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Issue #807: January 8-14, 2023

Q: I was recently contacted by a company that will soon begin providing fiber internet service in the area I live in. The company rep said the price will be about what I pay now. What would be the advantages and disadvantages to switching to fiber? Would it be better to wait until the company has been in the area a while? Thank you.

 – P. H.
Shalimar, Florida

A: From where this Geek sits, this is just a matter of technology marching onward.  The question you asked might have been asked during the time when everyone was on dial-up, and broadband services started to make the scene in the form of both Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and cable.  At the time, both technologies existed and were stable, but were not widely known by the typical consumer, and so there were many questions about them.  Today, they are generally considered a solid, tried and true method of delivering a connection to the Internet, although that often depends more on the quality of the provider than it does on the underlying technology.

For those not in the know, in this context “fiber” refers to fiber-optics.  This technology spurns metal conductors completely, and instead relies on pulses of light that travel through glass fibers.  There was a time when no other technology could touch fiber for the speed delivered up to your home router.  Today, it’s a race between cable and fiber.  Cable seems to top out at around 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps), and the fiber packages I’ve seen offer competitive speeds, with room for upward growth.

Fiber cables tend to be more reliable than copper or aluminum cables.  Traditional cables use electricity to send their data signals, making them susceptible to weather events like storms, extreme cold, and electromagnetic interference (EMI) from events like lightning strikes, or from adjacent power lines or even other data cables. Fiber-optic cables don’t suffer from any of these issues.

I’m not so sure I believe the sales rep that told you the price will be “about what you pay now”.  First, the word “about” leaves a lot of wiggle room, and second, fiber has always been more expensive than cable.  If that’s changing, it will be good for us all, because competition should breed lower prices as the various companies try to win people’s business.  I would caution you to read the fine print, to be sure you’re not signing up for an introductory deal where the price is set for some period of time, but then goes up and you’re locked into a contract.

Unless the company is brand new and is starting in our area, I don’t see anything to be gained by waiting until they’ve been in our area for a while.  Trust me when I say I understand the desire not to be an early adopter and live on the bleeding edge of technology, but I think those precepts apply more to new software releases, and the advent of new types of hardware.  In this case, fiber is a solid technology that’s already been in use for years.  The concern (and rightly so) is with this company’s ability to deliver, and their commitment to their customers.  As I said above, unless the company is brand new, you should be able to Google them and learn how they’ve performed in other markets.

One thing you didn’t ask about, but I will mention because it’s a “gotcha” that many people don’t think about is the networking gear that comprises your own home LAN.  You can bring in the fastest, most blazing speed you can find right to your doorstep, but if you chain it to clunky old hardware that you may be using to interconnect the devices on your side of the firewall, you’re severely limiting your potential.  This, of course, is true no matter what technology your chosen ISP uses to deliver your Internet connection.  So, make sure you have a router and switches that are capable of gigabit speeds, and remember that Wi-Fi operates at only a fraction of those speeds. 

I’m personally excited about the prospect of being able to update to fiber.  If nothing else, it gives me a choice, so I’m not stuck with a single provider.  When you have only one choice of company to go to, there isn’t much motivation for them to go above and beyond for their customers.

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