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What Is Fiber Optic Internet?

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If you live in an urban or suburban area, you’ve probably received flyers and ads for a new kind of broadband service – something called fiber optic Internet. But what is fiber optic Internet? Even if you’re not in those areas, you may have heard of this relatively new kind of Internet and want to learn more. 

Fiber optic Internet is a high-speed Internet service that transmits data over thin glass or plastic fibers using light. These fibers are bundled into underground cables, not unlike DSL and cable Internet – but that’s where the similarity ends. It’s the fastest Internet service available nowadays, hands down, with residential fiber Internet reaching speeds of over 1 Gbps. If you’re interested in learning more about fiber optic networks, we’ll break down all the key details in this article.

Definition of Fiber Optic

At its core, fiber optic technology sends information extremely quickly. Because the data is converted to light signals and sent through glass or plastic fiber optic cables, the data can travel at nearly the speed of light. Fiber optic cables are composed of optical fibers, which are extremely fine – often just slightly thinner than a strand of human hair. 

We say “nearly” the speed of light because the light signals don’t travel in a vacuum, so they only get to around two-thirds the actual speed of light. However, compared to the speeds of other forms of Internet, two-thirds the speed of light is pretty quick. 

How does fiber optic Internet work? 

Say you’re on your home WiFi network and you click play on a YouTube video about cats on your phone. Your cell phone sends a request through the fiber optic cables using light signals. These signals travel at incredible speeds (almost as fast as light) to the nearest data center, where YouTube's servers are located. The server then sends the video data back through the fiber optic network, converting it into light pulses that travel back to your device, allowing you to watch the video almost instantaneously.

You may have also heard the term “FTTH” thrown around in conjunction with fiber optic Internet. FTTH, or Fiber to the Home, is a specific application of fiber optic technology. It involves extending fiber optic cables directly to individual residences to provide high-speed internet access. FTTH is a subset of fiber optic communication methods aimed at delivering the fastest and most reliable internet service directly to consumers' homes. Basically, if your at-home WiFi is fiber optic, you have FTTH.

Fiber Optic Speed & Performance

If you had to define fiber optic Internet by a single attribute, that attribute would be speed. We're talking about internet speeds over 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps). Plus, unlike cable, DSL, and satellite Internet, fiber optic Internet is symmetrical, meaning you get the same upload speeds and download speeds. In practical terms, that means you could either upload or download a two-hour movie in just 48 seconds.

How does fiber optic offer these faster speeds? The real innovation here is transmitting data as light signals. With cable Internet, data travels through coaxial cables as an electrical impulse. This is still quick – and cable Internet can reach speeds of up to 500 Mbps – but electrical impulses on steel or copper cables don’t travel as fast as light signals on glass or plastic cables. 

When you think about a DSL Internet connection, which relies on telephone lines for data transmission, the contrast becomes even starker. DSL uses the copper wires of traditional phone lines to send data as electrical signals, much like cable internet, but with a significant limitation in speed due to the older infrastructure it's built on. 

Plus, DSL speeds degrade when they travel over long distances, so the further you are from the DSL provider, the slower your internet. Typically, DSL speeds cap out much lower than cable, often under 100 Mbps, which pales in comparison to the gigabit speeds fiber optic can achieve.

Not only that, but fiber cables can carry much more information at a time than coax cables or DSL cables, meaning that multiple devices can be connected and used simultaneously without affecting the internet speed. In a typical household where smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, and other connected devices are in use at the same time, fiber optic ensures that everyone gets a reliable connection. 

Finally, fiber optic also provides lower latency compared to types of Internet connection. This means that the time it takes for data to travel from its source to its destination is significantly reduced. In terms of real-life applications, lower latency matters most for online gaming, where players want a smooth and responsive experience, and video conferencing, to ensure that audio and video remain synchronized and lag-free.

Fiber Optic Availability

Everyone wants fast home Internet, but unfortunately, we now come to one of fiber optic Internet’s few downsides: it’s not that widely available. Fiber optic's reach is growing, but it's not everywhere yet. Urban and some suburban areas are more likely to be wired for fiber, while rural regions might have to wait a bit longer. If you're considering fiber vs cable Internet, you're more likely to live in an area with access to cable.

Right now, just over half of the US population is covered by one or more fiber Internet service providers, and research suggests that fiber accounts for just 20 percent of the market share. Compare that to cable Internet, which at least 85 percent of Americans can access, and which commands over 50 percent of the market share in the US.

The good news is that as providers see the demand for a fiber optic Internet connection, they’re incentivized to expand. Just over 50 percent of the US might not sound like much, but that number has grown a lot in recent years – and you can expect it to continue growing at a fast pace. 

Fiber Optic Pricing

Price is the other downside to fiber Internet. Compared to DSL and cable Internet options, fiber is comparatively more expensive. 

Depending on the plan, the speeds, and the ISP in question, fiber Internet plans can vary from around $50 to $250 a month. Typically, the slower the speed, the lower the price, and vice versa. 

Fiber Optic Requirements - What You'll Need

If you want to bring fiber optic Internet’s fast speeds to your home, you’ll need a few things. However, your ISP will provide most of these, so don’t worry if these items seem unfamiliar to you. Here’s what’s on the list:

  • An ONT (Optical Network Terminal). Traditional modems aren’t compatible with fiber optic signals. Instead, you'll need an ONT that can convert the optical signals into digital signals that your devices can understand.
  • A router. Like all Internet services, a fiber optic router distributes your fiber optic Internet connection throughout your home.
  • An ethernet cable (optional). As Internet travels wirelessly, it can lose a little speed. To get around that, you can plug in your device directly to the router with an Ethernet cable, which provides maximum speeds. That said, this is mostly unnecessary for most home Internet networks. This is something you’ll have to get yourself.
  • A fiber optic Internet subscription. The final ingredient to your ultra-fast home Internet is simply choosing a provider and signing up for a subscription. 

Best Fiber Optic Providers

Wondering who the best Internet provider is in the fiber optic market? We’ll have to disappoint you. Although you’ll find ranked lists all over the Internet, the truth is that “best” is highly subjective. In the case of fiber, it mostly comes down to which ISP is in your area. 

Instead, we’ll cover the main players and their pros and cons. When it comes to picking the best fiber Internet service provider, our advice is to do your homework. Compare fiber Internet providers in your area, talk to nearby friends and neighbors about which service they use, and always read the fine print on any contracts before subscribing.

Here is a quick list of the key ISPs you’re likely to run into:

  • AT&T Fiber – most widely available option
  • Google Fiber – best price for 1 Gbps speeds
  • Kinetic by Windstream – best (and in most cases, only) rural fiber provider
  • Verizon Fios – good for bundling in other services 
  • Frontier Fiber – a great budget option for slower speeds
  • Quantum Fiber – offers a price-for-life guarantee
  • Ziply Fiber – speeds go up to 50 Gbps

The prices range from $30 a month for speeds of just 200 Mbps up to $165 a month for 8,000 Mbps, or 8 Gbps. (Ziply Fiber offers a plan that goes up to 50 Gbps at $900/month, but for most consumers, this is neither necessary nor realistic.)

A quick note: While you might feel you need the very top speeds available, it’s worth keeping in mind that even with speeds of just 100 Mbps, your whole family can stream movies, virtually attend Zoom meetings, and play online games – all simultaneously on multiple devices. Nationally, the average Internet speed – fiber or not – is less than 100 Mbps. 

Luckily, most of these plans don’t require a contract, so there’s nothing stopping you from scaling up or down over the months as you discover what Internet speeds you’re most comfortable with. 

Fiber Optic Plan Considerations

Got a shortlist of fiber ISPs near you? Here’s how you can narrow down your options:

  • Price: This one’s obvious but worth mentioning. 
  • Speeds: Especially in conjunction with prices, you want to look at Internet speeds. Not just for the fastest speeds – you want to think about the speeds you’re likely to need, and get the best price for those speeds.
  • Contracts: Many fiber optic ISPs don’t require contracts, but some do. 
  • Bundles: AT&T and Verizon both provide cell phone plans in addition to fiber optic Internet. See if you’d potentially save money by bundling multiple services with the same provider. 
  • Equipment rental prices: When you calculate the monthly price, check to see if your ISP will bill you for equipment rental or installation. 
  • Customer service: It’s always worth hopping over to Reddit subreddits like r/HomeNetworking or specific fiber Internet subreddits like r/GoogleFiber and r/ATTFiber to see what everyday consumers are saying. If you want a bigger picture, you can also check out a more official resource like J. D. Power to get the lowdown on customer satisfaction. Especially if your chosen ISP only offers lengthy contracts, you want to be sure you’ll be treated like the valued customer you are. 
  • Data caps: While most fiber ISPs do not enforce data caps, a rare few do. This is definitely something to check closely.

The Bottom Line

In a nutshell, fiber optic Internet is fast, on the expensive side, and the very latest and greatest in-home Internet options. It offers unparalleled speed and reliability for your Internet needs. 

If you want the fastest Internet speeds available, then you should check to see if a fiber ISP covers your area – and if not, keep your eyes peeled. There’s always a chance fiber will come to your neighborhood in the following months or years. Remember, the right plan for you is out there; it just takes a bit of research to find it.

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