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5G vs. Fiber: Everything You Need to Know

As devices become more data-hungry, they need faster networks to operate optimally. The two most recent advances in this field are 5G and Fiber. Both are capable of transferring large amounts of data at breakneck speed, but what differentiates them?

5G operates as a mobile data network utilizing electromagnetic frequency bands. In contrast, fiber optic is a hardwired network composed of translucent strings that transfer data as light signals. In the future, both will work in tandem to provide high-speed internet and network access.

There is a lot to know when it comes to both fiber and 5G. These fairly new technologies aim to provide the backbone for our digital future. With devices being more and more interconnected, a more robust network was needed. This is where 5G and Fiber come into play. But, to help get a better grasp of what is happening, let’s explore what these technologies are.

What Are 5G and Fiber?

5G Network wireless systems and Internet

5G and Fiber essentially accomplish the same task—transferring data. But, they approach this in different ways. The basic difference is that 5G aims to wirelessly over select frequency bands, while fiber does so with hardwired fiber optic cables. These two technologies have the potential to allow for more data-intensive devices and protocols to exist.

  • 5G internet—5G creates a wireless network that can access higher and often wider radio frequencies. It aims to provide more reliable high-speed network access to mobile devices.
  • Fiber—This technology uses strands of glass to quickly pass large amounts of data with little information loss. It aims to replace legacy copper systems as the preferred method for long distance and home networks.

If it helps, think of each technology by its predecessors. 5G was preceded by 4G. It adds more functionality to cellular networks. In contrast, fiber is more like broadband cable internet, just much faster and more reliable. While they operate on different foundational technologies, both aim to advance the way our devices connect to each other.

Is 5G Faster than Fiber?

When it comes to speed, it is a bit of a challenge to compare the two. Currently, 5G is in its fledgling phase. While it is actively being adopted as the new standard, there is still a lot of development needed for the network. Fiber, on the other hand, is already fairly standard technology. 

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As it stands now, a 100% fiber system can handle speeds of over 100 terabits—or 100,000 gigabits. That is quite a bit. 5G, though, is theorized to be able to handle speeds of up to 20 Gbs. However, 5G networks typically operate on lower frequency bands that can’t support these speeds.

In the future, however, this is set to change. Right now, you would be hard-pressed to beat the speed of a fiber connection. Most businesses and companies that rely on fast internet will use fiber as their main connection, although, some people incorrectly believe 5G might actually replace fiber but the two technologies aren’t mutually exclusive as we discussed here.

Is 5G as Reliable as Fiber?

5G has a problem—one that is not easily solved. To understand what this problem is, you need to grasp the fundamentals of radio waves. Basically, the higher the frequency, the less the signal can travel without losing some data. This is called the “faster-but-closer” rule.

What this means for 5G networks is that you need more cell towers that are closer together for proper connections. Additionally, 5G can’t easily pass through buildings, dense treelines, harsh weather, and other obstacles. As you can imagine, this is problematic.

Often, a 5G network will use lower frequency bands to mitigate this issue. The problem is that they are not nearly as fast. In contrast, fiber optic can reliably transfer data as far as 40 miles without losing any signal strength. Compare that to copper, the old standard, which can only travel around 300 ft before losing data. 

Can 5G Replace Fiber?

When imagining the future, you might think of one of these technologies with triumph. Well, the truth is that both 5G and fiber need each other. IT companies envision both technologies operating in tandem to offer high-speed and reliable internet to everyone. 

If you could hook up all devices to a fiber optic cable, that would provide the most reliable connection. But, devices like the new iPhone 12 Pro MAX (on Amazon), iPads, and more need to be mobile. This is where 5G can help. Not only does 5G need the bandwidth present in a fiber backbone, but it can also help spread fiber. There is no denying that the infrastructure for a full fiber system is a difficult undertaking.

What 5G can do is allow for local access points to be created. Think of it as a road system. You need the highways and interstates to handle heavy traffic. You also need smaller roads to connect to communities. 5G and fiber work together similarly.

Another issue that fiber runs into is infrastructure. While it is not terribly easy or cost-efficient to setup 5G, you would need to use underground cable technology for a fiber-optic network. Moreover, the current copper system we use today would need a full revamp. While this is currently happening, 5G can help bridge the gaps when necessary.

Can I Get 5G Home Internet?

5G network with motion

Currently, several wireless providers offer 5G home internet. The problem is that the infrastructure to support this kind of network is sparse. Consequently, this kind of service is only available in larger metro areas where the small 5G cell towers are already available. 

Anecdotal accounts say that it is relatively reliable and quite fast. But, as the network grows, so too will its reliability. As it stands now, both T-Mobile and Verizon offer 5G home internet in select areas.

Additionally, 5G requires more towers to work properly. Because of the interference issues with the higher 5G bands, some issues still crop up from time to time. All in all, there is no beating a fiber connection.

Is 5G Better for Rural Areas?

Unfortunately—due to high-frequency mmWave technologies—using 5G in rural areas is a far-out future. This is because these higher frequency bands just can’t transfer data over longer ranges. While 5G is still being rolled out, we suspect that rural areas will receive the same deployment schedule as 4G did. That is to say, slow. 

One of the main issues with setting up 5G in a rural area is the cost. It is possible to have 5G in cities because they can cover the towers’ costs with users. But there is still hope for rural areas. As 5G becomes the standard, the lower frequency long-range bands can service rural cities and towns. Consequently, they will likely be nowhere near as fast as 5G based on mmWaves

Is 5G the Same as 5GHz Internet?

While the two terms are incredibly similar, and they accomplish the same task, the two are very different. 5 GHz refers to the frequency used by consumer wireless routers like the TP-Link AC1900 (on Amazon). While 5G can use this frequency band, it operates across multiple bands.

We have another article covering this topic. But, to sum it up, 5 GHz routers are an access point to a network. In contrast, 5G is how data is encoded to travel along with the radio signal bands. To access this network, you need a mobile device. 

Wrapping Up

While 5G and fiber optic aim to accomplish the same task, they do it very differently. 5G is used more for mobile devices, while fiber caters to stable hard connections. Additionally, 5G is plagued with connectivity issues at longer ranges. Because of this, it can’t compete with the speed and reliability of fiber.

Currently, these two technologies are fairly adolescent. In the following years, we will see IT companies using both to provide fast connections to everyone. They will work in conjunction to connect homes, businesses, and people daily.