Chances are, if you’ve purchased an internet plan in the past few years, you’ve seen a lot about fiber and cable internet.
Maybe you’ve seen fiber-optic internet heralded as the fastest internet service available, or seen cable internet advertised in conjunction with cable TV plans.
Whatever the case, it’s important to learn the difference between these two common types of internet connection. Whether you’re looking for a new internet plan or simply want to increase your technical know-how, our guide to fiber vs. cable internet has got you covered.
Fiber-optic vs. cable internet connection types
Before we compare the two, let’s explain how fiber and cable internet work.
Fiber internet transfers data into your home through fiber-optic cables. This type of connection provides fast upload and download speeds that are less susceptible to outside interference than typical internet connections.
How do fiber-optic cables work?
Each cable contains an optical core made of thin glass or plastic fibers. These fibers receive LED or laser light signals and send them to your computer. Each pulse denotes a one or zero, which your device interprets as data.
Because light is faster than other forms of data transmission, this allows your device to receive data at a faster rate than other forms of internet connection allow.
To protect data transfer from outside interference, the optical core is covered in inwardly reflective cladding. This cladding ensures the light signals stay within the core, so the signals can transfer regardless of the route of the cable.
Finally, the cable is wrapped in lightweight Kevlar to keep the core intact.
What’s so great about fiber internet?
Since fiber-optic internet transfers data through light pulses, it’s capable of sending data over longer distances at faster speeds than other types of network connections. These cables also provide greater bandwidth without interference from outside forces.
Overall, fiber is the best internet service currently on the market. While its newness means there’s less fiber availability than other types of internet service, many providers now offer fiber-optic internet plans. All in all, fiber internet is undoubtedly the fastest and most reliable way to receive internet to your household.
Cable internet transmits data to your home through cable TV lines in your area. It provides fast download speeds and is widely available across the U.S.
How does cable internet work?
Cable internet uses coaxial cables. These consist of a copper or copper-covered steel core that transmits data through sound waves, which internet providers often take from modified radio waves sent through unused cable TV channels.
Because this type of connection uses pre-existing cable lines, the connection for each household eventually converges at a certain point (e.g. the end of your block or subdivision). If there’s an outage or interruption in one house in your area, chances are you’ll experience an outage as well.
What’s the bottom line?
While fiber internet provides the fastest speeds on the market, cable internet technically can reach similar speeds if used to its full potential. However, since multiple households share the same cable network, operators usually limit speeds so bandwidth can be shared equally, preventing any household from reaching the highest potential speeds.
Overall, cable internet is the second-fastest kind of internet service, and it’s widely available in ways that fiber internet is not. Nearly every internet service provider offers a cable internet plan.
Other types of internet connections
Let’s briefly go through the other common types of network connections.
Digital Subscriber Line (DSL)
When it comes to fiber vs. cable vs. DSL, DSL’s bandwidth capabilities are similar to cable’s. As cable internet uses TV cables, DSL internet utilizes copper phone lines to transmit data to your household.
Compared to cable and fiber internet, DSL is widely available, especially in rural and remote areas. Since it utilizes phone lines, DSL isn’t connected to the rest of your neighborhood’s network, like cable is. A DSL service provides a direct line to your home and thus isn’t susceptible to the same outages shared networks are.
There’s a limit to how fast DSL internet can be, however. It has the capability to reach up to 100 Mbps, but typically provides slower speeds than that. Signal degradation lowers its reliability over long distances.
Satellite internet is used mainly in rural areas where DSL, cable, and fiber internet services aren’t available.
Using the same principles as satellite TV, satellite internet begins with an internet service provider sending satellites into space to orbit the earth. The internet provider uses a signal routed through its satellites and a dish that receives those signals.
Satellite internet users place a receiver dish on their home or workplace in a place with an unobstructed view of the sky. They’ll connect their modem to the dish, which will translate the satellite signals into data that connects them to the internet.
Overall, this form of internet service is slow and often expensive but provides a network connection to many homes in less populated areas.
Fixed wireless is another internet service option for people living in rural areas.
This type of connection utilizes towers that broadcast signals through airwaves to receivers on your property. These receivers are typically installed by your internet service provider and need to be within a 10-mile radius of the fixed wireless internet provider’s tower.
A fixed wireless connection is a more affordable option than satellite internet, without requiring the use of fiber or cables. Although it doesn’t offer speeds that are as fast as cable or fiber internet, broad bandwidth is still achievable with this type of connection because there are no wires or cables where signals can degrade.
Fiber-optic vs. cable internet speed capabilities
While both fiber and cable internet offer fast speeds and broad bandwidth, there are some key differences in the speed quality that both services provide.
Fiber internet speeds
Fiber-optic internet connections transmit data through light pulses, resulting in faster speeds, more reliability, and broader bandwidth.
Fiber internet plans typically offer a range of 250 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps (1 Gig), but speeds can reach multi-Gig levels. To put that in perspective, with a 1 Gig fiber internet plan, it would take less than five seconds for you to download an hour-long episode of TV. With a 20 Mbps traditional internet plan, it would take over five minutes to download that same episode.
Plus, with fiber internet speeds, you get symmetrical upload and download speeds. That might not make a huge difference if you mainly use the internet for streaming and surfing the web, since you’ll mainly be downloading content as opposed to uploading it. However, if you work from home, a fast upload speed means your video calls will be faster and smoother. And if you’re someone who plays video games in your free time, a fast upload speed means that your device can upload data every time you click a button or move your mouse—effectively helping you experience less lag and more success.
Cable internet speeds
Cable internet plans typically range from 10 Mbps to 200 Mbps in download speeds, though a cable service can provide up to 1,000 Mbps or 1 Gig in some areas.
The key difference between a fiber and cable connection is that with cable internet, the upload speed is not as fast as the download speed. So while a plan might offer 300 Mbps in download speeds, the upload speed might only be a fraction of that amount.
If you’re someone who mainly uses the internet for streaming content, a slow upload speed won’t matter much. After all, 10 Mbps in upload speed is plenty fast enough to keep up with emails and social media.
Ultimately, determining whether cable or fiber internet is better for you comes down to your digital lifestyle and internet habits.
What option is good for me?
When it comes down to it, both fiber and cable internet are fast, reliable ways to receive a network connection in your home. Figuring out which option is better for you really depends on what you value in an internet service.