What is the difference between fiber and cable?
In general, fiber home internet is newer, faster, and more reliable—and quickly becoming available across the country at competitive pricing. Cable internet provides high-speed options for communities still awaiting a fiber revolution.
Fiber vs. cable internet, summarized
Fiber optic vs. cable internet technology
Cable networks use primarily copper wiring to send internet signals, while fiber networks use fiber-optics. Fiber optics are dramatically more efficient than copper wiring.
Cable internet evolved out of cable TV service, which was invented in 1948 and commonplace by the 1980s. Cable service uses copper wiring to send data across the network and, at the homes of end users, a modem to convert signals into the digital data you see on a computer screen.
Copper wiring sends data packets through electrical pulses. The longer data has to travel on a copper line, the more packets may burn off as heat and cause potential problems with lag.
Fiber optics have a longer history, first ideated in the 1800s, refined in the 1950s, deployed in government and commercial telecom networks by the 1970s, and offered to individual consumers starting in the 2010s.
Fiber optics send digital data in pulses of light, along transparent glass or plastic strands, rather than using electricity. The transparent strands carry light pulses so efficiently that barely any packets burn off as heat, resulting in astonishing speeds and virtually no lag.
Fiber vs. cable download speeds
Because of the efficiency of fiber optics, fiber networks deliver mind-blowing download speeds, starting in the triple digits and easily reaching Gigabit speeds by bundling more fiber optics in the protective casing.
Copper cables can’t reach download speeds as high as fiber on their own, but cable providers have increased cable speeds over the years by incorporating fiber into their networks too. When you see a cable provider with competitive download speeds to fiber, it’s because they’re also using fiber.
Even with comparable download speeds, however, lag can make your internet feel slow. The more copper in a network, especially in the “last mile” (i.e., the space between your provider’s data center and your home), the more lag or latency you’ll experience, and the more time will pass between a click and its desired result.
Fiber-optic vs. cable internet upload speeds
Fiber optics offer upload speeds that are equal (or “symmetrical”) to download speeds—and they’re dramatically faster than the upload speeds cable offers.
Because fiber optics were first developed for commercial and government use, customers transmitted massive amounts of data, usually sent as much data as they received, and needed those symmetrical upload speeds to avoid processing delays. Fiber optics easily delivered.
Copper cables, on the other hand, take a lot of energy to send internet traffic back toward the provider’s data centers. They also run into more interference at the end of the connection, leading to more data loss.
Home internet users don’t use as much upload bandwidth as commercial clients do. But symmetrical upload speeds can improve your experience on upload-heavy activities like video calls, gaming, or file sharing; they barely raise costs for you or your provider; and they’re “future proof,” meaning they will easily accommodate upgraded internet uses that become common in a few years.
The reliability of fiber internet vs. regular cable
Fiber optic networks resist packet loss and environmental factors much better than metal cable networks. This makes fiber an extremely reliable and efficient technology suited to all sorts of climates and long distances from urban hubs.
Reliability can also be felt and measured by individual internet users. As mentioned above in the discussion around download speeds, lag can make an internet connection feel slower and less reliable.
Lag, also known as latency or ping, measures the time it takes for data to successfully go from point A to point B. The actual ping rate of an internet service will differ for every single end user and can even vary by time of day. But average rates can be deduced based on technology type.
Ping rates for both fiber and cable internet are under 1 second—they’re measured in milliseconds. But while gaming or presenting in a video meeting, you can feel the difference. (Not convinced? If you’ve ever rage-quit a tab that took longer than 5 seconds to load, you’ve noticed lag.)
Again because of the hyper efficiency of fiber optic cables, lag is very low on fiber networks. Cable users may experience more lag than fiber users, especially at crowded times on the network (e.g., after school or traditional business hours).
Availability of internet fiber vs. cable
Cable internet is much more widely available than fiber. Cable was common in American households by the 1980s, while fiber was first introduced in American households in the 2010s and is still making its way across the country.
Affordability of fiber vs. cable internet
If you take a national average, cable plans run cheaper than fiber plans. But the national average doesn’t matter as much as prices in your area.
Cable has saturated most populated areas of the country, meaning the underlying network already exists and installation only requires connecting individual homes to that network.
When fiber providers enter a new area, however, they have to spend time and money building an entirely new network and balance their revenue accordingly. As a provider adds more customers, package pricing tends to go down, while available speeds tend to go up.
In fiber-rich communities, fiber and cable internet prices already run similar to each other. This trend will most likely continue nationwide.
Is fiber slower than cable?
No. Fiber-optic technology is capable of much higher speeds than cable (copper) technology, especially on outgoing (upload) data. In fact, when a cable plan offers triple-digit download speeds, it’s often because they’ve added fiber into their network to achieve it.
On the rare occasion that you see, for example, a fiber internet plan up to 200 Mbps and a cable plan up to 300 Mbps in the same area, it doesn’t mean fiber technology is slower; it means the fiber provider wants to offer multiple price points and divides bandwidth in a sustainable way.
The longer fiber stays in an area, the more likely you’ll get increased speeds for the rates you pay.
Is fiber or cable internet better for me?
It depends on how you use the internet. If you mostly stick with email, browsing, and social media, fiber and cable both offer reliable service at high download speeds. But if members of your household frequently game, attend school or meetings online, or stream TV into the wee hours of the night, fiber offers the consistently low lag and zippy upload speeds you’ll need for peak performance.
If you live where cable and fiber are both available, you can also check exact prices and deals (e.g., no annual contract, 30-Day Money Back Guarantee, etc.) to pin down the best internet service for your home. Visit getwindstream.com/kinetic-internet to view fiber savings near you.