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Fiber Vs Cable Internet: Breaking Down the Differences

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Today, you’ve got multiple options to get high-speed Internet in your home. You can choose between fiber optic, DSL, cable, or satellite to watch Netflix or catch up on the latest sports game. With all these broadband options, you might not know which Internet connection service is best.

While DSL and satellite Internet are dependable, they’re not as fast as fiber optic or cable Internet. The difference between fiber vs cable Internet is a little more subtle. 

The short answer? Fiber optic is faster and more reliable, but it’s typically more expensive than cable Internet. Plus, cable Internet is more widely available at the moment. Right now, only 50 percent of households have access to fiber. 

Want more details? Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of the two types of Internet service to help you pick the best one for you.

What is Fiber Optic Internet?

Fiber optic Internet uses thin strands of glass or plastic to transmit data at what Internet companies call the speed of light. In reality, the data travels closer to two-thirds of the speed of light since it’s not in a vacuum – but that’s still pretty fast.

How exactly does that work? When you request data or send information over the Internet, it gets converted into digital signals. These signals are then sent as pulses of light through the fiber optic cables, at (very nearly) the speed of light. At the receiving end, a photodetector reads and converts the incoming light pulses back into electrical signals, which are then processed by your devices, completing the data transmission and letting you send that email or watch that show. Note that fiber doesn’t require a modem, unlike all other forms of Internet connection.

The long and short of this is that fiber optic cables give us faster Internet speeds, lower latency, and greater bandwidth. Lower latency means less lag when you’re on video calls or gaming, while greater bandwidth means more devices can be connected to the network without any speed issues. 

What is Cable Internet?

Cable Internet, on the other hand, uses coaxial cables made of copper to deliver high-speed Internet to your home, the very same cable network your cable TV uses. Cable is more widely available than fiber optic, and while it’s not as fast, it’s still among the faster options available today. 

Why isn’t cable Internet as fast as fiber optic Internet? For one, coaxial cables are metal, and they transmit data as electrical signals rather than light, which travel at slower speeds. A coax cable, as coaxial cables are also sometimes called, is also more vulnerable to extreme weather, like bad storms or hot temperatures. Cable can also be interrupted by electromagnetic interference since it uses electrical signals. This isn’t common in home Internet situations, but if your cable Internet wire passes by a large motor, that can slow down or interrupt your connection. Plus, cable Internet cables carry less data than a fiber optic cable of the same width.

In short, cable Internet is reliable enough for most folks, and it’s currently more widely available than fiber optic. However, it’s not as fast, it’s more prone to interruptions, and it has a slower latency than fiber optic Internet, which means more lag when gaming or streaming. 

Cable vs Fiber Speed Comparison

So what does this all boil down to? At the end of the day, you can expect cable to have an upload speed – which is used for sending data somewhere else, like videoconferencing or gaming – of 5-50 Mbps. Fiber Internet speed is typically at least five times faster, clocking in at 250-1000 Mbps.

Download speed, or how fast you can transfer digital data from the Internet to your computer, is 10-500 Mbps with cable Internet. Fiber optic Internet speed provides speeds of up to 250-1000 Mbps. 

In case you don't have a Mbps translator in your head, that means that if you were on the fastest fiber optic Internet speeds, you could download a two-hour movie in about 48 seconds. If you were on cable, that same movie would take you 16 minutes to download. 

Some fiber Internet providers can offer Internet at speeds so fast it’s measured in Gigabits per second (Gbps) rather than Mbps, but for most households, this level of speed just isn’t necessary. 

What About DSL and Satellite Internet?

When it comes to high-speed Internet, DSL and satellite connections aren’t as impressive, but they still offer some advantages for certain users who may not be able to access fiber optic or cable Internet. 

DSL is typically faster than satellite Internet, though this can vary across providers. It offers a low latency, and is available in urban and suburban areas. Most DSL Internet users chose it for its lower price point compared to cable and fiber.

Satellite is normally the slowest and most expensive of the bunch, but it’s also the most widely available option. In some rural areas, satellite is the only Internet option. If your area isn’t currently served by fiber, cable, or DSL, then satellite Internet is a good choice. That being said, some new satellite providers are bringing speeds up and prices down, so this is definitely an area to keep an eye on if you're only served by satellite Internet providers.

Fiber Optic or Cable: Which Should You Choose?

Trying to decide on fiber vs cable Internet? Here’s a quick lowdown of everything you need to know for these high-speed broadband options.

Fiber Optic:

Pros:

  • Fiber offers faster speeds than any other kind of Internet. 
  • Your upload and download speeds are symmetrical – and still very fast. Typically with cable, upload speeds are much slower than download speeds.
  • The low latency is great for gamers and those who do a lot of video conferencing.
  • Fiber is less susceptible to interference, weather conditions, or network congestion.

Cons:

  • The main drawback of fiber optic Internet is the cost. It's often more expensive than cable or DSL options.
  • Unfortunately, not everyone has access to fiber optic Internet. It's typically found in urban areas and may not be an option in rural locations.

Cable:

Pros:

  • Cable Internet is widely accessible, even in less densely populated areas.
  • While not as fast as fiber, cable still offers decent download and upload speeds for most online activities.
  • Cable Internet plans tend to be more budget-friendly compared to fiber optic options.

Cons:

  • Cable offers slower speeds compared to fiber Internet.
  • Cable is less reliable and more prone to disruptions than fiber.

How to Choose a Cable or Fiber Internet Service Provider

No matter what kind of high-speed Internet service you choose, there are a few things you should keep in mind when picking an Internet service provider (ISP).

Think about your Internet usage and speed needs. Do you need faster speeds for activities like online gaming, 4K streaming, or video conferencing? If so, choose an ISP that can meet those requirements. Pay attention to both download and upload speeds, especially if you require a fast upload connection for activities like video conferencing, content creation, or cloud backups.

You also want to consider your budget. Compare the pricing and package options offered by different ISPs and choose one that aligns with your budget while still delivering the speed you need. 

Always check the availability of ISPs in your area. Some ISPs may have limited coverage, so make sure the one you choose serves your location. We’d also recommend reading local reviews and asking neighbors or friends for recommendations. Local feedback can provide great insights into the ISP's performance in your area that a coverage map might not provide. 

If you're interested in additional services like cable TV or phone, check if the ISP offers bundle options. Bundling services can often save you money compared to subscribing to each service separately.

The Bottom Line

Deciding between fiber and cable Internet? The main factors are going to be budget, availability, and desire for high-speed Internet. Before you make any decisions, definitely check to make sure whether you get fiber optic and cable in your area.

In short, if you're a heavy Internet user who values lightning-fast speeds and low latency and you’re willing to pay a premium for it, fiber optic is the clear winner. However, if you're looking for a more budget-friendly option that still offers decent performance for everyday tasks, cable Internet might be the better choice.

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