An In-Depth Look at the Pros and Cons of Fiber Optic Networks

6.16.2014, Written by Annie Wang



Fiber optic communication is one of the latest technologies for transmitting information from one place to another. The introduction of fiber optic communication has revolutionized the telecommunications industry, transforming into the fiber optic broadband Internet service we know today. Unlike traditional transmission methods that send signals through metallic-based systems, fiber optics are not electrical in nature. The transmission device generates a light signal, which the fiber cable carries to a receiver. The fiber optic thread is not an active source that generates electricity.


Unlike cable broadband and digital subscriber line (DSL) service, a fiber optic connection won’t degrade over distance, allowing for consistent premium data transfer speeds. However, fiber optic connections also come with some limitations. Their high performance is pricey, so range is limited by the effective cost of such service. Here we’ll take a broader look at the advantages and disadvantages of fiber optic communication networks.


Advantages of Fiber Optics


1) Quality of Connection: Fiber optics are highly resistant to electromagnetic interference and have a low rate of bit error. Electromagnetic interference (EMI) is a disturbance caused by electromagnetic radiation from an external source. This disturbance can interrupt or degrade the performance of a conventional metallic cable connection and can be caused by an object that carries electrical currents, such as power lines or even the sun. Fiber optics are also resistant to corrosion, making them a good option for beachfront properties where copper cabling would otherwise be susceptible to degradation by salt and seawater.


2) Scalability: Fiber optics are much more scalable in nature as new equipment can be added easily and laid over the original fiber. Wavelengths can be turned on or off on demand, which allows for the easy provisioning of services and quick scaling for a growing business. Optical fibers are also much smaller in size and lighter weight than copper wiring. These fibers can typically be put in place in preparation for growth needs up to 15 to 20 years in the future. Although growth is often speculative, spare fibers can be included for future requirements to accommodate growth. Alternatively, additional cables can be put in place at a later time to make way for network expansion.


3) High Security: Security is a major concern for today’s businesses. With fiber optics, the data passed through the network is incredibly secure. Fiber optics do not radiate signals, so there is no way to listen in on the transmissions passing through. Furthermore, breaches are easy to identify as soon as they occur as any physical break in the system will cause a total system failure. Instead of having hardware situated in multiple locations, fiber optic networks also allow you to keep all of the hardware in one location for easier regulation and maintenance.


4) Long-Term Cost-Effectiveness: Over the long term, fiber optic networks do not require the same overhead as copper networks, and as copper’s value on the scrap market grows, theft can also be a major concern for conventional copper wiring. Although the upfront costs for a fiber optic network are higher because of the skills necessary for proper installation, the long-term scalability outweighs the initial investment. As the popularity of fiber optics grows, we are likely to see a decrease in cost over time.


Disadvantages of Fiber Optics

Although fiber optic networks present many advantages, there are also some disadvantages to take into consideration. These include physical damage, cost considerations, structure, and the possibility of a “fiber fuse”.

1) Physical Damage: Fiber is thinner and lighter than metallic wiring, so it makes for a more delicate system. Fiber optic cables are so small that they can be easily cut by accident during building renovations or rewiring. As fiber optic cables can transmit much more data than metallic networks, you would need fewer cables to service a greater number of people. This means that cutting just one cable could disrupt service for a large number of businesses and individuals. Wildlife also poses a threat as the Kevlar fiber cable jackets are intriguing to some species. Tunneling animals and rodents may chew through the cable, while many insects can find the cabling palatable. Anything that can wrap itself around the cable can also cut off the transmission. Fibers are also sensitive to bending, making laying fibers around corners a tricky business. Fiber optic networks are also susceptible to radiation damage or chemical exposure.


2) Short-Term Cost Effectiveness: Although costs are lower over the long term, fiber installation costs can still cost a pretty penny to implement. Special test equipment is often required along with installers that have skilled knowledge about laying a fiber optic network. Fiber endpoints and connection nexuses also require special equipment and setup. In addition, it may take specialized equipment to diagnose an issue with a fiber optics network, making for higher-cost fixes should the cables sustain damage.


3) Fiber Fuse: At high power, fiber optic networks are also susceptible to something known in the industry as “fiber fuse”. This occurs when too much light meets with an imperfection in the fiber. This occurrence can destroy long lengths of cable in a short amount of time.


4) Unidirectional Light Propagation: Fiber cables are also limited in the sense that they can only propagate light in one direction. If bidirectional communication is a necessary part of information transmission within a network, two concurrent cables must be laid in order to achieve bidirectional propagation of information.


Although there are some disadvantages to having a fiber optic network, the technology is quickly taking the market by storm, and prices continue to drop significantly. Traditional copper cable is still used extensively partly due to the current high cost of implementing a fiber optics network, but also because there is not yet a sufficient amount of standardization among manufacturers. The newness of the technology means that many local companies do not offer fiber optics just yet, but it is only a matter of time until this technology becomes a more regularly used industry standard.