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What’s different between fiber-optic and coaxial cables?

BY Justin Herrick | Thu May 09, 2019

Internet isn’t something that magically appears in your home.

Unless you’re on a satellite-based Wi-Fi network, there are likely cables from an internet service provider that go directly into your residence. Not all cables are created equal, though. It might be a fiber-optic or coaxial cable, and there are some key differences between them you need to know about to choose the best broadband provider.

Fiber and cable internet both get you online, but their structures as well as limitations carry unique traits. We’re going to explain the cables behind each, how you can benefit from them and what’s the best choice for you.

Here’s what to know about fiber-optic and coaxial cables when shopping for internet service in your home.

What’s a fiber-optic cable?

A fiber-optic cable features small, flexible strands of glass or plastic. Unlike traditional copper lines, a fiber-optic cable utilizes light to transmit a significant amount of data. This allows for more bandwidth on a fiber-optic cable than a copper coaxial cable.

In addition, unlike with cable internet, the bandwidth for individual customers with fiber internet can get very large since they’re not forced to share a connection with others in the same area. No matter the hour, fiber internet shouldn’t slow down due to congestion. The high-speed data should stay blazing-fast and manage all home activities with ease.

How fast are the data speeds on fiber cables?

Fiber-optic cables offer speeds of up to 1 Gbps, but of course, that depends on your internet service provider and equipment. Most internet service providers don’t go that fast by default, though. Be sure to choose the right plan and wireless router. Then you’ll discover the many benefits of next-generation connectivity.

You can sign up for fiber internet with these companies:

Internet Service Provider (ISP)Speeds up to
AT&T1,000 Mbps
CenturyLink12 Mbps - 1,000 Mbps
Cox1,000 Mbps
Frontier1,000 Mbps
Mediacom1,000 Mbps
SuddenLink1,000 Mbps
Verizon Fios100 - 940 Mbps
Windstream1,000 Mbps

Check out our full rundown on fiber internet, which also includes a list of internet service providers which embrace the cutting-edge technology.

What’s a coaxial cable?

Made primarily of copper, a coaxial cable transmits data from place-to-place through electricity. It’s the technology that internet service providers started using when dial-up and digital subscriber line (DSL) grew outdated. While there are improvements over dial-up and DSL, cable internet doesn’t quite trump fiber internet. Still, cable internet is available in most parts of the country and often at a budget-friendly price.

Cable internet does require a modem, which allows your home to connect to the internet service provider’s infrastructure. In turn, you plug the modem into a router. Together, the modem gets you a connection from the internet service provider and the router creates your Wi-Fi network. There are also some internet service providers which combine the modem and the router into a single device.

By purchasing your own modem or router, you could also save money. Internet service providers are known to tack on rental fees should you need their equipment.

How fast are the data speeds with coaxial cables?

Unfortunately, in most cases, coaxial cables fall short in terms of data speed. Some internet service providers are able to get up to 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps), but it’s not too common. The coaxial cable that runs a connection into your home might be shared, too. When multiple customers in the same neighborhood are online at the same time, throttling could occur and lead to reduced speeds.

You can sign up for cable internet with these companies:

Internet Service Provider (ISP)Speeds up to
Cox300 Mbps
Mediacom500 Mbps
Optimum400 Mbps
Spectrum940 Mbps
Xfinity2,000 Mbps

Cable internet isn’t as fast as fiber internet, but you should still expect a connection that’s reliable for work and play. We assembled this all-in-one hub about cable internet that lists both advantages and disadvantages.

Is one type of cable better than the other? Which should I choose?

Without question, fiber-optic cables should be chosen over coaxial cables. Fiber-optic cables are built for tomorrow. As the world evolves, fiber internet can adapt and continue serving consumers and businesses with high-speed data. Meanwhile, cable internet will likely fall further behind over the coming years. It’s always best to choose a technology that remains current.

The issue, however, is that you’re either going to pay more for an internet service based on fiber-optic cable or it won’t be available at all. In some areas of the United States, you won’t see fiber-optic cables used by any internet service providers.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, only about 12% of the U.S. population has access to internet speeds of 1,000 Mbps on fiber-optic cables. Additionally, at speeds of 100 Mbps, the percentage of residents with access to fiber-optic internet only increases to 25% compared to 80% of the population that has access to the same speeds with a cable connection. So you might be stuck with coaxial cables, but that doesn’t necessarily result in a subpar experience.

Ultimately, you don’t get to make the decision. It’ll come down to your location and how much money you’re willing to spend. Yet there’s no doubt that anyone can benefit from fiber internet’s high-speed data.

Nearly 15 million households used fiber internet in 2018, according to Statista. It’s not a very high number, but that’s likely due to the technology’s limited availability. If internet service providers continue installing the infrastructure, we expect additional households to make the transition from cable to fiber internet.

How do I know which cable to use? Do I need to replace any of my other equipment?

While you may be tempted to do so, fiber-optic and coaxial cables cannot be used interchangeably. Fiber internet will need a fiber-optic cable, and cable internet will need a coaxial cable. It depends on which type of internet service you’re on, so check with your internet service provider to know what’s connected to your home.

The plan with your internet service provider matters, too. It’s not as easy as getting fiber-optic cables installed and receiving 1 Gbps. Aside from the internet service provider’s geographic limitations, customers who are eligible for fiber internet need to pay a premium for access as well as top-tier, high-speed data. Keep that in mind if you’re interested in switching from cable to fiber internet.

As for other equipment, fiber internet doesn’t use a modem. Most likely, the internet service provider will install an optical network unit (ONT). The ONT, which runs a fiber-optic cable from outside the residence, then uses a coaxial or Ethernet cable to connect to the router. So you’ll likely have a coaxial cable even if fiber internet gets installed. Cable internet uses a coaxial cable regardless.

Shopping for fiber or cable internet? Use our tool to view which internet service providers are available in your area, and compare deals to select the best plan.

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