Fiber-optic cable systems convert packets of data -- images, text, video, emails -- into a stream of light. The light travels through the cable from sender to the receiver, which converts it back into its original form. Wireless communication converts the data it transmits into electromagnetic waves for broadcasting. Both alternatives have advocates who rate them as the superior communication medium.
In theory, a wireless network can transmit data at the same speed as optical fiber. In practice, fiber-optics attain higher maximum speeds. This is particularly true when networks become congested, as all users of wireless networks share the same bandwidth. The more users at any one time, the more congested and slower the wireless network becomes. Optical fiber is capable of much faster speeds than current networks provide. If the company upgrades its other equipment, fiber-optic cables can send faster messages.
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Wireless signals degrade with distance: The further away the user is from the broadcast station, the weaker the signal. Fiber-optic wires can convey a clear signal much farther: A user at any point gets the same signal as someone many miles down the line. Wireless communication, however, can reach users who are so isolated or rural that it's prohibitively expensive to run cables out to them. Australia has proposed hooking up more than 90 percent of its population to a fiber-optic network for Internet access, with rural Australians receiving wireless instead.
Millions of Americans communicate and surf the Internet on technology that doesn't work on wires. Smart phones, Blackberries and other portable devices enable users to access the Internet almost anywhere. Stores and coffee-shops can provide free Internet access without hooking a wire to every laptop. The downside is that, in some cities, some wireless services don't work, drop calls and barely pick up signals. Added numbers of users with increasingly data-heavy applications slow down and clog local networks.
Despite the differences, many communications systems use both fiber optics and wireless transmissions. Cable companies provide fiber-optic service to a home's front door, but the owners can use Wi-Fi for their own network. Businesses wire up their local area networks, but staffers use Blackberries or iPhones to manage email out on the road. Australia's plan to use a mix of fiber and wireless suggests there's no one technology that works perfectly for everyone in every situation.