What is Fiber Optics & Do I Need it?

What is Fiber Optics? Simon Christen

When you hear about Internet speed and high-tech bundled services that offer on-demand HD television viewing, the term, “fiber optics” tends to crop up. What is fiber optics and why is it considered to be superior to other technologies? Some service providers already offer fiber connections to your home while others bring the fiber into the neighborhood, but make the connections to the home with wire. Eventually, many homes will be connected to the Internet with fiber optics, but it will take at least several more years to become common.

What Is Fiber Optics?

Fiber optics is a communications technology that relies on fibers of transparent material to send signals in the form of light. Normal signal cables use electrical signals sent over conducting materials to transmit data. Optical fibers are thinner and can transmit much more data than electrical cables. The Fiber Optic Association has a reference guide to fiber optics that gives a lot of the details of history and use.

Telephone companies were the first to switch to fiber optics for their main trunk lines and the Internet backbone network has always used fiber optics. Once you are connected to the Internet with an optical fiber, your connection speed will be high enough to download a movie in seconds or watch up to 16 high-definition channels at the same time.

How Does It Work?

Fiber opticsEach optical fiber is made up of a tiny strand of glass. The material is so thin that it bends readily without breaking. This strand, which is thinner than a human hair, is surrounded by another type of reflective glass or plastic, and the composite fiber is enclosed in a protective sheath. Communications companies shine a tiny light into the central fiber and the light beam carries the signal. When it hits the edges of the fiber, it reflects back into the center off the reflective coating. That way, the light can’t escape the fiber and can transmit the signal for long distances.

The optical fiber can transmit much more data than electrical cables. The University of Texas publishes course material on optical fiber communications. Although the fibers are smaller than electric wires, the light in the optical fiber has a higher frequency than electrical signals and can carry much more data. As a result, although an optical fiber costs more than a copper wire, when you compare how many fibers and wires you would need to transmit the data for an Internet trunk line, optical fiber is less expensive.

Another key advantage of optical fibers is their immunity to interference. Electrical signals are sensitive to magnetic and electric fields that distort the signal and add noise. Electrical interference is everywhere, ranging from stray radio waves to electrical noise given off by industrial machines. Light signals are unaffected by electrical noise. This signal immunity to interference makes the optical fibers more reliable and able to transmit a higher quality signal.

Fiber to the Home

While optical fibers are already in widespread use where communication companies have to transmit large amounts of data, the newest field of application is to connect individual homes directly to the Internet with fiber optics. Instead of changing the optical signal to an electrical one in the central switching station and bringing the signal to your home over a copper cable, service providers will lay the optical fiber right into your home. Each optical fiber has more than enough capacity to satisfy all your communication and entertainment needs.

The cost of optical fiber is holding back the installation of fiber directly to the home. While fiber optics costs less when you have to transmit a high data volume, a single optical fiber is still more expensive than a copper cable. Most residential customers will welcome the much higher Internet speed, but their data use does not fully load the optical fiber. Companies are rolling out pilot projects and bundling services to see if they can make money over the long term by connecting homes with fiber optics and supplying a wide range of services through the faster and more powerful connection.

As far as individual consumers are concerned, fiber to the home means paying more for higher quality services. To make the fiber optics connection worthwhile for the service provider, you’ll have to sign up for an extended period and get all your non-mobile communication and entertainment services in one bundle. These will include Internet Home Phone Service, High Speed Internet, Cable Television, on-demand television shows and on-demand video. You may also be able to sign up for Home Security services and music services may be offered.

This will cost more than the basic bundles you can get from your cable or telephone company, but the phone service will be high quality, the Internet will be faster and the television and video will be high-definition.

You don’t have to ask, “What is fiber optics?” anymore! It’s worth looking into the availability of fiber optics to the home in your area if you want this high level of service.

Photo Credit: Simon Christen