Looking up at the night sky creates magical moments for many people. Even though there are around 5,000 stars visible to the naked eye, at any given time we can see only about half of those from where we stand. Observing the light from stars we know are millions of light-years away is remarkable and is a miracle that humankind had nothing to do with.

However, what humanity has achieved is harnessing the idea of transmitting light signals across great distances to communicate with others. The concept of optical fiber communication allows us to send information anywhere in the world at the speed of light. It’s not our only feat, though—we’ve also got cellular communication under our belt, which allows us to communicate in other ways.

Which of these technologies is the best choice for your company's purposes? We’ve unpacked the issue for you below.

Understanding the Options

Optical fiber technology uses long, narrow strands of pure glass the size of a human hair to transmit information. Grouped into bundles and encased in a layer of cladding surrounded by a buffer tube and an outer jacket layer, these cables convert electronic signals into light pulses. The signals then transport data over long distances using high-performance networking. This data transfer method is used in industries like telecommunications to transmit telephone signals, internet communications, and cable television programs.

Cellular communication, on the other hand, comprises wireless mobile systems that segment large geographical areas into smaller divisions to optimize the use of radio frequencies. This technology converts voice, text, images, and data into frequencies and uses radio waves to transport them as electromagnetic fields.

Antennae at each end of a network transmit the data wirelessly to other cellular nodes within their range until it reaches the destination point. Wireless networks enable users to communicate via mobile while on the go and use location services for precise positioning.

Dissecting the Differences

To help you choose which of these options is best for you, we’ve provided a detailed comparison of how the two methods compare in terms of cost, distance, convenience, and other important considerations.

1. Comparing Cost Considerations

Fiber optic networking technology requires a more significant upfront investment for firms. Estimates put the cost of laying the cables at between $8,500 and $30,000 per mile, depending on the number of strands. Add in the cost of the conduits and trenching, professional labor, and the equipment needed to operate the network, and the cost becomes significant. In fact, according to EC Mag, fiber optic electronics cost between $50 and $300 more per link.

Cellular communication networks are clearly cheaper. This fact is partly due to the technology being established for a longer time and partly to having more users, which helps with economies of scale. A wireless communication service only requires a few base stations and workers to install them, which keeps costs down. As for the hardware, wireless devices might not be two a penny yet, but the cost is undoubtedly lower than it was a few years ago.

How to Choose:

Choosing between the two options shouldn’t be determined by cost but by your long-term needs and the potential return on investment (ROI). Consider your company’s five-year growth strategy and answer questions such as:

  • What plans are in place for additional users?
  • How is data usage likely to grow over the period?
  • What is your depreciation timeframe for the different types of equipment?

And, of course, the kicker is: what sort of difference will the type of communications network you implement make to your annual revenue and profitability?

These are the criteria you should be looking at, rather than the cost.

2. Determining Distance Requirements

As small as the planet is compared with space, some distances are still big enough to defeat us. With cellular communications, distance issues definitely deserve consideration. The further a user travels from a wireless broadcast station, the weaker the signal becomes. Optical fiber communication can reliably transmit a clear, unadulterated signal for much longer distances, making it ideal for international and intercontinental communications. However, cellular communications are often still the best way to reach remote and rural areas, simply because installing fiber optic cabling in some regions is almost impossible and cost-prohibitive.

How to Choose:

Once again, take your long-term strategy into account. After all, you don’t want to invest in a communications network optimized for urban use and then, two years later, expand your operations to a distant edge like Outer Mongolia or the Russian Steppes. While those destinations are probably unlikely, future work trends clearly indicate remote and hybrid work options are here to stay. Who knows where your next CEO might want to work from?

3. Picking a Speed Preference

When it comes to business communications, connection and transfer speeds are critical for several reasons. Theoretically, cellular networks can transmit at the same speed as fiber optics, but in practice, users typically find them slower. The number of users sharing a network rises and falls, causing congestion during peak periods that compromises bandwidth and impacts the transfer of data packets. This issue affects the length of time data is in transit, during which it’s more vulnerable to corruption, hacking, and other forms of data loss. Speed also impacts the company’s access to insights generated by data, e-commerce transactions, and decision-making capabilities.

How to Choose:

Identify the maximum number of users likely to access a network during peak times. Evaluate how much information the company typically sends across the network daily, and think about how this will likely increase over time.

Data growth is currently a huge concern, with Statista projecting the total amount of data created, captured, copied, and consumed globally could grow from 64.2 zettabytes in 2020 to more than 180 zettabytes by 2025. Take this into consideration when you’re choosing between optical fiber communication and cellular options. If you choose fiber optic, you will also need to upgrade your other equipment to reap full benefits.

4. Calculating the Convenience Factor

Convenience might not sound like a particularly decisive factor in a business environment. Still, the loss of productivity caused by slow data transfers, delayed access to insights, and communication latency adds up to more than a simple inconvenience. This speaks in favor of fiber optics, but when it comes to installation, a cellular communications network takes a couple of days and requires minimal resources.

Fiber optics, on the other hand, can be time-consuming and complex, and installing a fiber network can take several months.

How to Choose:

CIOs will have to balance cost factors and the company’s future requirements against the need for quick installation and minimal downtime. The best-case scenario could be a hybrid system that provides a cellular network for day-to-day communications and short-term usage, while installing a fiber optic network for long-term use. Having both also delivers the best redundancy against future network outages and natural disasters, but it is undoubtedly an expensive option.

The Final Analysis

Overall, there’s no “one size fits all” communications network, and choosing between optical fiber communications and cellular communications requires serious consideration and evaluation of options. A wired connection offers greater reliability, more robust security, and less opportunity for outside interference. Wireless gives you more flexibility and a faster, easier way to add devices and equipment to the network.

Click the link below for more information on ComNet's Fiber Optic Solutions and help selecting the right option for your company.