Understanding the Difference - Fiber Optics Vs Copper Cabling


Copper cables and fiber optic cables are two popular types of cables known to us. Copper cables have been there in the market for several years now. On the other hand, fiber optics although not totally new, has gained momentum over the last few years. According to many research reports, the fiber optics market is estimated to grow steadily for the next five to ten years at a good annual growth rate. There are multiple reasons why fiber optic networks are gaining traction despite being expensive. There are a number of benefits including the use of fiber optics in existing legacy networks. Fiber optic cables also offer many advantages such as improved bandwidth and extended geographical distances in a network. While copper cabling is still used in many places, both copper and fiber optic cables can be used in sync with each other, especially in case of existing networks. Also, copper cabling still may be beneficial in case of small networks restricted to just one building or so. This white paper discusses the differences between fiber optic and copper cables, pros and cons of each, and why fiber optics may become essential for even small to medium networks in the future.

A Brief Discussion on Copper Cables and Fiber Optic Cables

The following pointers would help you gain an understanding on copper cables and fiber optic cables.
  • Copper Cables: Copper in itself is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and hence copper cables have been used in wiring since the days of analog landline telephones and even before. A copper cable has one of the most complex constructions with several layers such as
    • A Conductor: This is a copper wire that triggers the flow of electrons
    • An Insulation: This prevents contact between the conductor wires
    • A Bedding: It  protects the inner layers from outer layers
    • An Armor: This assures mechanical protection
    • A Sheathing: It encloses cable components, as well as assure environmental protection
 
There are various types of copper cables such as shielded and unshielded twisted pair cables and coaxial cables, where the construction may slightly vary depending on the application. Unshielded or UTP cables are widely used in local area networks (LANs). Despite the increasing demand for fiber optics, copper cables are still used across industries for the many benefits they offer including cost. However, with the rising demand for high speed data transfer, seamless connectivity, and so on copper cabling may gradually pave way for fiber optics even in small applications. This is due to certain common issues with copper cables such as signal attenuation and less bandwidth.
  • Fiber Optic Cables: A fiber optic cable comprises fiber glass strands insulated with an outer covering that protects the strands from external parameters. Here, data is transmitted in the form of light signals or pulses. Each strand or core becomes a channel for light signals to be transferred. The glass covering around the strands reflect light inward facilitates the light signal to pass through various bends and twists in the network. Also, this increases the signal strength and bandwidth.
 

Copper Cabling – Advantages and Disadvantages Analyzed

Now that the construction and basic definitions of both fiber optic and copper cables are clear, here are the pros and cons of copper cabling.
The following are some pros of copper cabling.
  • Traditionally copper has been used because of its conductivity, and also because this metal is highly malleable and ductile. So, it can be easily cut into thin sheets or wires which eases the formation of cables.
  • This metal is relatively cheaper than silver and hence cost effective.
  • Copper has a high tensile strength and does not break easily. This property also allows copper to be used along with other metals to form an alloy for wiring applications.
  • Coper is resistant to corrosion and rust, and hence can be used in moist and humid areas as well.

Here are some cons of copper cabling
  • Copper wires are bulkier than fiber optic cables, and although easy to install, they may be difficult to move to another area
  • Copper cables may produce electromagnetic current and hence cause electromagnetic interference or noise across the network. This directly hampers the quality and speed of data transferred, and sometimes even crash the network.
  • The signals transferred over a copper cable may weaken, especially in case of long geographical distances. This causes delays in data transfer due to interrupted connectivity and reduced signal strength.
  • In defense and other mission critical application sectors, RF signals have been conventionally transmitted over a copper cable; however, there are issues pertaining to EMI, RF, and signal attenuation.

Fiber Optic Cables:  Advantages and Disadvantages Analyzed


Here are some pros of fiber optic cables.
  • Fiber optic cables are better in terms of signal strength, bandwidth, and seamless connectivity than copper cables. All these features enable uninterrupted data transfer at high speeds.
  • Fiber optic cables are lightweight and compact in size. This enables their installation in difficult to reach areas or cramped up spaces.
  • They have no doubt a huge capacity and help extend legacy networks in terms of speed and distance. This way, they help save on costs and efforts required to otherwise install an entire fiber optic network after unearthing the existing network.
  • Fiber optic cables are durable and can resist harsh environmental conditions, vibrations, moisture and so on as they pass beneath the ground as well as oceans in case of large networks.
  • Fiber optic networks are scalable and enable future expansions.
  • Fiber optic networks offer a better data security basically because of the way transfers data. When compared to copper cables, it is difficult to hack fiber optic systems.
  • Fiber optics is beneficial in terms of radio frequency (RF) as well, especially useful for mission critical application sectors such as defense, satellite communication, telecommunication, and aerospace. RF-Over-Fiber is a technology which enables the transmission of high-frequency RF signals over a fiber optic cable. However, this needs robust RF connectors which can prevent signal attenuations which may be caused due to the reflected light.
  • The fact that fiber optic cables are lightweight makes it easy for defense personnel to carry and install these cables in difficult terrains.
 
As of now, the only disadvantage of fiber optic cabling is huge upfront investments.  Installing fiber optic networks incur a significant cost, although they may offer cost effectiveness in the long run. But as the demand for fiber optics rises, and economies of scale are achieved, the prices of fiber optic cables, devices, and network installation may reduce.
 

Application and Installation of Fiber Optic Cables in Harsh Environments


There is a huge application for fiber optic cables in harsh terrains and outdoor environments encompassing water, oceans, high gradient slopes, and so on. They can be extremely efficient in terms of data transfer and volume, when clubbed with various fiber optic and PoE devices on the network. Here are some pointers to consider when designing and installing an efficient fiber optic network.
  • Requirement gathering is an extremely important aspect in any project, and this is no different.
  • Letting the manufacturer know your requirements in terms of installation, area, environment, and so on is key. To be able to design robust cables and devices which would withstand harsh weather, shocks, rain, vibrations, and so on, the manufacturer should know all these aspects of your working environment. This is especially crucial in defense and surveillance sectors.
  • Based on the above aspects, dimensions and tolerances are decided. Harsh environments need tolerances less than 1.5 inches.
  • Measure the end-to-end length of the cable assembly, which means from the initial connector to the last connector. It is also important to measure the length of the breaking out cables in the network.
  • Complying to the labeling and marking standards set by the local government is crucial. This is in terms of the character and font size, location of labeling, and the information mentioned.
  • Select the right cable accessories such as wraps, tubing, flexible boots connector, heat shrink, lacing tape, and so on.
  • The fiber size and the cable type should be compatible to each other, and so should be the type of connector such as LC, ST, SC, FC, and so on.
  • Always ensure you have extra cables and dummy terminals as a backup, and this also helps sealing the connectors. Keep some extra fibers and store them in connector back shells.
  • Talk to the manufacturer regarding the pinout design and if you need loopback pinouts. The use of loopback pinouts would depend upon the bend radii of the fiber optic cables, which should not be exceeded beyond limits.
  • Signal attenuation is directly proportional to the bend radius of the cable, exceeding which the cable may break or crack.
  • Setting the transmitter receiver specifications is crucial, and accordingly link loss should be calculated.

Conclusion


While copper cabling or legacy networks still exist and function, they are fine for very small businesses restricted to not more than a couple of floors and not spread in other cities or countries. However, installing fiber optics is ideal for big players and especially mission critical applications where speed and accuracy are key. Mid-sized businesses may opt for network expansion through fiber optic extended networks. This helps limit your budget and makes your network fast, robust, secure, and scalable. All in all, businesses in an expanding mode must opt for fiber optics. Most certainly, fiber optics is set to grow and stay for a long time till another equally or more disruptive technology enters the market. VERSITRON offers fiber optic network solutions and devices as well as network installation kits. For details, you can visit www.versitron.com and go through the information on various fiber optic network devices such as media converters, fiber switches, connectors, modems, and so on.  


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