. More people are using laptops. Even more people who work on desktops at workstations, e.g., engineers or graphic designers, are carrying laptops with them to meetings and on business trips.

Besides laptops on Wi-Fi, people use Blackberrys and iPhones for wireless communications. Some new devices, such as the iPhone, allow Web browsing with connection over either the cellular network or a Wi-Fi network. Some mobile phones are portable voice over Internet protocol devices connecting over Wi-Fi to make phone calls. While Wi-Fi has experienced some growing pains and continual upgrades, at the 802.11n standard, it has become more reliable and offers what seems to be adequate bandwidth for most users.

The desire for mobility, along with the expansion of connected services, appears to lead to a new type of corporate network. More than was common in the past, the norm for corporate networks is fiber optic backbone with copper to the desktop where people want direct connections and multiple wireless access points for full coverage and for maintaining a reasonable number of users per access point.

What about fiber to the desk? Progressive users may opt for FTTD, as a complete fiber network can be a very cost-effective solution, negating the requirement for telecom rooms full of switches, with data quality power and grounds, plus year-round air conditioning. Power users, such as engineers, graphic designers and animators, can use the bandwidth available with FTTD. Others go for a zone system, with fiber to local small-scale switches—close enough to users for those who want cable connectivity instead of wireless—to plug in with a short patchcord.

It’s the job of the designer to understand the technology of communications cabling and the technology of communications, and to keep abreast of the latest developments in the technology and the applications of both.

HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at

About The Author

HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of the Fiber Optic Association. Find him at

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