Fiber vs. Cable: Understanding the Differences

Danika Miller
Danika Miller
Internet & Entertainment Writer

Staying connected in our modern world is no longer a simple endeavor. Not only will you be choosing between providers for your internet privileges and remote control rights, you’ll also have to choose the technology that powers those entertainment sources. DSL, satellite, fiber-optic, and cable are all options for internet and TV service across the country, and keeping track of the differences can be a difficult and involved process.

While DSL and satellite services have great availability, they can hardly compete with the speed and quality that fiber-optic and cable connections offer. The difference between fiber and cable is a bit more nuanced so we’ve pitted the two advanced services against each other to help you navigate your search for the best telco service. The short version: Fiber is faster, more reliable, and more expensive. Cable is slower, but it still supports fast speeds and is more widely available.

Beneath the Wires

Many of the differences between fiber and cable can be chalked up to the way they transmit information.

Fiber-optic technology uses small, flexible strands of glass to transmit the information as light. The strands are wrapped in a bundle and protected with layers of plastic, making fiber faster, clearer, and able to travel great distances. Fiber cables can also carry more data than a bundle of copper cables of the same diameter.

For traditional cable, data is transmitted via electricity. It uses coaxial cables to transmit data. Inside that coax cable is a copper core insulated with aluminum, a copper shield, and an outer plastic layer. Cable is more susceptible to weather events (like extreme cold, storms, etc.) and electromagnetic interference than fiber-optic because it uses electrical signals.

A Disparity in Quality

Because of differences in transmitting technology, fiber-optic services generally offer better quality. Most notably, fiber is faster. Fiber speeds typically range from 250 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps. It would take you less than 10 seconds to download a two-hour movie with 1,000 Mbps (versus 10+ minutes on a 20 Mbps connection). These speeds far outpace the median household internet speed of 72 Mbps (as of September 2017). Fiber-optic internet providers tend to offer symmetrical upload and download speeds, which means you can upload information to the internet just as fast as you can download it. The is extremely unique and will appeal to heavy internet users. If you’re constantly uploading information and data (like video conferencing for work or when gaming), this structure could save you a lot of time and minimize any lag.

Cable internet networks typically offer customers download speeds that range from 10 Mbps to 200+ Mbps, although upload speeds are a fraction of those numbers. The higher speed plans are likely to be enough for most households, based on FCC guidelines and our own research. Cable’s lower speed capabilities can cater to smaller households and minimal internet users who just do a bit of browsing and occasional movie streaming. But one of the big drawbacks of cable technology is that you share your bandwidth with neighbors: Your speeds will slow during evenings if the whole block is binging the latest season of “Stranger Things”. Overall, you’re looking at a more unreliable network susceptible to more outside factors.

Availability is Key

For customers, availability will be the starkest difference between fiber-optic and cable service. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has estimated that only about 14% of the U.S. can access fiber-optic speeds of 1,000 Mbps or more. By the same measure, cable internet has 88% nationwide coverage at speeds of 25 Mbps or more. That means you’re far more likely to find cable providers who service your address than fiber-optic ones.

Why the exclusivity? Building out fiber technology is a long, expensive process. Analysts have estimated that Google Fiber’s early nationwide expansion plan would have cost the company $3,000-$8,000 per home. If a provider like Verizon FiOS has decided to build out service in your neighborhood — you’ve essentially won the lottery.

Businesses interested in a fiber connection as a private, secure, and reliable network option can purchase Direct Internet Access (DIA) fiber and have a dedicated line built out to the office. Homeowners hoping for fiber will have to cross their fingers and watch the market.

Which is best for you?

For most people, cable technology offers great entertainment service. Its higher-tier internet speeds can support a full household of internet users. We’d also recommend cable for people who want to bundle their services to keep prices down. From what we’ve seen, fiber’s TV options are pretty limited, and providers will often contract another providers TV service in order to offer a bundle. For the best TV programming and bundle deals, you’re better off with cable service.

Fiber speeds are likely more than most people need right now, but it’s worth noting that fiber is future-proof. Every year, the internet is becoming more central to our lives, technology is advancing, and media quality is increasing (from HD to 4K to 8K). Each season sees more 4K streaming content released, which will take more data and speed to run. Nikolai Tenev, the founder of DigidWorks, told us that tech enthusiasts of every kind will benefit from fiber — designers, gamers, software engineers, etc. Tenev said, “Gamers often need to upload video in real-time while playing an online game. Even the slightest drop in connection or speed can result in them losing the match.” If fiber-optic technology is available to your address, internet enthusiasts and large households will enjoy the perks the most.

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About the Authors

Danika Miller

Danika Miller Internet & Entertainment Writer

Danika Miller has been writing for for three years, where she specializes in streaming, internet, and TV topics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in creative and technical writing from Western Washington University.