3. The War between Copper and Fibre Optics:

The current debate about the two technologies has its genesis in a proliferation of requests for high-speed networking to the desktop. In contrast, optical fibre has long been used as a mainstay for backbone networks. Fibre-to-the-desk leads to the future by changing the current interconnections between computer desktops e.g. LAN, from copper to fibre.

The war between copper and fibre optics started due to the need for upgrading current copper connections namely Category2 or Category 3 copper. Because of the recent increase in power of computer systems, these old copper versions were not able to support the increase in load it was required to the deliver.

Multi-unit distribution fiber
cables in backbones

Interconnect fiber cables
in the desktop area

Category 5 was then created as an upgrade to the older versions. It claimed to be able to reach 100 megabits/sec, which was needed to support today's systems although many doubt this ability. This also means that present copper interconnections would need to be replaced with a totally new connection system. Because of this fibre optics seemed to be the best alternative to installing the new copper wire. No one can doubt its ability to support 100 megabits/sec or greater and it had a far greater bandwidth copper. Furthermore, fibre optics had long been used in the backbone arena and it was time to turn fibre into a complete communications systems solution - from backbone links all the way to the desk.

The copper industry realising the threat fibre optics was imposing began a campaign to mislead the public in an effort to redeem its position in the desktop interconnection area. The copper industry started with the thesis that it was creating a way for users to run 100 megabits/sec applications on present installed copper namely Category 2 or Category 3. This would avoid having to install new cable, specifically fibre cables. The thesis was unfolded at the Unsheilded Twisted-Pair Forum in 1991 and went public. However the scam backfired when in 1992 the April American National Standards Institute announced that 100 megabits/sec would not run on Category 2 or Category 3 copper. This meant that new cables - Category 5 or FIBER OPTICS was needed if 100 megabits/sec was to be achievable.

The copper industry then began promoting Category 5 heavily. False facts were laid about fibre optics in order to win consumer support. Fibre was disgracefully accused as an unworthy successor to the copper.

The effect this had on fibre's bid to move into the desktop arena was greatly impaired especially the vendors who were getting frustrated due to poor sales although the advantages fibre has over copper are clear. Among them are ultrahigh bandwidth, the ability to transmit signals over longer distances without radiation problems, better transmission quality without electromagnetic interference, higher security and smaller size. Furthermore, there are no test procedures and criteria in place for Category 5. So test couldn't be made to see if the system would work.

Fiber - flexible, sturdy and easy to work

Of course none of the myths are true. First, An optical fiber has greater tensile strength than copper or steel fibers of the same diameter. It is flexible, bends easily, and resists most corrosive elements that attack copper cable. Optical cables can withstand pulling forces of more than 150 pounds - about six times that recommended for Category 5 cable. Second, advancements have been made in fibre optic cables to make them easier to install e.g. fibre optic connectors have been greatly simplified. Third, fibre is actually the most universal communications medium capable of carrying voice, data and video communications signals simultaneously. Fourth, as the need for greater bandwidth increases dramatically applications today should consider fibre as it is future proof. Already many businesses, universities and hospitals have already taken advantage of fiber's benefits to enhance productivity and open employees to advanced networking capabilities. Fifth, fiber-optic cable and related components are comparably priced to Category 5 copper counterparts. On the installed cost side, fiber and Category 5 components are comparably priced. On the life cycle costs, fiber is actually cheaper in the long run.

Network managers need to install an infrastructure that will last for a decade or more--not just a few years. The long view is essential since the power of PCs and multimedia network applications is increasing at an alarming rate. Despite the tug of war that's going on, users will have to be the ultimate judges.