The Future of Network Cabling: Fiber & Copper Together

With the technological advancements & increasing internet speed raises a question as to whether to use traditional copper as the physical interconnector or upgrade to fiber to support these higher speeds.

In this blog post, we are going to see the main difference and consequences of using both on the same platform.

Size and Space:

The main difference will be fluctuation in size and weight. Everyone has seen a traditional Cat5/Cat6 and a fiber cable. The clear difference here is that a duplex fiber optic cable provides 25 percent space savings and 50 percent weight savings over shielded bulk cat5e cable. Moreover, optical fiber cables are lighter, thinner, and more efficient than their copper counterparts. However, it is important to note that fiber cables are a bit more fragile and require special tools to terminate connections.

Transmission Speed:

Traditional Cat5 twisted pair copper cables support a transmission rate of 100 Megabits per second. On the same side, Cat 6 supports an impressive rate of 10 Gigabits per second up to a distance of 300 feet.

Whereas new fiber cables and new transmission protocols are booming each and every day. For mobile military platforms, fiber can support anywhere from 100Mbps up 10 Gbps. However, in data centers and service provider interconnects, fiber support the speed of 40, 50, 75, and 100 Gbps. And you can even see 400Gbps speed tested and implemented.

Signal loss:

One of the major disadvantages of copper bulk ethernet cable is that they experience mass signal loss over long distances. If we look at the effective limit of a copper run, that is about 100 meters. Other distances longer than that require ethernet switch, ethernet extender or media converter that can basically link two runs of copper together. Another way is to terminate the copper run and add a link to a fiber connection for the additional distance.

On the other hand, fiber optic cables can run without significant signal loss over longer distances. As new technologies are constantly coming ahead, a single mode fiber can support up to 100 Gbps up to 10km without any significant signal loss.

EMI and cross talk:

Copper cabling is responsive to crosstalk and both radio frequency and EMI as it transfers an electrical signal. Cat6 Ethernet cables lessen the interference, but it does not escape it. The interference can be controlled with several measures which include an internal spline to separate the twisted pairs.

As the fiber optic cable doesn’t carry electricity but light, it is immune to the interference problem which can plague copper cabling.

Environmental concerns:

Copper cables can potentially be a fire hazard in the long run. Because there is an electrical current passing through a plug which can wear over time. Whereas there is no electricity involved in the transmission of fiber optic signals, there is no concern of fire. Many users believe that fiber’s size and weight make it less resistant to the installation. But the fact is fiber is more durable with a higher tension limit than copper and stands up to environmental changes.

But why till date many of the platforms still use traditional bulk cat5e cable/cat 5 cables?

  1. Till the date, fiber was an expensive cable. The overall economics of fiber has changed globally over the years; hence, the cost is becoming a less mitigation factor.
  2. Fiber is sensitive metal. It reacts on twisting and kinking. It is a complex install. It changes rapidly with newer fibers, connectors and installation tools.
  3. There is a huge installed base of copper, which is here to stay. Hence, many of them feel that the change of copper cables to fiber is optional.
  4. A huge number of devices which need to connect still have only copper connector interfaces.

In the meantime, there are various ways to handle this situation. Many bulk ethernet cables and switches support the connection of copper as well as fiber. This way, devices connected with either physical medium will be able to communicate with each other. In such a scenario, physical media converters can act as a bridge between the two media offering a range of configurations which support fiber in/copper out or copper in/fiber out or many other configurations.

When it comes to big enterprises and data service providers, they have the way to replace copper with fiber in almost every new deployment. However, mobile and airborne platforms lag behind this evolution for many reasons. Speed requirements are not that much in demand, but field repairs and deployments are often harder. And finally, there comes the cost factor. We can expect to see the continued evolution from copper to fiber, but at a controlled pace. In the meantime, we can continue seeing the physical intermediary technologies that co-exist for many years to come.