What Is Fiber Optic Internet And How Does It Work?

Fiber optics are all the rage these days. ISPs everywhere are laying fiber optic lines which they claim will provide superior speeds and reliability at a low cost.

Unless you’re an engineer, you probably don’t know much about fiber optic cables. While you don’t need to understand how the fiber optic cables work to take advantage of their superior speed and reliability, they are a modern marvel, so you are probably curious.

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into fiber optic internet so that you will understand what makes them great, how they work, and why you should be opting for fiber optics whenever you can for your internet service.

Using Light For Communication

Fiber optic cables are clear strands of plastic or glass that is about as thin as a spider’s silk. Some fiber optic cables are even thinner than a strand of silk, but most are roughly as wide as a human hair. Fiber optic cables are bundled together into cords much like how a rope is wound from twine.

Each fiber is clear so it can transmit light very easily in any direction. The point of fiber optic communications is to transmit light from one point to another in a line. But what is the advantage of using light to go in a line?

Traditional internet wires are made copper or other conductive materials. These wires use electricity as their medium of communication rather than light. To do this, the metal cable must be insulated from outside electrical interference.

The way that traditional electrical wires work is a bit more complicated than the way that fiber optics work. When there is no information moving across an electrical internet line, there is no current in the copper wire.

When there is information flowing, the circuit element which blocks the current from moving through the wire is flipped. Electricity can flutter through the circuit element like water through a valve but in small packets. Then, the electricity moves down the copper wire to its intended destination.

Moving at the speed of electricity can be very fast. But the speed of electrons moving along a wire are still subject to the speed of the physical property of conductance. The material of the wire changes the speed at which the electricity can be conducted.

Copper is the most common material because it is an acceptable conductor. More expensive materials like superconductors provide faster speeds but they are exponentially pricier, and so they are rarely used.

That’s where fiber optics come in. Rather than using packets of electricity to send data, fiber optics use packets of light. The packets of light move at the speed of light in a directed fashion along the fiber optic cable.

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Over short distances, the difference may not be that noticeable to the user. But over long distances, fiber optic cables are much faster than metal internet cables. The signal which traverses the fiber optic cable is also much more durable.

Fiber optic signals require far less insulation from the outside world because the light is not subject to common levels of electrical interference. Hypothetically, in the laboratory, scientists might be able to subject light to electrical forces, but for fiber optic cables, these concerns are negligible.

Likewise, light does not require signal boosting or retransmission as frequently as metal wiring. Rather than the issues caused by electrons losing steam midway, fiber optics are limited by the opacity of the wire.

Fiber optic wires are extremely clear by default, as any opacity scatters the light and reduces its ability to travel. So, while fiber optic cables are much more resilient than copper wires with their signal, they still have a few issues.

As far as the cables themselves go, fiber optic cables are less resilient than metal cables. Copper wires can still transmit electricity even when they are damaged or exposed to the outside world, though they become less effective.

Fiber optic cables, on the other hand, are intolerant to any damage. A nick in the insulation which bundles the fiber optic threads together more or less completely deactivates the entire chain until it is fixed if there is any outside light contamination. In the dark, it makes no difference.

If the fiber optic threads themselves become damaged, they cannot carry any data and must be replaced. Because of how expensive fiber optics are to produce, they are typically better protected than copper wires as a result.

When You Might Use Fiber Optic Cables

For long-range cables that have to carry a ton of data, fiber optic cables are the preferred method. Many fiber optic cables are buried under the ocean as a result. These cables help to transmit information from one continent to the other and are safe under the ocean floor.

There are a few situations where fiber optic lines are not the best solution. These include extremely remote areas. Remote areas require a lot of digging to lay the fiber optic line and they may not have enough demand to recoup the costs for the infrastructure.

So for the time being, fiber optic lines are mostly in built-up areas and large suburbs.

Many neighborhoods also have fiber optic access to provide their internet access. Many companies are building more fiber infrastructure to provide faster and more reliable speeds to their entire network.

These companies typically rent out their fiber infrastructure to other companies who then resell access to consumers. You can purchase access from one of these providers.

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Reaping The Benefits Of Light Speed

From a consumer’s perspective, you can enjoy the benefits of fiber optics in a few ways.

First, you can watch higher definition content at higher reliability than you would otherwise. 4K video and 1080p video are manageable with fiber optic lines. With regular copper internet wire you can probably not view this content as efficiently, and so your ISP may throttle it.

With fiber optic cable there are few barriers to viewing the highest bandwidth-consuming content. Your ISP will be able to offer higher speeds at lower prices because of the efficiency of the cables. If you are not sure whether or not your ISP offers fiber optics you can probably find out by looking at their website.

Most ISPs like to brag about their fiber optic coverage because of how fast and new the infrastructure is. They may offer a specific fiber optic package, but the reality is that if your neighborhood has fiber optic lines, your ISP is already using them to deliver your internet.

You may be using fiber optic lines without realizing it. On the other hand, there are some neighborhoods which have both copper wire and also fiber optic line. You can opt into the fiber optic lines by changing your internet subscription.

You should be able to notice the faster speeds immediately when you switch to fiber optic internet. There is a high chance that your area does not yet have fiber optic cable if you are outside of major city areas, however.

Fiber optic cable is not yet fully permeated throughout the continent. Typically only the most affluent urban areas are fully equipped with fiber optics. At present, infrastructure providers are in the process of laying more fiber optic line everywhere that they think they can turn a profit.

It may take twenty or thirty years before fiber optic lines permeate the entire country. Some areas may not be good candidates for getting new fiber optic lines. Nonetheless, if you are interested in getting fiber optic internet, all it takes to start the process is a call to your ISP.

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Blair Campbell

Founder of GetInternet. Blair studied computer science at the California Institute of Technology Computing and Mathematical Sciences program, but he enjoys writing on the side. He grew up in southern California and now lives in Denver, Colorado.