High-speed broadband internet access is basically a necessity to participate fully in U.S. society today. Your modem — that little electrical enclosure with cables running in and out of it — is your gateway to finding jobs, accessing services, starting businesses, communicating with friends and family and generally living a full life.
However, it matters what kind of technology you’re using to connect to the internet. Coaxial cable internet is still the most common choice by far, but fiber optic is increasingly becoming available, especially in big cities.
Today, we’ll discuss the differences that you should know about when it comes to cable and fiber optic internet connections. Specifically, we’re analyzing how both affect the Wi-Fi options you’ll be working with at home or in your business.
What Is Cable Internet?
For most Americans, cable internet has been the standard high-speed broadband option for years. It’s what most large ISPs like AT&T and Xfinity offer, and it’s the standard in both homes and businesses. The average download speed of a cable modem is anywhere from 20 to 100 mbps, while the average upload speed is somewhere between 5 and 50 mbps.
A cable modem connects to the internet via the same kind of coaxial cable that carries cable TV signals. Like DSL before it, cable internet is a copper-based connection technology. It uses electrical signals transmitted through copper wire to send data over long distances.
Copper has lots of advantages that have made it the standard choice for decades, and it’s still useful and reliable for millions of people today. Most U.S. houses and apartments already have coaxial jacks installed, which makes it easy to plug in a cable modem and get to work setting up your internet.
The main drawback of coaxial cable internet is that it places users on local networks that have limited data capacity. If you live in a dense neighborhood, your internet connection might slow during the peak demand hours in the early evening. Cable internet speeds also have a relatively low ceiling for upload speeds, which can make them less suitable for applications like gaming and video conferencing.
What Is Fiber Optic Internet?
Fiber optic is the next generation of internet connection technology and the new belle of the ball when it comes to data speeds and reliability. Unlike copper-based cable, fiber optic cables use a tiny strand of glass to transmit light pulses, which makes them much faster than a coaxial cable connection and able to carry much more data.
What’s the typical speed of a fiber optic connection? Most fiber optic service offers at least 1 gbps data speeds, but the numbers can go much higher — much higher. In fact, big tech companies have started running massive undersea fiber optic cables with eye-popping speeds of up to 60 terabytes per second. This is why people say fiber optic is “future proof” — it has lots of room to improve speeds as technology evolves.
Upload speeds are the biggest difference between cable and fiber that the average user is likely to notice. Fiber’s upload speeds are significantly faster, which makes it an ideal choice for gaming, remote collaboration and other tasks that require low latency communication.
Unfortunately, the high cost of installing fiber internet continues to hold it back from universal use. Only 32 percent of the U.S. currently has fiber internet coverage, and almost all of that is within major urban areas. That’s bad news for rural areas, which were already struggling with a lack of broadband internet.
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Cable vs. Fiber Optic Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is how most people access the internet on their devices while at home (and sometimes in public spaces too). So, if you’re considering the question of cable vs. fiber, you’ll probably want to know how it affects your Wi-Fi options.
The good news is that your Wi-Fi will remain compatible with all your devices even if you switch to fiber. Your network will simply be much faster! Fiber optic isn’t a new connectivity standard like 5G, meaning you don’t need a new type of device to access it. However, your devices may need compatibility with the new Wi-Fi 6 standard to get access to fiber’s fastest speeds.
There is one big difference in cable and fiber optic Wi-Fi: security. Coaxial cable internet is vulnerable to cable tapping, in which cybercriminals place a tap on a line to intercept signals. Think of people stealing cable in the 90s and early 2000s — it’s the same technology and the same principle.
Fiber optic cables are much more difficult to hack, which makes your Wi-Fi more secure when using fiber internet. However, you still need to remember to use Wi-Fi security best practices on your networks to prevent other types of signal intrusion threats.
Cable vs. Fiber Optic Network Equipment
The network equipment that you’ll need to set up a Wi-Fi network will vary depending on whether you choose cable or fiber. Let’s take a quick look at the differences in network equipment requirements between cable and fiber.
For a cable connection, you’ll need a cable modem to connect to the coax jack in your home or business. Many people rent a cable modem from their ISP, but it’s also possible to buy one of your own online. Most standard Wi-Fi routers will be compatible with a cable internet connection, although, again, people who want the fastest speeds will want a Wi-Fi-6-compatible router.
You can’t use a standard coax modem with a fiber optic connection. Instead, you’ll need a device called an optical network terminal (ONT). These devices aren’t generally available to the public; instead, your fiber ISP will provide you with one and install it for you. An ONT will typically be mounted on the outside of your house in a waterproof knockout box that keeps it safe from weather conditions while allowing cables to pass through.
The router is the final piece of the puzzle for fiber optic users. Standard Wi-Fi routers are compatible with a fiber optic connection, but remember that you’ll need to purchase a Wi-Fi 6 router, as well as a compatible Ethernet cable such as a Cat 6A. Most devices will transition to Wi-Fi 6 and Cat 6A in the next several years, so you’ll get to enjoy being ahead of the curve in more ways than one!