Copper, Fiber or Wireless?


While discussions of which is better – copper, fiber or wireless – has enlivened cabling discussions for decades, it’s becoming moot. Communications technology and the end user market, it seems, have already made decisions that generally dictate the media. The designer of cabling networks, especially fiber optic networks, and their customers today generally have a pretty easy task deciding which media to use once the communications systems are chosen.

Designing long distance or outside plant applications generally means choosing cabling containing singlemode (SM) fiber over all other media. Most of these systems are designed to be used over distances and speeds that preclude anything but SM fiber. Occasionally other options may be more cost effective, for example if a company has two buildings on opposite sides of a highway, a line-of-sight or radio optical wireless network may be easier to use since they have lower cost of installation and are easier to obtain relevant permits.

Other than some telco systems that still use copper for the final connection to the home, practically every cable in the telephone system is fiber optic. CATV companies use a high performance coax into the home, but it connects to a fiber optic backbone. The Internet is all fiber. Most commercial buildings in populous areas have direct fiber connections from communications suppliers. Cities use SM fiber to connect municipal buildings, surveillance cameras, traffic signals and sometimes offer commercial and residential connections, all over singlemode fiber. Even the cellular antenna towers you see along the highways and on tall buildings usually have fiber connections.

Premises cabling is where the fiber/copper/wireless arguments focus. A century and a half of experience with copper communications cabling gives most users a familiarity with copper that makes them skeptical about any other medium. And in many cases, copper has proven to be a valid choice. Most building management systems use proprietary copper cabling, for example thermostat wiring, as do paging/audio speaker systems. Security monitoring and entry systems, certainly the lower cost ones, still depend on copper, although high security facilities like government and military installations often pay the additional cost for fiber’s more secure nature.

Surveillance systems are becoming more prevalent in buildings, especially governmental, banking, or other buildings that are considered possible security risks. While coax connections are common in short links and structured cabling advocates say you can run cameras limited distances on Cat 5E or Cat 6 UPT like computer networks, fiber has become a much more common choice. Besides offering greater flexibility in camera placement because of its distance capability, fiber optic cabling is much smaller and lightweight, allowing easier installation, especially in older facilities like airports or large buildings that may have available spaces already filled with many generations of copper cabling.

LAN cabling is often perceived as the big battleground of fiber versus copper, but the reality of the marketplace has begun to sink in for many users. The network user, formerly sitting at a desktop computer screen with cables connecting their computer to the corporate network and a phone connected with another cable, is becoming a relic of the past.

People now want to be mobile. Practically everybody uses a laptop, excepting engineers or graphic designers at workstations, and most of them will have a laptop as a second computer to carry, along with everybody else, to meetings where everybody brings their laptops and connects on WiFi. When was the last time you went to a meeting where you could connect with a cable?

Besides laptops on WiFi, people use Blackberries and iPhones for wireless communications. Some new devices, like the iPhone, allow web browsing with connection over either the cellular network or a WiFi network. Some mobile phones are portable VoIP devices connecting over WiFi to make phone calls. While WiFi has had some growing pains and continual upgrades, at the 802.11n standard, it has become more reliable and offers what seems to be adequate bandwidth for most users. The desire for mobility, along with the expansion of connected services, appears to lead to a new type of corporate network. Fiber optic backbone with copper to the desktop where people want direct connections and multiple wireless access points, more than is common in the past, for full coverage and maintaining a reasonable number of users per access point is the new norm for corporate networks.

What about fiber to the desk? Progressive users may opt for FTTD, as a complete fiber network can be a very cost effective solution, negating the requirement for telecom rooms full of switches, with data quality power and grounds, plus year-round air conditioning. Power users, like engineers, graphics designers and animators can use the bandwidth available with FTTD. Others go for a zone system, with fiber to local small-scale switches, close enough to users for those who want cable connectivity instead of wireless, to plug in with a short patchcord.

It’s the job of the designer to understand not only the technology of communications cabling, but also the technology of communications, and to keep abreast of the latest developments in not only the technology but the applications of both.