When networking professionals are looking to deploy new installations, one of the earliest decisions to take is whether they will use copper or fibre-optic technology in their cabling solutions.
While copper is a tried and trusted technology for many users, the benefits of fibre are increasingly attractive in many scenarios, especially as data demands grow, as its higher speed and reliability over long distances are often seen as more advantageous than copper.
But does this mean the days of copper are numbered? Not at all. In fact, the likelihood is that despite the advantages offered by fibre cabling, copper will continue to have a central place in almost all networks for years to come, and in fact should be the preferred option in many scenarios.
So where is copper still the best choice within a building's network, and why should deployers still be considering it?
The cost equation
Fibre-to-the-desk technologies, which remove copper almost entirely from the LAN and run fibre all the way to end-user devices, have become increasingly popular in recent years, due to its high bandwidth and long reach. But even though the cost of fibre cabling has dropped significantly recently, it is still likely to be a hugely expensive exercise to replace copper lines with fibre throughout a location.
It is not just the cost of the cabling itself firms have to consider. Fibre is also more complex to install and maintain, so this will also have to be taken into account, as it could quickly mount up if firms are looking to run this technology to every desk in an office.
This isn't necessarily the case everywhere, however. In some scenarios, such as sensitive environments where there is a risk of sparks or electrical interference, the need for expensive shielding for copper wires can negate any cost savings, so it's important to factor any additional solutions into your total costings.
Managing the data-driven environment
In terms of bandwidth, fibre offers a headline advantage, but copper is no slouch either and over short distances can be just as effective. For instance, the latest Cat8 standards offer bandwidth of up to 2GHz for up to 30 metres and can also support speeds of up to 40Gbps, putting it on par with what fibre can offer. Even categories like Cat7 and Cat6A can deliver the performance needed for today's needs over short distances.
Another factor in copper's favour is the fact it can also be used to carry power to devices. This is a feature that's likely to be especially important for many users in the coming years, when the rise of Internet of Things sensors and other end devices will all demand a power supply. In these scenarios, the ability to use Power over Ethernet technology instead of running costly second power cables to gadgets will be essential.
Wireless access points, CCTV cameras, access control systems and more will all therefore remain dependent on copper for the foreseeable future.
Keeping copper and fibre working together
Ultimately, it's clear that both fibre and copper have their roles to play in tomorrow's networks. While there will be some applications where fibre is preferable - for long distances and sensitive or secure environments, there are still many applications where copper is not just the cheaper option, but also the more practical one.
The key for businesses will therefore be to determine where copper is best-suited and where the benefits of fibre will outweigh any additional cost and complexity. In tomorrow's data-driven era, short-range, PoE-enabled copper will still have its place.