Will Fiber Ever Replace Copper Cable?

The debate whether fiber will ever replace copper has raged for quite some time. Yes, fiber has many benefits, but so does copper. In this blog Laura Chen explains why copper cabling is still important for network infrastructure.

Fiber_Support_imageThe question of whether fiber will replace copper cable was first proposed to me more than a decade ago and certainly has become a popular topic in cabling industry. Has this been verified by actual market performance? Based on CommScope's observation in China, it is true that the application fields for fiber have significantly extended; however copper cable remains vital in several key applications.

To keep things simple, let’s divide the cabling market into two major application fields: data center and intelligent building. Currently, we are witnessing a growing trend of fiber in data center market. According to the industry research report by China Cabling Team (C-TEAM), the normal proportion of fiber and copper cable implementation in the data center is 40 percent and 60 percent respectively. Data center’s requirement for bandwidth will increase together with its scale expansion, and finally result in higher demand for fiber. Moreover, the percentage of fiber in large data centers (no less than 10,000 square meters) reaches 70 percent, much higher than the percentage of copper cable.

When it comes to intelligent buildings, the percentage of fiber implementation is comparatively higher in vertical backbone networks, while copper cabling still dominates the applications of voice transmission and in-building networks. This is mainly due to the high cost of fiber-to-the-desk (FTTD) system as well as fiber’s high requirements for application environment and routine maintenance. Therefore, in the market of intelligent buildings, the percentage of fiber usage is only around 30 percent, while copper cabling occupies the remaining 70 percent market share.

As the integrated solution provider for fiber and copper cable, CommScope believes that both fiber and copper cable are making progress with fiber developing relatively faster. Since fiber and copper cable both serve Ethernet connections, their specific applications are determined by the development and evolvement of Ethernet interface. In terms of the data center market, fiber indeed holds a larger share because of its advantages in transmission speed and bandwidth. However, when it comes to the intelligent buildings market, copper cable is facing new opportunities brought on by the fast landing of the Power over Ethernet (PoE) application. Since copper cable is capable of transmitting data as well as supplying electrical power, its predominant application is to horizontal network transmission and device end.

With the rapid development and upgrading of Ethernet technology, its surrounding standards and the segmentation of application, the future of copper cable is still promising through such applications as: PoE technology, wireless access, digital camera, LED-based power system and sensor networks. All of these applications will extend the scope of copper cable usage. Although fiber is more popular in the data center market, the advent of 25G and 40G copper cable standards demonstrate the continuous evolvement of copper cable technology, which still has a strong presence, particularly in the area of server end access. This explains why fiber may not necessarily unify the data center cabling market and the future trend of the cabling industry will be the long term co-existence and common development of both.

What are your thoughts regarding the ongoing discussion on whether fiber will completely overtake copper cabling? Leave a comment below and I will be happy to continue this discussion.