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What is Fiber Internet?

October 28th, 2021

Updated 5/18/22

Summary: Fiber internet is the latest in wired internet technology and it is revolutionizing speeds. It uses thin strands of glass to send and receive data, which makes it light years faster than copper cable connections. It’s the future of the internet, and it can change how you connect to everything from school to work to friends.

If you’ve changed internet plans recently or tend to get a lot of flyers from internet service providers, you’ve likely heard of fiber internet. But is it worth the hype? What is fiber optic internet, for that matter? We’ll discuss all of this and more. But if you’re looking for the quick answer, yes: it’s worth the hype.

What is Fiber Internet?

Fiber internet is the future of the internet connection — but in many places, it’s a future that’s already here! If you’re accessing the internet today, you’re likely using fiber internet in one way or another — whether it’s the backbone of your current connection or it’s actually coming to your house.

Even if your home’s internet connection is cable, DSL, or satellite, fiber is still the backbone of the internet as a whole and makes up the core of the internet. The biggest and fastest networks are linked together through fiber optic cables and top-of-the-line routers. The networks themselves are typically owned and operated by commercial, educational, government, or military groups and they create a stable foundation for internet service providers, content creators, and cloud providers.

A globe with the text Fiber Optic Cable connects your internet world. There is an internet cable that encircles the globe.

These cables are laid all across the world — and even underwater — to keep everyone connected. Fiber cables are the ideal equipment for this job because they last longer, are less susceptible to damage, and can handle more data and faster speeds. So, they have to be replaced far less often than other types of wires.

The connection that comes to your home is known as “last-mile internet.” It’s what connects you to the rest of the web and impacts your speed. Last-mile internet gets complicated in more rural areas where the distance between residences can be significantly larger than in urban areas.

How Does Fiber Optic Internet Work?

You know fiber internet is paving the way forward, but what is a fiber optic network, and how does it work?

Fiber internet transmits data by sending light pulses along thin glass fibers — also known as fiber optic cables. The use of light signals makes it faster and more reliable than standard copper cable allowing it to send information over long distances more efficiently.

Traditional cable internet, on the other hand, uses electricity to send information over copper wires. These wires use metal, which makes them more susceptible to interference from nearby high-voltage electrical equipment (like power lines) and weather disruptions.

Fiber Optic Cables

So just how thin are the optical fibers? Slightly larger than a human hair. The fibers are bundled together to create fiber optic cables that carry the light signals we mentioned. Interestingly, many providers are laying additional fiber optic cables while they’re building out the network. The lines that are not yet being used are often called “dark fiber” (“lit fiber” is the part that’s currently available for use) and will be available for future development. Already having these fiber optic internet cables will save time and money as the networks expand because companies won’t have to dig in the ground again to bury more wires.

Together, these fiber cables create fiber optic networks. There are a few types, but each one begins with the cables running from the network hub to the curb near your home or straight to your home. The fastest type of fiber network (the one that gives you speeds up to 1 Gbps) is Fiber to the Home (FTTH). It’s a 100% fiber connection, so not a single part of your connection — from your home to the larger network — is slower.

There’s another type of network, called Fiber to the Curb (FTTC), which is a partial fiber connection. The fiber cables run to the curb near your home but copper cables connect your home to the nearby fiber network. This is more affordable for many internet service providers, especially in areas where houses are more spread out. If this is the type of fiber connection you have, you’ll still see increased speeds compared to having a 100% cable connection, but you won’t be able to enjoy speeds up to 1 Gbps, simply because the copper cables cannot handle that speed.

How Fast is Fiber Optic Internet?

Fiber internet tends to create buzz around its speeds. But how fast is it really? Well, you can get download speeds up to 5 Gigs (also known as 5,000 Mbps), although 1 Gig is more popular. Still, that’s blazing fast. For context, cable internet download speeds are typically between 10 Mbps and 500 Mbps. So even if you’re on the fastest cable plan, fiber is probably twice as fast.

But the really impressive part is upload speed. Fiber boasts symmetrical speeds, meaning that your upload and download speeds are the same — in this case, up to 1 Gbps. Cable (and most other types of internet) have asymmetrical speeds and upload speeds usually max out at 50 Mbps.

In the past, upload speeds weren’t a big concern. The majority of real-time interacting was text-based, like AIM and email. Now, we’re using high-speed internet connections for activities like video chatting and live gaming, which require higher amounts of data. To avoid lags (and having to repeat yourself on calls), you’ll need faster upload speeds to send the data to a server and to the person on the other end. And our demand for high download speeds keeps increasing, too, as graphics become better and games become more competitive. Only fiber internet can offer extremely fast symmetrical speeds.

As if that wasn’t enough, fiber internet also uses a dedicated connection. In other words, your household is the only one using that connection to get online. Cable internet often uses a shared connection, which is quite literally shared among several households — sometimes even an entire neighborhood. This can lead to congestion and difficulty getting on the network if many other people are trying to access it at the same time.

What Makes Fiber Internet Different?

Internet options abound. What makes fiber so different? You can read more about the best type of home internet, but we’ll give you the basics here.

  • Fiber internet vs. Dial-up internet: we credit dial-up with kickstarting the internet as we know it today (and for all of our angsty away messages), but there’s no competition. Fiber internet is faster, more reliable, and more secure than dial-up internet. Plus, you can be on the phone at the same time.
  • Fiber internet vs. DSL internet: Some types of DSL do offer symmetrical speeds, just like fiber. But those speeds are a fraction of what you’ll get with fiber (think 15 Mbps compared to 1,000 Mbps). Fiber still wins in this case.
  • Fiber internet vs. Cable internet: Cable internet offers the most comparable speeds to fiber, but fiber still wins. Fiber has faster and symmetrical speeds, is more reliable, and the cables themselves last longer. That means you’ll probably have fewer network repairs (and related downtime) to worry over.

What are Other Benefits of Fiber Internet?

If increased speed and reliability aren’t enough to convince you, how about increased security? Fiber internet is more secure than other connections because it’s faster. The signals are harder to intercept and trying to tap into the lines will typically require breaking the glass, so any potential breaches will be quickly discovered. But if security is on your mind, we recommend choosing a dark web protection package that offers a VPN so you can stay secure wherever you roam on the World Wide Web.

We tend to think of the internet as being eco-friendly, especially as it’s cut down on the need to commute to offices for meetings and print paper. But it still takes a massive amount of energy and electricity to run all the necessary servers and keep everyone connected.

Fiber internet is actually a more environmentally-friendly option.

Copper cable wires wear down and deteriorate due to distance and use, and they’re typically replaced with fiber cables. While the transmitters and receivers that connect each end may need replaced and upgraded occasionally, new cables won’t need to be buried. That’s a win for your wallet and for the environment.

So really, what’s not to love about fiber internet? If you’re ready to find the plan that’s right for you, chat with one of our Internet Experts at 866-383-3080 today!

Michelle Ricker

Michelle Ricker

Michelle Ricker is the Content Marketing Manager for EarthLink. She's an internet expert who loves to break down why connectivity topics are relevant to everyday life. With more than five years of writing experience, she thrives on storytelling and well-placed punctuation. She graduated with her M.A. from the University of Cincinnati but currently lives and works in Atlanta.

See all posts from Michelle Ricker.