Copper Vs. Fiber

By Claire Swedberg | Apr 15, 2013






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As bandwidth demands continue to rise, both copper and fiber cable manufacturers are developing products that offer greater capacity and flexibility. In the interest of providing expanding coverage for an increasingly bandwidth-hungry world, the copper cable industry is talking about a potential Category 8 twisted-pair copper cable. Cat 8 would more than double the capacity of the Cat 6a version, offering a bandwidth of up to 2,000 megahertz (MHz). Compared to Cat 6’s 500 MHz, that would mean quadruple the capacity for TV, video, satellite, audio and CCTV; for this reason, Cat 8 cable would be suitable for faster Ethernet connections. (See the Quiz on page 44 to test your knowledge of Cat 8.)

At the same time, for fiber, the accommodation of greater bandwidth has been easier, and costs are coming down.

While the fiber and copper markets compete, hybrid and wireless solutions may change the playing field dramatically. Doug Jenkins, fiber business unit leader at ThorLabs, which makes fiber data transmission cable, sees several more technologies on the horizon. For instance, a hybrid fiber optic solution that incorporates electrical and optical signals has captured the market’s attention.

The hybrid cable, with optical fibers and metallic conductors, comes with a cable jacket and slots into which cables are inserted. It can combine video, audio, data, control, power, and other signals onto two single-mode optical fibers with copper conductors. A crosspiece connects the parts of the cable jacket forming the slots. Hybrid cables are already widely used, specifically in cellular systems where they are run up cellular towers to connect the antennas to ground electronics.

Fiber to the home (FTTH) has enabled data to be carried in high volume. This solution, Jenkins said, can also be seen in commercial markets. FTTH, also called fiber to the premises (FTTP), consists of installing optical fiber from a single central point directly to individual buildings, such as residences, apartment buildings and businesses, to provide Internet access at unprecedented speed. In comparison to existing technologies, FTTH also boosts the connection speeds available to computer users.

Millions of homes around the world are now directly connected on fiber optics. The sheer volume of this application has dropped the cost of connecting homes to a level where it is cheaper to replace older copper rather than paying the high cost to maintain it. The technology has become so cost-effective that it is being used in enterprise local area networks (LANs) in place of copper with significant savings in initial cost and operational cost, especially the electrical power needed to operate it.

Whether copper or fiber, the effort is to keep up with consumer demands. However, Cat 8 copper cable may be more about hype than true solutions, said Jim Hayes, president of The Fiber Optic Association. The copper cabling industry, Hayes said, has been tenacious and smart. While fiber optic cable makes strides in the low-voltage market to enable the transfer of data with increasingly wider bandwidth, copper cable has been quick to respond. Cat 5e was higher speed than Ethernet cable; then Cat 6e provided 10 gigabits of bandwidth.

Copper proponents are exploring developing Cat 8 as a way of staying relevant in the high-speed network arena. However, there are drawbacks. Since copper involves the transmission of electrons instead of photons, the cable offers different challenges than its fiber optic alternative. When data is moving at higher speed, electrons must overcome greater resistance and, therefore, require more power to process signals.

For fiber, the move into greater bandwidth has been less challenging, since it can easily provide data rates of 40 or 100 gigabits per second. The exception is multimode optical fiber (commonly used in data centers) that is suffering from the same requirements for additional power that copper requires. Multimode optical cable has a large diameter that carries rays of light, which can be hard to synchronize, leading to bandwidth problems at high speeds. That creates a challenge for fiber cable manufacturers making layers of glass that can move data at higher speeds.

Single-mode fiber, which can be used in most installations, can run at very high bandwidth, and speed is limited only by the speed of the transmitters and receivers. One-hundred-gigabit versions are being tested now.

Copper, Hayes said, starts to look impractical at more than 1 gigabit per second, while multimode fiber cable can be impractical at 10 gigabits.

Ultimately, the market makes the decision about what cable meets the demands of the times. For years, most low-voltage cable solutions have been copper, and that isn’t likely to change for some time.

“If you go to traditional companies in the cabling business, they make the bulk of their income from copper,” Hayes said.

The equipment is cheaper, for one thing. Copper has always made up most of the market, while fiber is still viewed as a specialty cable. Often, companies still put fiber adapters on copper networks. 

“In the last five years, something strange has happened,” Hayes said. 

The fiber manufacturers, he said, have been chipping away at the copper dominance and have found their way into the backbone in many installations. Standards committees are writing codes for centralized fiber from the equipment room to the desktop.

And while copper and fiber have been locked in competition, the dynamics have changed. Laptops are replacing desktop computers, and smartphones are replacing landlines. Wireless, in fact, is moving in and taking over. A lot of networks look similar to those of the past, but the number of people wired into the network is shrinking—engineering and accounting departments may require wire connections, while many other departments don’t. This wireless dominance has grown over the past five years, during a recession, and Hayes speculated that economic growth may mean some more rapid changes.

This isn’t bad news for contractors. Wireless systems still need to be wired, and access points require as much cable as previous systems did.

FTTH, in the meantime, is being used for large enterprise networks. The U.S. government has installed FTTH solutions for networks that may have 8,000 users connected and operating at speeds of 10 gigabits per second. Equipment rooms are smaller, and the number of telecom rooms has shrunk. In this case, single-mode fiber to a local four- or two-port switch could then connect to copper or fiber cables. The solution costs about half as much as traditional data communication systems, uses one-fifth of the power and about one-tenth of the space.

One recent example is the new 400,000-square-foot San Diego Central Library with nine floors, including a charter high school and auditorium, and about 4,000 users all fed by a single optical fiber cable to each switch instead of a bundle of copper cables.

Optical LANs do not require electrical power between the main equipment room and the end-user area. This feature substantially reduces heat and decreases or avoids entirely the need for air conditioning in server rooms or in the independent distribution frame (IDF). It also has the potential to eliminate IDFs altogether. In addition, optical LAN equipment offers data connectivity up to gigabit speeds for all library visitors.

“It’s a lot cheaper, and it’s been a topic of discussion at standards meetings,” Hayes said.


Panduit, a fiber systems provider, is offering technology intended to accommodate greater bandwidth without large expenditures for end-users. Its Signature Core laser-optimized 50-­micron multimode fiber, for example, can be used in applications that, in the past, would have required single-mode fiber.

Corning Cable Systems also provides end-to-end fiber optic and copper cable systems. The company provided an FTTH installation for the foreign policy issues debate between President Barack Obama and candidate Mitt Romney at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., to meet the need for expanded bandwidth and then left the system in place for the university. The system consists of a single fiber optic cable and the company’s Closet Connector housings. The company’s low-voltage systems are also in use at large venues, including the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium.

Despite the changes underway, most low-voltage contractors still install copper since they work with smaller networks where they don’t intend to use an optical local area network.

The greatest market for electrical contractors may be installation of single-mode fiber solutions and the removal of outdated cable networks.

“They’ll make a ton of money taking out old cable,” Hayes said. People may not consider the cost of removing copper when they do their installations, but, Hayes said, “it’s a tricky business taking that out.”

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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