While the fiber and copper markets compete, hybrid and wireless solutions may change the playing field dramatically. Doug Jenkins, fiber business unit leader at ThorLabs, which makes fiber data transmission cable, sees several more technologies on the horizon. For instance, a hybrid fiber optic solution that incorporates electrical and optical signals has captured the market’s attention.
The hybrid cable, with optical fibers and metallic conductors, comes with a cable jacket and slots into which cables are inserted. It can combine video, audio, data, control, power, and other signals onto two single-mode optical fibers with copper conductors. A crosspiece connects the parts of the cable jacket forming the slots. Hybrid cables are already widely used, specifically in cellular systems where they are run up cellular towers to connect the antennas to ground electronics.
Fiber to the home (FTTH) has enabled data to be carried in high volume. This solution, Jenkins said, can also be seen in commercial markets. FTTH, also called fiber to the premises (FTTP), consists of installing optical fiber from a single central point directly to individual buildings, such as residences, apartment buildings and businesses, to provide Internet access at unprecedented speed. In comparison to existing technologies, FTTH also boosts the connection speeds available to computer users.
Millions of homes around the world are now directly connected on fiber optics. The sheer volume of this application has dropped the cost of connecting homes to a level where it is cheaper to replace older copper rather than paying the high cost to maintain it. The technology has become so cost-effective that it is being used in enterprise local area networks (LANs) in place of copper with significant savings in initial cost and operational cost, especially the electrical power needed to operate it.
Whether copper or fiber, the effort is to keep up with consumer demands. However, Cat 8 copper cable may be more about hype than true solutions, said Jim Hayes, president of The Fiber Optic Association. The copper cabling industry, Hayes said, has been tenacious and smart. While fiber optic cable makes strides in the low-voltage market to enable the transfer of data with increasingly wider bandwidth, copper cable has been quick to respond. Cat 5e was higher speed than Ethernet cable; then Cat 6e provided 10 gigabits of bandwidth.
Copper proponents are exploring developing Cat 8 as a way of staying relevant in the high-speed network arena. However, there are drawbacks. Since copper involves the transmission of electrons instead of photons, the cable offers different challenges than its fiber optic alternative. When data is moving at higher speed, electrons must overcome greater resistance and, therefore, require more power to process signals.