What is “fiber” internet and do I need it
Q: I was recently contacted by a company that will soon start providing fiber internet service in the area where I live. The company representative said the price would be about what I’m paying now. What are the advantages and disadvantages of switching to fiber? Is it better to wait until the company has been in the area for a while? Thank you.
– PH Shalimar, Florida
A: From where this geek sits, it’s just a matter of technology moving forward. Your question may have been asked during the time when everyone was on a dial-up, and broadband services were starting to make the landscape in the form of digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable. At that time, both technologies existed and were stable, but they were not widely known by the average consumer, and therefore there were many questions about them. Today, it’s generally considered a solid, tried-and-true way to get an Internet connection to work, although it often depends more on the quality of the provider than on the underlying technology.
For those who aren’t in the know, in this context “fiber” refers to an optical fiber. This technology completely disdains metallic conductors, and instead relies on light pulses traveling through glass fibres. There was a time when no other technology could touch fiber for the speed delivered to your home router. Today, it’s a race between cable and fiber. Cable seems to top out at around 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), and the fiber bundles I’ve seen offer competitive speeds, with room for upward growth.
Fiber cables tend to be more reliable than copper or aluminum cables. Conventional cables use electricity to transmit their data signals, making them vulnerable to weather events such as storms and extreme hail, and to electromagnetic interference (EMI) from events such as lightning strikes or from nearby power lines or even other data cables. Optical fiber cables do not suffer from any of these problems.
I’m not sure I thought the salesperson who told you the price would be “about what you’re paying now”. First, “about” leaves some wiggle room, and second, fiber has always been more expensive than cable. If this changes, it will be good for all of us, because competition should generate lower prices as different companies try to win people’s business. I would caution you to read the nitty gritty, to make sure you don’t get involved in an introductory deal where the price is set for some time, but then goes up and you have a contract.
Unless the company is completely new and starting in our area, I don’t see anything to be gained by waiting until they’ve been in our area for a while. Trust me when I say I understand the desire not to be an early adopter and live on the bleeding edge of technology, but I think these principles apply more to new software releases, and the emergence of new types of devices. In this case, fiber is a solid technology that has already been in use for years. The concern (and rightfully so) is this company’s ability to deliver and their commitment to their customers. Like I said above, unless the company is completely new, you should be able to Google it and see how it performs in other markets.
One thing you didn’t ask, but I’ll mention because it’s a “gotcha” that not many people think about is the networking equipment that makes up your home LAN. You can bring the fastest, fastest speed you can find right to your doorstep, but if you’re tethering it to an old, outdated device that you might use to tether the devices on your side of the firewall, you’re severely limiting your potential. This, of course, is true no matter what technology your chosen ISP uses to wire your internet connection. So, make sure you have a router and switches capable of gigabit speeds, and remember that Wi-Fi only works at a fraction of those speeds.
Personally, I’m excited about the possibility of upgrading to fiber. If nothing else, it gives me a choice, so I’m not stuck with one provider. When you only have one option for a company to go to, there isn’t much motivation for them to go above and beyond for their customers.
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