The Cable War: Ethernet vs. Fiber

You have got me wrong! There is very little or no warfare between Ethernet and Fiber. In fact, they are blood brothers, both involved in delivering Internet to our devices – one through copper cable, the other through fiber optic cable. However, if we analyze the two in order to figure out who is the real winner, we are likely to make a mistake because each has its share of pros and cons, while their use varies in terms of location, distance and other factors.

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Developed first by Xerox way back in the early seventies, while being introduced commercially in the eighties, Ethernet uses copper cables to deliver data through electrical impulses. Usually falling under Cat 5 category, Ethernet uses eight individual 24-gauge copper wires that are grouped into four pairs, thus making the cable. However, transmission of data through copper wires is quite simple – the Ethernet port receiving the transmission distinguishes between an increase or decrease in voltage to determine the binary equivalent (0 or 1) where increase = 1, decrease = 0.

Breakthroughs in Ethernet technology

Earlier, Ethernet was pretty slow (10 Mbps over 100 m), whereas with the 802 IEEE Alliances, speeds now reach 2.5 and 5 Gbps and are already on track for 10 Gigabit Ethernet. With VDSL2 technology, it has gone further ahead. VDSL2 uses up to 30 MHz of bandwidth to give speeds of up to 100 Mbps – both downstream and upstream within 1000 ft! VDSL2 also made it easier for G.Fast. Test labs are now attaining speeds of up to 150 Mbits over 500 m loops.

Of course, consumer popularity is mostly responsible for these developments, while Ethernet extenders and SPF modems are most popular as these help homeowners and business persons save money. However, here are some common Ethernet cable types that are currently in use.

  • Cat 5e, where the ‘e’ represents ‘enhanced’ while the cables are produced under stringent parameters. These are also better than simple Cat 5 cables.
  • Cat 6, more expensive than Cat 5 but supports higher bandwidth than Cat 5 or Cat 5e
  • Cat 6a, where ‘a’ represents ‘augmented’ while having the capability of sustaining higher speeds over longer distances.
  • Cat 7, supports up to 100 Gbps over range of 15 m.


Even though Fiber Optic cables appear to have more recent entity for home Internet, yet the basic principle behind this highly effective technology dates back to many years. Why? The technology was used for television cameras (by NASA) on the Moon in 1969. However, fiber optic cables are currently used for high speed data transfer, as well as transferring data through long distances.

Incidentally, fiber optic cables consist of very fine strands of pure glass that transport data through light, in place of electrical impulses (as in Ethernet).

Fibers which support many propagation paths or transverse modes are called multimode fibers

(MMF), while those which can only support a single mode are called single mode fibers (SMF). Multi-mode fibers generally have a larger core diameter, and are used for short distance communication links and for applications where high power must be transmitted. Single mode fibers are used for most communication links longer than 1,050 meters.

 While Single-mode cables use laser light to send signals, multi-mode cables use light emitting diodes, or LEDs to send their signals. With fiber optics, data is represented by a combination of 1s and 0s, and in a fiber optic cable that means light either on or off, blinking extremely fast. Standard fiber optic cables transfer data somewhere between 10Mbps and 10Gbps, but a single strand of fiber optic cable has been proven to be able to carry data at up to a huge 100 terabits per second, or Tbps. Also, fiber optic cables are usually more secure than Ethernet cables, as they can’t be intercepted in the same way that Ethernet cables can.

Breakthrough in fiber optic technology

As earlier stated, fiber optic technology falls into two categories: Single and Multi. While Single mode fiber can now reach distances 50x greater than multimode can manage, but the cost can be too high for commercial use. However, in matter of speed, none can beat Fiber optic till now. Studies have revealed researchers achieving data speeds of a staggering 255 Terabytes per second (Tbps). Meanwhile,

 “A joint group of researchers from the Netherlands and the US have smashed the world speed record for a fiber network, pushing 255 terabits per second down a single strand of glass fiber. This is equivalent to around 32 terabytes per second — enough to transfer a 1GB movie in 31.25 microseconds (0.03 milliseconds), or alternatively, the entire contents of your 1TB hard drive in about 31 milliseconds.” – Extreme Tech

From overall perspective, both Ethernet and Fiber prove useful to many. However, if speed is what you prefer most, then you need to opt for fiber optic. If, on the other hand, if it is for a college or an university, Ethernet would suit best.