Fiber-optic cable sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, and from all the talk, it’d be easy to think that it’s just a marketing gimmick to upsell us on our internet packages. In reality, it’s the cleanest and fastest wide-area network available, and it can offer the highest capacity of any production network connection.
Fiber has been used in local area networking (LAN) and internet connectivity for decades, and it’s an integral part of our global network. Despite this, fiber hadn’t gained a lot of traction for wide-area networking (WAN) until recently. In the past, most companies connected to the internet via T1s, DSL or coax, but these technologies each have some limitations.
• T1: This is still the most common type of last-mile connection. T1 offers a slower connection (only 1.544 Mbps), but that bandwidth is not shared. T1 capacity is not scalable because you can only bond so many T1 connections together.
• DSL: This is often faster than T1 (1.5 to 6 Mbps), but it’s limited by distance -- you must be relatively close to a central office. It’s also often asymmetrical, meaning it offers slower upload vs. download speeds. DSL providers also oversubscribe bandwidth, so at peak usage times across the network, speeds can slow dramatically.
• Coax: Cable offers higher speed connections at a disruptive price point. In this model, a line connects to a cable company’s “head end” and segments bandwidth off across a neighborhood, for example. Because coaxial connections are typically a shared medium, performance issues are inevitable.
Enter fiber WAN architecture, which solves many of these headaches. Today, fiber has approached mass adoption for WAN, renewing the hype around its capabilities. Unfortunately, fiber comes with a catch. It’s not immediately scalable thanks to its high price tag and limited geographic availability. Even though it’s not likely fiber will replace all of our connections any time soon, it’s a fascinating technology that can give your business an edge if it’s an option.
What Is Fiber?
Fiber is made up of single or multiple strands of glass, covered in a protective sheath. It works by transmitting pulses of light rather than electrical pulses. The capacity of a given strand is theoretically limitless and determined only by the performance of the electronics at either end. Advances in fiber technology like dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) take this ceiling even higher. DWDM allows the electronics at either end of a fiber cable to transmit multiple colors of light over a single strand. This technology increases that connection’s capacity exponentially without trenching.
Translation: Fiber is awesome. It’s the fastest, cleanest type of last-mile connection, easily surpassing copper and cable. It’s also very secure, since it doesn’t have an electromagnetic field, which could be read by surveillance equipment. Providers often offer the best service-level agreements with fiber, including the fastest mean time to repair (MTTR), which makes it ideal for handling mission-critical data. For a growing business, fiber is an excellent choice because you can flexibly scale your bandwidth.
So why don’t more businesses make the switch?
Challenges With Fiber
We know fiber is expensive, but that can’t be the only thing blocking the investment. There are a few other harsh realities with fiber technology.
If we wanted to connect New York to San Francisco, for example, through fiber, we’d first need to create a long-haul dark fiber network. The bad news is, we can’t simply stretch a fiber cable from one point to another. About every 40-60 miles, the connection needs to be re-amplified in an in-line amplification shelter (ILA). ILAs provide security for the electronics and the power required to keep the fiber active -- and these can be costly to build and maintain. This issue is one of the reasons why fiber isn’t available everywhere. It’s logistically challenging, not to mention pricey, to bring fiber into a new area.
Another hindrance is the complexity of actually laying fiber cable. Gaining rights of way, trenching and building out can take a lot of time and be very costly. Sometimes providers see a business opportunity and choose to be fiber benefactors for a particular project. They might opt to finance the trenching of a corporate complex to win its ongoing business, for example, but often this is not an option.
Does Fiber Have A Future?
New fiber initiatives happen all the time. Although Google eventually halted its mass urban trenching project, it still promotes fiber as an option for small businesses. San Francisco is taking fiber adoption a step further with a citywide fiber initiative. On a global scale, we are seeing radical improvements of our international fiber networks. To support increased demand for Facebook and Google, the Pacific Light Cable Network plans to connect LA to Hong Kong via fiber. The PLCN will consist of an astounding 8,000 miles of submarine trenched fiber cable. This new cable will go online later this year and will have a record-breaking 144 TB of capacity in both directions.
In the face of the challenges of fiber, many businesses are looking toward wireless solutions. Wireless is no longer just for temporary spaces or small offices. With the rising popularity of software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WAN), wireless is often seen as the perfect fit. When designing a diverse-path backup connection, for example, nothing is more suitable than a connection that can’t be cut or physically disrupted. Like fiber, wireless offers scalability (admittedly with a lower ceiling), but with the added benefit of business continuity.
If fiber is an option for your business, it’s worth considering. There’s a chance you may already be operating in a “lit” building, meaning there’s already fiber trenched in. That being said, fiber won’t be replacing all our connections any time soon.
In the meantime, next time you’re waiting for a page to load, just consider how far we’ve come since dial-up. I am excited to see what happens next.
This article originally ran on forbes.com.