Is Fiber the Future?

11.7.2016, Written by Nora Hartman

fiberIn a way, this question has already been answered by the current telecom landscape.

Almost all internet connections in America rely on fiber at some point along the connection. That’s because of something called the US long-haul fiber optic system. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin mapped the network across the country, and the results can be seen in this animated video. Looking at the map, it’s clear that nationwide fiber coverage is already immense. That in mind the right question to ask is really: “is fiber the future of our in-home and in-business connections?”

Team Fiber has a lot of backers. There’s the disrupters, startups such as Wicked Fiber and Ting Internet. Then there’s the huge telecom companies such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, all of which manage a large chunk of the fiber infrastructure in U.S. cities. Even Alphabet, the mother company of Google, has claimed a stake in the fiber market with the presence of Google Fiber in eight American cities.

This support for fiber alone means fiber to the home connections are more likely than that of other technologies. Fiber optic technology is currently the fastest way for Americans to access internet, with Google Fiber clocking in speeds way above private companies, at a lightning 353.7 megabits per second. For comparison, the leading major internet service providers, Comcast Xfinity and Verizon FiOS, reached max speeds of 49.6 megabits per second. Both figures are a far cry from just one year earlier, when internet speeds were half as fast.

Of course there are obstacles. For all the talk of gigabit per second speeds and affordable internet access, establishing the networks that will allow this to happen is a labor laden process. Consider the installation of fiber optic cables — they’re underground. That means changing or adding to the network involves tearing up roads, lawns, and other municipal infrastructure in order to fiddle with cable connections. This can lead to permit challenges and economic obstacles for telecom companies, municipalities, and private users alike.

Linking rural and small town residents to the fiber optic network also presents additional infrastructure and cost challenges, leading to the industry naming the issue “the last mile” hurdle.

Non Fiber Solutions

With heavy infrastructure demands, it’s no surprise that people are proposing alternatives to fiber.

One of those alternatives is millimeter wave technology, and if promises are kept, it could be faster (in the gigabit per second range) and less expensive than other options on the market. Like 4G LTE wireless signals users connect with on their phone, millimeter wave technology sends data through the air using base stations scattered throughout a city or neighborhood.

Just as with fiber technology, millimeter wave has its challenges. For one thing, experts still don’t know how far signals can transmit. Unlike fiber which runs underground for miles, millimeter wave base stations should be no more than a mile away from a user. Signals are also vulnerable to disruptions from weather changes and physical structures. The technology is still very early in the experimental stage, and though some startups have begun to claim the future of millimeter technology is near, it’s unclear whether it can be a viable option, not to mention an alternative to already-established fiber connections.

Expanded Wi-Fi networks are also looking to provide some competition to fiber. A better Wi-Fi connection called HaLow has been launched, with Wired reporting that it could double the range of existing Wi-Fi networks. However, this internet connection likely won’t play as major a role when it comes to browsing the internet on a personal device; HaLow is looking more at the market of smart home devices and wearable technology — small items that need a better way to connect to the network.

So while there are other options for Americans to get their internet fix, fiber is looking like the leading choice for now.