Fiber Optic Cables vs. Ethernet Cables: What’s the Difference?

Fiber optic cables and Ethernet cables are two of the most important data transfer cable standards there are, but with their use cases often crossing paths, and colloquialisms even meaning each name is used interchangeably at times, it’s important to know the differences with Fiber Optic Cables vs. Ethernet cables. One is typically used for industrial purposes or when extremely long runs of a cable are required, while the other is designed for home networks, small offices, and connecting consumer devices.

There are different types of both, offering different features and they’re designed with different use cases in mind, so doing a direct fiber optic cables vs. Ethernet cables comparison isn’t the whole story. Here’s everything you need to know about fiber optic and Ethernet cables to decide which is right for your network.

The Evolution of Networking and Cables

Although fiber optic technology was first conceived in the 19th century, it has been around in one guise or another since the 1960s, where it first saw use in aiding in the transmission of television camera signals from the moon landing missions. Ethernet cabling wasn’t far behind, though, with Xerox developing the first Ethernet cables in the early 1970s, where it initially competed with other standards and protocols until it broke through to become the dominant networking standard.

Over the ensuing decades, Ethernet cable technology evolved into the twisted pair wiring standard that we still use today, although there have been major advances in network transmission speed, and more recently, in shielding, helping to protect the sanctity of the data they transmit. Although networking hardware of any kind wasn’t much used in consumer hardware throughout the 80s, it exploded in the 90s as offices and schools began to adopt it, and in particular when the internet started to grow in popularity.

Ethernet’s ubiquity peaked in the 2000s, where it was not only the dominant standard of connectivity for networked desktop computers but in most laptops too. However, as Wi-Fi gained in speed and reliability through successive generations of its own, many laptop and smart device manufacturers dropped the relatively thick connector – although USB-C to Ethernet adapters are still popular, especially among business users.

Today, Ethernet cables are available in a broad range of categories and sizes. These variations range from the more modest, older Cat 5e designs, to the more robust and heavily-shielded, Cat 6A, right through to the flagship Cat 8 cables, which offer much greater performance for demanding networks. Together, they offer a range of bandwidths, shielding options, lengths, shapes, and sizes, with flat cables, cables rated for running between floors of a building, and others still with robust anti-fire protections.

But fiber optic cables haven’t been sitting idle. Like Ethernet cables, fiber optic cables have grown more capable and better shielded, leading to new performance milestones which are still regularly broken today. More commonly used where masses of data need to be transmitted without interference and over greater distances, fiber optic cables come in a wide range of styles, with different use cases in mind.

Mostly, they can be separated into single mode and multimode fiber optic cables, although there are subtypes of those cables which offer further specific performance targets.

Fiber Optic vs. Ethernet: Key Differences

The key difference in the fiber optic cables vs. Ethernet cables debate, is in their physical construction, even if they can do the same job of data transfer. Most Ethernet cables are made from twisted pairs of copper wiring, meaning they use electricity to transmit information along the cable. Those wires within the cable itself are protected by various levels and types of shielding, including foil shielding, braided shielding, plastic splines, and combinations of all three.

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Fiber optic cables, on the other hand, use light to transmit information. They achieve this with the use of a glass fiber core for each fiber optic cable. That core allows a beam of light (or multiple beams, in the case of multimode cables) to bounce back and forth down the cable at the speed of light, theoretically transmitting information as fast as is physically possible.

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Single mode cables, with a single glass strand, can transmit information across the greatest distances with the greatest reliability, while multimode fiber optic cables can transmit more information at similarly impressive speeds, but require more regular amplification or duplication of the signal to retain its integrity and accuracy.

Fiber optic cables support a range of different bandwidths, depending on the cable type used. At the top end of the scale, the most capable fiber optic cables (OS2 single mode cables, and OM5 multimode cables) can transmit up to 100 Gigabit per second of data. OM5 cables can do that over a cable length of up to 1,300 ft, however, OS2 cables can transmit that amount of data at up to 125 miles before requiring repeating or amplification.

In comparison, Ethernet cables have a typically capped data rate of just one Gigabit per second – the eponymous Gigabit Ethernet connections found on most consumer devices. However, recently 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet has become more common on higher-end desktop PCs and workstation laptops, and you can get 10 Gigabit Ethernet network connections in specific cases, though that’s most typically enterprise and professional settings. In theory, Ethernet can handle up to 40 Gigabit per second, but that’s exceedingly rare and not found on any consumer devices.

Ethernet cables also can’t run anywhere near as long as fiber optic cables. Most Ethernet cables can support distances of up to 100 meters on a single cable, but that will limit performance on older cable standards in particular. Where a Cat 6 cable can achieve a 10 Gigabit per second data rate at up to 37 meters, it’s limited to just 1 Gigabit per second up to 100 meters. The niche Cat 7a standard is capable of 40 Gigabits per second over 50-meter cables, but that drops to just 10 Gigabits per second over 100 meters.

With this in mind, it’s clear that the fiber optic cables vs. Ethernet cables debate is one that’s easily won and lost on data rate. Fiber optic cables are much more capable, especially over greater distances.

Part of that support for greater distances is due to the challenges each cable type faces with interference. Electromagnetic interference (EMI) is very common and is a real problem for some Ethernet cables. Whether it’s a leaky microwave, a bundle of other cables, or even the wiring within the Ethernet cable itself, there is no end of electronic sources that can interfere with an Ethernet cable’s data integrity. That’s why the latest Ethernet cable releases (the higher-numbered categories, like Cat 6A, and Cat 8) offer such robust shielding.

In comparison, fiber optic cables don’t face anywhere near the same level of EMI problems. As a light-based source of data transmission, they aren’t susceptible to EMI in the same way. That makes fiber optic cabling a more reliable source of data transmission, particularly over longer distances.

That’s not to say fiber optic cables don’t offer any shielding. In fact, their terminator points, adapters, connectors, and the panels and devices they connect to, all need to have some measure of EMI shielding to protect the data once it is transferred from the fiber optic cable to an electronic device. The cables themselves, however, have no such fears.

Where Ethernet cables aren’t as well protected against EMI, they can be more protected against physical damage. Copper twisted pairs, particularly when protected by foils and braids, are more physically durable than fiber optic cables, the glass core strands of which can be brittle and prone to breaking.

Ethernet cables are a lot cheaper than fiber optic solutions, too, so bear that in mind when it comes to building your network(s).

How to Choose the Right Cable

Picking between fiber optic cables vs. Ethernet cables is easier than you might think. If you are setting up a home network, a small office network, or just want to run some network cables over any distance up to 100 meters, then the easiest, most affordable, and simplest solution will be Ethernet cables. Judge how much shielding and what kind of data rate you need, and buy the appropriate category of cable. The RJ45 header is fairly ubiquitous, especially with consumer devices, so you’ll find it easier to set up, run, and source, than a capable fiber optic alternative.

However, due to the limitations of Ethernet cabling, fiber optic cables are always an alternative solution. If you want to offer better guarantees for the sanctity of your data, want to run cables over a particularly long distance, or are building atop an existing fiber optic network, then fiber optic cables are going to be a better solution.

Just like with Ethernet cables, when picking a fiber optic cable be sure to select the type of single mode or multimode cable that is best suited for the role you have in mind for it. Don’t buy more performant or shielded cables than you need, as those will just end up costing you extra money unnecessarily.

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