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Networking & Cables

Copper vs. Fiber: Don’t be a Scaredy Cat

Fiber optic cabling beats copper (Cat x) when it comes to long distances, high bandwidth, reliability and future-proofing, but smart-home integrators are hung up on fiber myths and high prices.

Copper vs. Fiber: Don’t be a Scaredy Cat
Fiber-optic cable is no longer as unwieldy as it used to be, and if integrators want to prepare their clients' homes for high-speed A/V in the future, it easily beats Cat x and other copper solutions.

Robert Archer · February 23, 2018

When it comes to high bandwidth, signal integrity, long distances and future technologies, fiber-optic cabling easily beats traditional copper (Cat x and otherwise). But old stereotypes and realities still linger, making home-technology pros reluctant to spec the stuff ... if they weren't already repelled by price.

Things have changed, however, since the olden days of fiber just five or 10 years ago. The fragile fibers are more durable, the ends are simpler to terminate, and because of its increasing proliferation in commercial applications, fiber is becoming less expensive in terms of raw cost and installation labor.

“The advances in fiber over the last several years in terms of durability have improved tremendously,” says Bob Michaels, CEO of ZeeVee, a video distribution company. “I think anybody considering putting in a network 10Gbps or above — which you should probably be considering anyway — should absolutely be considering fiber.”

“When you think about the bandwidth requirements for fiber vs. cabling continuing to increase, you wonder how big that cable is going to get."
— Bob Michaels, ZeeVee CEO

Even today, we have HDMI 2.0, which designed to support up to 18Gbps. New HDMI 2.1 solutions will support 48Gbps of bandwidth.

Through their increased bandwidth support, the formats enable the transmission of uncompressed video ranging from Ultra HD 4K with HDR (high dynamic range) to 8K at 60Hz video, and lossless audio that includes the object-based surround-sound formats Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

Beyond today, new high-bandwidth applications will further overwhelm the infrastructure -- virtual reality, 8K video, high-resolution audio, videoconferencing, 4K cameras, and more.

“When you think about the bandwidth requirements for fiber vs. cabling continuing to increase, you wonder how big that cable is going to get,” says Michaels. “When you put in that fiber infrastructure, it’s there and remains constant. So you are kind of future-proofing.”

The case for fiber is especially compelling for longer-distance cable runs. Fiber is the best bet for 18Gbps HDMI runs that exceed 98 feet (30 meters).

“Look at video," says Dennis Jaques, owner of systems integration firm Maverick Integration. "How is someone taking a video distribution matrix and going 200 feet and keeping HDR? I don’t know how you do it. You can do it at a short distance, maybe 60 feet, but you’re already at the limit of the category cable wire. Fiber? No problem.”

Understanding Fiber Optics 

Fiber-optic cable transfers data using infrared light energy instead of electrical pulses. Signals travel down a small silica core smaller than the size of a human hair. 

Fiber is "more durable" than copper, according Robert D’Addario, CEO of Cleerline Technology Group. It's also immune to lightning strikes and EMI/RF interference.

Cleerline SSF says its fiber solution was built from the ground up to be as easy, or easier, than UTP to terminate and install.

Fiber isn't without its challenges, of course. There is signal attenuation (amplitude lost) and modal dispersion to contend with. Then again, copper must tackle impedance, capacitance and shielding, so pick your battles.

Modal dispersion, specifically in multimode fiber, is the phenomenon of multiple signals with differing wavelengths entering the fiber at different angles, thereby traveling at different speeds along the cable and arriving at the termination point at different times. The staggered timing can distort the signal and limit the bandwidth.

“Most of the distance limitations within the A/V community on multimode fiber are due to modal dispersion," D'Addario says. "The [limitations] are easily navigated by understanding the bandwidth ratings for the grade of fiber being used.”

The "limitations" aren't all that worrisome right now, especially for residential applications. Current multimode links range from 100Mbps to 100Gbps over two strands of fiber. If there are limitations to multimode networks, "we have not come close to encountering them yet," says D'Addario.

Speeds of 100Gbps, 400Gbps and beyond can be achieved over fiber "due to signal transmission at the speed of light,” D’Addario adds.

Copper, on the other hand, will have perpetual challenges due to the "speed limitations inherent to copper transmission," he says.

Metra on Developing Copper vs. Fiber

Pictured: Metra’s Velox Active Fiber cables handle long runs at 18Gbps.

Metra's Brett McCall says the company is putting its R&D into fiber these days. The development process is not "just like copper," he says.

With copper, you have to "rebuild a collapsed analog signal," both for high-speed A/V and low-speed EDID data that read as digital. You also have to maintain the correct voltage/current values down the entire path."

“This is considerably more difficult in the development stage than with optical," McCall says. "Optical, in theory, involves simply finding the TX/RX set that will match the needed speed."

Not so fast. It's not as easy as it sounds, he says: "EDID and voltage/current issues have plagued many products.”

Even after products are shipping, Metra goes back to revise existing models based on feedback from the field.

Metra has begun work on meeting the 48Gbps specifications for HDMI 2.1.

Fiber in the Field

Historically, fiber has been hard to work with -- hard to terminate and hard to maneuver because of its delicate nature. Today, we have fiber that that is durable, bend-insensitive and simple to terminate. 

Maverick's Dennis Jaques likes fiber because it is so simple to work with. It's light and flexible and you can pull long cable runs without using repeaters. And it's also very reliable.

Maverick, which serves both commercial and residential markets, has deployed fiber between network switches for more than five years without issue, "whereas we had tons of problems with the shielded termination from Cat 6."

He adds, "We’ve had significant issues with termination on products, but never with the LC or SC connectors from fiber.”

At the end of the day, it's all about the customer, says Brent McCall, product development and technical support for connectivity solutions provider Metra Home Theater Group.

Cat x cable is still significantly less expensive than fiber (or is it, when you consider repeaters and the physical bulk of copper?).

“When it comes to fiber vs. cabling, what to use should be determined by the customer’s desires in performance, their budget, distance and future requirements,” says McCall. “Higher budget projects requiring longer distances and high-speed connectivity should consider using fiber, while budget-conscious projects should consider using copper HDMI."

McCall adds that for very short runs, where the client might want to upgrade to higher bandwidth content in the future, high-quality passive copper HDMI cables are recommended.

“We just don’t know what is in the future, but it could make electronics in the active cables ineffective,” he says “If you terminate your own electronics, it’s possible new terminations still may not work past 18Gbps."

Many consumers won't have access to 18Gbps+ content in the near future, McCall adds, "so we recommend discussing passive, active and fiber solutions with your client before making a decision.”



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  About the Author

Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). Bob also serves as the technology editor for CE Pro's sister publication Commercial Integrator. In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass., and he also studies Kyokushin karate at 5 Dragons in Haverhill, Mass. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Robert at robert.archer@emeraldexpo.com

Follow Robert on social media:
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View Robert Archer's complete profile.



  Article Topics


Networking & Cables · Structured Wiring · News · Products · Cleerline · Fiber · HDMI 2.1 · Metra Home Theater · ZeeVee · All Topics
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Comments

Posted by dbendell on February 26, 2018

do you all remember when HDMI was also going to carry ethernet? Smoke n Mirrors

Posted by dbendell on February 26, 2018

Posted by Mehuneau on February 24, 2018
You had me at “electricians pullling cable” the day consumers realize that electricians don’t have a clue in our world, is the first day of the rest of our lives.

Posted by dbendell on February 26, 2018

Posted by highfigh on February 23, 2018
Thank you, took the words right out of mouth

Posted by 39CentStamp on February 25, 2018

2 things… #1. I absolutely love HDMI. I can remember jobs where i had to strip and crimp 16 RCA connectors at each TV just for video. 10 for RGBHV/2 for Composite/4 for S-Video whips. Sorry but i don’t miss Component either. I would much rather unpack pre-made HDMI cables and have 20 sources wired in a half hour. #2. The only fiber i have ever terminated is for use with Crestron DM. Strip/insert/press the clips and your done. No copper related drama like the need for lightning protection or ground loops. The back of my video switch has a tiny fiber conductor delivering video and audio vs a sea of component/stereo/coaxial audio.

Posted by Bum Fighter on February 25, 2018

Adroit, I’m the bum fighter, if you think I’m the one being the bum, as we say here in the UK, you might be a few tea bags short of a pot.

Posted by Adroit1 on February 25, 2018

Bum Fighter, On the other hand, you seem to be living up to the British identification of the word “bum”

Posted by Julie Jacobson on February 24, 2018

Bum Fighter, don’t forget the bon bons. And Oprah. A girl can hardly find time to get her nails done and tiara polished.

Posted by Bum Fighter on February 24, 2018

“let’s see how tolerant you are after 40 years of bad ideas, bad technology and having to cover someone else’s butt when they screw up.”

It sounds like you’ve led a very tough life. The part that angers me the most is the likes of Julie Jacobson and Bob Archer helping to promote and unleash HDMI and other nightmares on us, all while sipping champagne from the comfort if their yachts.

But look at it this way, the world needs people like you to correct everyone else’s screwups and bad ideas. Just think of all the emotional pain you saved others from.

Posted by highfigh on February 24, 2018

Bum fighter- let’s see how tolerant you are after 40 years of bad ideas, bad technology and having to cover someone else’s butt when they screw up.

Posted by highfigh on February 24, 2018

Paul- thanks for the lesson- are you really Ernie?

I know what ‘copper’ means and maybe if Julie had been listed as co-writer, it may have been a bit more obvious, but as a trade publication, maybe a bit more helpful and a bit less punny would be a good idea, unless you want to have a separate section for jokes- that would be great.

I didn’t like it when it was new, I don’t like it now and in 20 years (actually 26 years), you would think they could make it bulletproof. THAT’S really the problem I have with it.

View all comments.

Posted by highfigh on February 23, 2018

Oh, you’re an audio enthusiast who writes about consumer electronics, you’re certified in a few areas and have studied music & guitar (almost forgot your karate- how that relates to this, I don’t know), want to tell people to not be scaredy cats and adopt new(er) technology that’s expensive, not universal and comes in several forms? You want to tell that to people WHO WORK IN THE INDUSTRY, own businesses that need to make a bit of profit and whose very survival requires that the technology we work with be reliable and robust but are at the mercy of entities like the HDMI consortium and manufacturers who don’t have the balls to tell people who come up with bad ideas that they should keep plugging away on them until they freaking work? Have you EVER done this for a living? Have you EVER owned a company that had to do the manufacturer’s job for them by supporting bad hardware, bad apps & firmware, bad design, inept tech support, dropped functionality that WAS available but is now discontinued, even when the old functions saved a buttload of time and just plain worked?

Go ahead and think you’re qualified to tell us what to do. While you’re at it,  pay us for the time we waste following bad leads from tech support, incompatible equipment, replacing cables that worked in the past but have been rendered obsolete by the newer format changes (Redmere), for the three hour drives to our clients’ homes that are out of out normal range and hearing “Gee- I have never seen that before” for the thousandth time. Pay us for the evening and weekend calls to tell us that something doesn’t work, even though it had worked before, should continue to work and has failed because Hollywood is worried that someone will copy their precious remakes.

You should really work in this business before you tell us how to spend our money and our time. Remember HD-DVD? Do you know how much money was wasted in mastering software by people who thought the better format would be adopted, only to find out at the last minute that BluRay is the winner?

I have been in this business for 40 years as of Feb 17th- you should look into the failures trotted out by “pioneers of the industry” that looked bad on paper, but were adopted, anyway.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on February 24, 2018

My goodness, highfigh, you are certainly giving Bob a hard time for sharing multiple viewpoints on fiber from a bunch of experts in the field. For the record, I was the one who wrote the headline. It was an invitation for dealers who have long been afraid of fiber to reconsider it today as a viable option for high-speed, high-bandwidth, long-distance applications. If you are suggesting that every reporter be a full-time tradesman before writing about the trade, we’d be out of a whole lot of really good reporters. What we learn and what we share comes from experts like you. Oh sure, we get it wrong plenty of times. I certainly hope that our readers know better than to run out and invest in every single product, technology and concept we happen to write about. Many times we completely disagree with the viewpoints we share. Far be it from us to withhold those viewpoints from everyone else. CE Pro editors write a whole bunch of opinion pieces, and we (me especially) often get hammered for those opinions. This wasn’t an opinion piece. Neither Bob nor his sources were suggesting readers run out and install fiber optics today with no further investigation. We are urging every dealer to at least have a look-see. That’s all.

Experienced dealers who installed fiber optics a decade ago to “future proof” their homes are SOL today. As Brent says in the story, “We just don’t know what is in the future ...”

Btw, even pioneering technologies that look GOOD on paper fail ... and fail again.

Thank you for taking the time to comment.

Posted by highfigh on February 24, 2018

“Don’t be a scaredy cat” is a kid’s way of taunting, but I doubt you saw it that way. If you were trying to be humorous, I’m not sure many will see it that way on first glance. Maybe “C’mon! It’ll be fun! It’ll be just like driving into Wisconsin!” would have been better, although it’s probably copyrighted.

Posted by highfigh on February 24, 2018

BTW- that three hour trip due to a Redmere cable no longer passing video wasn’t made up- it stopped working after an update. That should never happen but, OTOH, the analog sunset shouldn’t have forced people to watch HD material at 480p on component video, either.

They force the changes, we have to deal with the customers whose systems no longer work. Why don’t you write about that? You read the comments about how in love we are(n’t) with HDMI- that would be a good place to start. No format should need so many band-aids and we’re very tired of the financial and mental burden of dealing with these failures from the industry.

IMO, HDMI came out before it was ready for prime time and I doubt it was tested in real world conditions, resulting in many, many failures in the short run but they couldn’t stop there, they had to add high speed and network to something that wasn’t extremely reliable and allow cable makers to say their cables work when it was only the shortest ones that passed the tests. I think fiber should have been developed for this application much sooner and we really don’t have time to install and reinstall products that need more time in the incubator.

Posted by Mehuneau on February 24, 2018

I have been in this business for 16 years now. Back in the days, analog was the only way to get video. And things just worked.

When HDMI happened, all kinds of reasons for a screen being black (or full of digital snow) arrived. We dealt with them. HDMI baluns eventually arrived. They were bad. HDBaseT saved us from a world of increasing pain.

In the meantime, I witnessed electrical co tractors being talked into wiring whole houses with CAT6 and CAT7 cable. Giving up on antenna Coax. As a result, we seen more and more residences with badly pulled and even more badly terminated CAT7 (these are big ass cables) and of course satellite signal seldom works on a long strand of CATx.

I followed a three hours course on HDBaseT in Amsterdam couple of weeks ago. Long story short : CATx will be good enough for 4K HDR on reasonable lengths. And HDBaseT can be used on fiber with standard issue GBIC modules.

We actually might consider asking for fiber to be pulled in large residences. But on the other hand, I don’t see a bright future for HDMI distribution in this streaming video world.

Fiber is way better now. Cheaper, stronger, way easier to terminate. That’s a fact. And the old saying “there’s no such thing as too many wires” applies to fiber as well. But I won’t cheap out on a couple of CAT6a wires in the same conduit.

Posted by highfigh on February 24, 2018

I think my frustration comes from knowing people who work in industrial environments, where everything needs to be reliable, or production stops and a lot of money is lost. Reliability MUST replace trendy if this industry is to survive and to be honest, when things don’t work as advertised, people are already going for the easy way of having something that “kind of” works, rather than hire someone to install what they want. CDs are dead, videotape is dead. DVDs and BDs will soon be dead and all content will be streamed at some point, unless someone wants to hang onto a format for some reason.

Posted by Paul Cunningham on February 24, 2018

Jesus. First of all, it is obvious JJ is not a professional comedian but this type of joke is commonly referred to as a pun. “Pun (noun) a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word.”  “Copper” is generally understood to refer to “Cat” cable when compared to fiber, and the joke is that Cat also refers to a timid easily frightened animal, a common trope in American English. Hopefully I have explained this well enough.

While your tirade against HDMI as a technology is well taken, it’s nearly two decades too late. From what I gather it’s here to stay in some form as long as consumer-facing video content providers want to be paid for their content. I’ve only been around this business for a minute or two (19 years) but do agree with the general point of this article that fiber should be considered as the backbone of a residential wiring package much more frequently than it is, and it’s easier and faster than ever* to terminate and test. It’s not less expensive (yet) unless you consider the reduced service calls. I’ve never had a fiber line that previously worked to spec go bad, but have seen it several times with copper (less than stellar termination, corrosion, kink in the line, etc).

Mehuneau your point about video distribution vs streaming is valid. Most residences would do fine to have locally-dedicated sources for each display, since they all access the same shared streaming content. You’d have to have a pretty specific need (moving frequently between displays, large entertaining area with multiple displays showing the same content) in order for it to make sense.

*This was not the case until the past several years, and why HDMI was developed with the much cheaper medium of copper in mind, so that the standard would actually be adopted.

Posted by Bum Fighter on February 24, 2018

“I have been in this business for 40 years”

I guess the good news for any coworkers is that you’re getting closer to retirement age. As far as the rest of your long tirade, it may be helpful to know that both anger management therapy and medications are available, and can also be used in tandem in severe cases.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on February 24, 2018

Paul Cunningham, I didn’t think anyone would notice the double entendre. I just smiled smugly to myself when I wrote it.

Posted by Adroit1 on February 24, 2018

I have never like HDMI cables. I can’t tell you how many ends I had to apply silicone seal to, just to make sure they stayed in place when I slid the rack back to where it belonged. The range of quality from different companies is staggering. I recently discovered Cleerline SSF fiber optic cables. With 5 minutes of training, I am able to terminate an end in under a minute. The cost of the cable has come down to be within range of Cat 6. The ends cost more, but seem to make up for that in less labor. It takes me a little over 2 minutes to terminate a Cat 6 cable. ( I’ve done over 5,000 in the past 25 years). I am currently working on a yacht over 150’, and the distances range up to 200 feet from switch to switch, all of which are managed and fiber optic cable fed. There is a Kaleidescape system with 14 players, so all the players are located close to the video diplays to keep the HDMI runs as short as possible. It would make sense to have SFP connectors on all video products, and just eliminate the HDMI cabling altogether, good solid connectors and cable that will not become obsolete in our lifetimes is something to look forward to. I am not compensated in any way by Cleerline, just an enthusiastic user of their product, and want everyone to know that fiber optic cabling is no longer fragile and painful. Would I use Cleerline in a server farm? No, but for the speeds we are talking it is perfect. I just found another technology that might be interesting, plastic optical fiber. It won’t go much more than 1 Gps, but is, supposedly, indestructible. It is also available in LED driven lighting. Mitsubishi is the manufacturer, so there is money behind it. Just thinking, anything but HDMI.

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