What is the Future of the Copper Network?

What is the Future of the Copper Network?

As the rollout of fiber technology increases, so does the number of people wanting to utilize it to consume copious amounts of HD streaming video, music or internet content. But what is going to happen to the copper network? Will it be switched off like the change from analog to digital TV?

The Internet is evolving. The tech industry is buzzing with news of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. The wired technology that provides an Internet connection tends to fade into the shadows by comparison as more consumers focus on wireless technology. However, wireline networking is seeing improvements as service providers invest more resources into developing their fiber network infrastructure. Not too long ago, the Internet was solely accessible via telephone lines in the form of humble dial up Internet. Remember dial-up? And, as people realized they wanted to be able to talk on the phone AND browse the web at the same time, wireline Internet evolved. ADSL answered consumer demand for faster Internet speeds while using the existing copper infrastructure. This allowed telephone companies to deliver faster speeds without the expense of upgrading their network. Now, service providers are now looking to the future and that future is looking towards fiber optics.

Network Technology Evolution

Copper networks refer to the copper based telephone wiring that exists in homes and through wireline phone lines. DSL networks like ADSL, VDSL and xDSL have historically relied on copper networks. Copper networks are created with bulky copper wires that use electrons for data transmission. Fiber uses thin bundles of optical fibers, or strands of glass, that use photons to transmit data. In essence, copper versus fiber is electrical pulses (electrons) versus light (photons). Since light is faster than electrical pulses, fiber offers faster data transmission and higher bandwidth.
In the US, the accessibility of fiber networks varies dramatically. The FCC reports that nearly 75% of US consumers do not have access to a fiber optic Internet service provider. Statista reported that as of 2019, 84.8% of the population in Rhode Island has fiber broadband coverage, while only 42.8% of the population of Pennsylvania has fiber broadband access. When service providers pair new fiber infrastructure with existing copper infrastructure, they can reach more customers and build customer loyalty. Copper networks help fill the gap in areas where the cost, logistics or feasibility of installing fiber networking is prohibitive from an economical perspective, especially in rural areas of the US where high speed Internet tends to be sparse.

Copper Networks Are Stretched

Copper networks are being stretched to their limits with the need for greater bandwidth and capacity to handle consumer requirements and demands. These include:

  • Internet of Things – the explosion of smart devices that require internet connections to monitor, meter and function
  • Video streaming – the shift to high-definition and bandwidth-hungry 4K and 8K technologies
  • File sharing, online gaming, and cloud-storage

Current Network Challenges:

Distance – while all signals get weaker over distances, fiber offers significantly better range. For example, in distances greater than 100 meters, fiber only loses 3% of signal while copper loses 94%.

Interference – Since copper cables conduct electricity, they are especially prone to interference from power lines and lighting. Fiber optic cables, however, are not electrical conductors, making them resistant to fire, electromagnetic interference, lighting and radio signals.

Durability – While bulky, copper can easily be broken due to its low tolerance for tension. Fiber cables are significantly smaller, and though they are made of glass, it’s usually coated in a protective layer to make it more durable.

The End of Copper?

In many ways, people tend to fall into the pattern of “out with the old, in with the new.” This can also be said for networking. Copper networking is falling out of favor as it becomes more expensive for service providers to maintain, however, it’s not feasible to scrap all copper networks in favor of fiber.

Ultimately, consumers want the fastest possible Internet connection with as few interruptions as possible and at the best price. Technology trends indicate that the demand for fiber is growing, while copper is steadily declining as more customers move from older copper technology to newer fiber optic technology.

But does this mean the end of copper?  Copper still has its advantages of costing less to maintain, being familiar to manufacturers, as well as being backward compatible to older Ethernet devices.  Copper can also conduct electricity; which fiber cannot do.  Upgrading to fiber optic networks is a major expense for service providers and comes with a price.  New infrastructure investments can lead to price hikes for consumers. The bottom line is that because copper is still widely deployed for voice transmissions, in-building networks and is can support the IoT device explosion, it still remains a lucrative opportunity for the copper network and service providers.  While the days of copper network may be numbered, its apparent that both fiber and copper solutions will co-exist for years to come.

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