Why the copper-vs.-fiber war is over

Where are all those copper-cabling devotees who have been kicked around by the fiber advocates for years?

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Where are all those copper-cabling devotees who have been kicked around by the fiber advocates for years?

It's over. The copper-vs.-fiber war that raged for years, and included comments like, "The only good use for copper cable is as a pullstring for fiber-optic cable," has come to an end. Interestingly enough, however, many of the reasons the war lasted so long still exist.

End-user organizations planning cabling upgrades still face tough decisions about which cabling type is the best overall value for their current and projected future needs. Copper-based systems present the same step-ladder upgrade path that they have for years, while fiber-optic proponents continue to advocate the "once-and-you're-done" philosophy. At the same time, UTP systems are breaking the 200-MHz-performance barrier, and the TIA's Category 6 specifications will officially recognize that performance level.

In fact, the battles could be as lively and invigorating as ever, if only the war were still being waged. Fiber-optic cable options probably are more plentiful today than they ever have been, and in my mind, that's not necessarily a good thing for the fiber camp. I remember a time when fiber was fiber, and if you were in the market to purchase multimode, just about every strand you could find was the same. They all had 62.5-micron cores, and as long as the light pulses would make it from one end to the other, the transmission was successful.

Now, however, the multimode fiber you choose might have a 62.5-micron core, or it might have a 50-micron core. It might be laser-optimized, or maybe not. And depending on just how it was made, the fiber might allow gigabit-speed links of various distances. I remember some fiber advocates lambasting copper-cabling systems because there were just so darn many choices, it was confusing to the consumer. No such confusion existed for those specifying fiber-optic cabling. How things have changed.

So how come I'm the only one on a soapbox making such remarks about fiber-optic cabling? Where are all those copper-cabling devotees who have been kicked around by the fiber advocates for years? Are they simply too civilized, unwilling to promote their own cause by speaking ill of the fiber world? Perhaps, but another scenario might be just as likely. As far as I can see, most of the people whose jobs are to research, develop, market, and sell copper-based cabling products work in organizations that also research, develop, market, and sell (you guessed it) fiber-optic cabling products.

I think every manufacturer in our industry sees the direction in which we are headed. Let's consider Ethernet, the data-transmission protocol of choice for most users. Unshielded twisted-pair copper cabling has proven itself a sufficient infrastructure for the Ethernet standards developed to this point, right up to Gigabit Ethernet. But, I dare say, that's where it will end. A copper solution for 10-Gigabit Ethernet is not even on the drawing board.

So, 10-Gig is a fiber-only application. I find it at least a little ironic that the TIA currently is working on specifications for a 2,000 MHz*km-bandwidth 50-micron fiber that will allow 300-meter transmission of 10-Gigabit Ethernet. You see, the "run-of-the-mill" 50-micron fiber only supports 60 meters worth of 10 Gig. A new cable type for a higher-speed application... if I didn't know better, I would say you could draw a parallel to the development of UTP Categories.

All joking aside, optical fiber is the only medium that will handle 10-Gigabit Ethernet. And despite the gamesmanship that we have come to expect between copper and fiber, fiber-optic cabling is maturing in much the same way copper has, because only now are fiber's capabilities being pushed. Follow the maturation process closely, because in all likelihood, you will have more and more fiber reaching further and further into your network in the years to come.

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Patrick McLaughlin
Chief Editor
patrick@pennwell.com

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