Tech InDepth: What is fiber broadband and how does it work

If you live in or around a major city like Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru, or many others, you’ve probably heard of fiber broadband services for a while. There are also many other regions out there where ISPs or internet service providers are bringing a new fiber broadband option to subscribers old and new.

But what exactly is fiber broadband? What are the benefits it offers over the more traditional cable or DSL-based broadband solutions? Let’s find out in today’s edition of Tech InDepth.

What is fiber broadband?

Fiber broadband or fiber internet is an internet connection powered by fiber optics instead of more traditional methods of data transmission like cable or DSL (Digital Subscriber Line). Fiber broadband is considered to be much faster and reliable compared to conventional broadband services and also immune to interference.

A newer technology, fiber optics and fiber broadband continues to be unavailable in many regions, although adoption is increasing quickly. Fiber broadband services often offer multiple broadband plans just like regular service providers and these will also usually be significantly more expensive.

However, you may also find service providers offering both DSL and fiber services for a new connection, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. Fiber offers the fastest internet speeds, typically up to 1,000Mbps, compared to DSL and cable connections which usually offer up to 100Mbps and 400Mbps respectively. This is all possible due to fiber optics.

What are fiber optics?

Fiber optics transmit light instead of electricity. These cables can carry data over really long distances, including across entire oceans, and still offer seamless connectivity with fast speeds. This is possible because of optical fibers, slim tubes that use a physical phenomenon called total internal reflection to their advantage. These cables are made of a glass or plastic core, surrounded by a layer of cladding and protective sheaths. Both the core and cladding have high particular refractive indexes, with the cladding usually having a lower number than the core.

This allows light passed through the optical fiber to be continuously reflected inside it and carried over long distances. However, in the real world, air resistance inside the cable means that the light travelling through the optic fiber does weaken eventually.This is where repeaters or amplifiers come in. They are placed at strategic intervals where the optic signal is losing strength but still can be read. These signals are then converted from optical to digital, and back to optical before they are pushed further on with full strength until the next repeater. This process continues till the optical signal reaches its target.

Why is fiber broadband better?

In a nutshell, fiber broadband is better, faster and more reliable, because fiber optics themselves are better modes of data transmission compared to regular cables or DSL. Data transmission via optic fibers is faster and also immune to electronic interference. With cable or DSL connections, that usually work on electric signals transmitted via copper wiring, electromagnetic interference plays a key role in disruptions. These become a bigger problem over longer distances.

Why is fiber broadband not in use everywhere yet?

As you probably guessed, fiber broadband is not in use everywhere because it requires the layout and setup of fiber optics across areas. For instance, if you live in a remote village where there is no fiber connectivity yet, setting it up for one household alone becomes an expensive task. This is why you see fiber connectivity being offered to all households or housing societies in a residential area at once when the layout of optical fibers is set up in that area.

The second major reason is the cost involved. Fiber broadband connections are more expensive to setup and hence, the various plans you get also cost more than cable/DSL broadband plans. Cable and DSL connections are often much cheaper because they work on an network of cable and phone lines that already exist in most areas. This is not the case for fibers, which need fresh infrastructure to work, precisely the reason for the increased cost.

A third reason is the unlikelihood of people switching from an existing cable/DSL connection. In a price sensitive market like India, it becomes harder for fiber broadband service providers to convince users of cable or DSL connections to switch over. The higher cost of fiber connections become a barrier.

This is why fiber optic connections are usually marketed with the focus on speed, reliability and no loss in bandwidth, leveraging the precise problems that cable and DSL users face. In housing societies, you may even find inaugural offers for the first few customers who convince multiple people into signing up for a new connection, making it feasible to set up fiber connectivity for that particular society.

Once fiber optics reach more areas, costs should eventually go down. Hopefully, the benefits of a faster, more reliable connection in today’s world, where many of us depend on the 24X7 internet for our daily work, should become more apparent to customers.

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