These days, high-speed internet access isn’t just a luxury—it’s a necessity. The internet is how the majority of people now access their entertainment content or do business. It’s how we communicate.
For many, it’s even how they do their job every day. However, greater dependency on the internet means higher bandwidth needs, too.
So, there are plenty of people trying to sort through their internet service options to figure out which one offers the right mix of speed, reliability, and availability.
Two of the most modern options at the high end of the internet service market are fiber optic internet and 5G home internet service.
However, there are significant similarities and differences between the two that should influence any end user’s decision between them.
To help with that, here’s a comparison of fiber optic and 5G residential internet services.
We’ll begin with an explanation of how each type of service works and then compare their speed, availability, security, and cost to make deciding between them easier.
The Basics of Fiber Optic vs 5G Internet Service
Understanding the differences and similarities between fiber optic and 5G internet services must begin with an understanding of the technologies that make them possible. Here’s an explanation of the basics of each.
How Fiber Optic Internet Service Works
At its core, fiber optic internet relies on cables filled with glass filaments that carry data as pulses of light from one end to another.
Since nothing moves faster than the speed of light, this means fiber optic cables offer some of the highest data throughput available.
They’ve formed much of the internet’s backbone since 1988, when the TAT-8 transatlantic undersea cable first linked the systems of the largest telecom providers in the US with those in Europe.
In later years, most large ISPs started using fiber optic cables to build out their own internet backhaul networks.
As a result, even the majority of cable internet subscribers receive their connections via a fiber optic-powered network, with coax cable handling just the last mile connection to their home.
However, more and more companies now offer fiber optic internet service that brings fiber optic cabling directly into homes (called Fiber-to-the-Home), unlocking the type of performance only fiber optic cables can offer.
How 5G Internet Service Works
5G home internet services, on the other hand, rely on high-speed wireless data transmission to extend internet service to homes.
A 5G receiver device plus a router are offered by the provider which are used to connect your home network devices to the internet via the 5G cellular infrastructure.
This service uses the same cellular mobile networks that now power the latest generation of smartphones and other connected devices.
It’s an approach that does away with the need to build out costly fiber optic networks that reach all the way into people’s homes.
However, the individual cellular tower sites that make all of it possible also rely on fiber optic cables to connect them to the internet (fiber used as backhaul).
They work much like traditional cable internet, except that they substitute a wireless signal for coax cable to provide last-mile connectivity.
As a result, it’s fair to say that 5G internet service is something of a hybrid service offering, just like cable internet often is.
Comparing Speed and Bandwidth of Fiber vs 5G
The first point of comparison between fiber optic and 5G internet most people wonder about is speed and bandwidth.
In internet service parlance, speed refers to the maximum speed the medium can support.
Bandwidth, on the other hand, refers to how much of that theoretical speed the provider will let you actually use. Let’s take a look at the speed and bandwidth of both service types.
Fiber Optic Internet Speed and Bandwidth
As noted earlier, fiber optic cables offer the fastest theoretical data transfer speeds available.
Right now, most of the networks that deliver fiber optic internet service to homes have a theoretical maximum speed of 100Gbps.
However, that’s not the fastest that data can travel through a fiber optic cable. As of today, it’s possible to push data at an eye-popping 1.84 petabits per second over a fiber optic cable using a single photonic chip.
For reference, that would be almost double the throughput required by the entire internet at any given time.
However, residential fiber optic internet services don’t allow you to take advantage of those speeds.
On average, most fiber optic internet providers offer maximum speeds of 1Gbps.
There are some exceptions, however. Notably, US provider AT&T offers residential fiber internet at up to 5Gbps in some locations for those willing to pay for it.
5G Internet Speed and Bandwidth
5G internet services, by comparison, don’t have anywhere near the same maximum theoretical bandwidth as fiber optic services do.
It’s only capable of peak data rates of 20Gbps, and that’s only if your wireless connection is as perfect as possible.
However, the umbrella term 5G actually refers to a cluster of wireless transmission spectrums that feature radically different maximum throughputs.
You’d need to be on a high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum to get anywhere near the peak data rate of 20Gbps.
Then, there are mid-band spectrums, which offer around 300-400 Mbps. And last, there are low-band spectrums that offer a maximum of about 250Mbps.
In the real world, most users connect using the mid-band spectrum, which means the average bandwidth they can expect is around 300-400Mbps.
Right now, only users in select urban areas can expect a connection via mmWave spectrums, but that may change over time as cellular providers continue to expand coverage.
Comparing Coverage and Availability
Obviously, the speed of a given internet service doesn’t mean much if you can’t get it where you live. So, let’s compare the coverage and availability of fiber optic and 5G home internet.
Fiber Optic Internet Coverage and Availability
At the time of this writing, exact numbers regarding residential fiber optic internet availability are quite hard to come by.
That’s because individual service providers build and maintain their own fiber infrastructure, and it’s challenging to combine the available data.
However, according to a study commissioned by the Fiber Broadband Association in early 2022, about 43% of US households now have access to fiber optic internet services.
What’s more, experts estimate that it’s going to take until 2025 to reach 50% penetration—if nothing derails current infrastructure investments and progress.
5G Internet Coverage and Availability
5G, by contrast, is far more widely available. At the time of this writing, T-Mobile offers 5G home internet coverage in approximately 89% of the US.
And when you consider that there’s some overlap between providers, some form of residential 5G Internet service may be accessible almost everywhere.
However, it’s important to note that, as of now, only Verizon, Starry and T-Mobile offer residential 5G internet service, and for speeds up to 1Gbps only Starry and Verizon. T-Mobile, while being far more available, only offers speeds up to 245Mbps.
Comparing Security and Reliability
Although, for some, the security of a given internet service is a bit of an afterthought, reliability isn’t. Here’s how the security and reliability of fiber optic and 5G residential internet services stack up.
Fiber Optic Internet Security and Reliability
When it comes to security, fiber optic internet services enjoy a natural advantage.
Since they transmit data as pulses of light, the odds of interception are as close to zero as it gets.
Plus, any attempt at physical manipulation of fiber optic cabling would cause issues that network operators could easily spot. That is—if the would-be attacker didn’t manage to destroy the cable they were trying to listen in on in the process.
On the reliability front, fiber optic internet is tough to beat. For one thing, it relies on fairly new infrastructure that doesn’t suffer from any age-related degradation yet.
Plus, it’s not susceptible to problems created by electrical interference or inclement weather. As a result, most fiber optic internet services boast uptimes of 99.9% or better, year after year.
5G Internet Security and Reliability
Although there haven’t been any major security incidents associated with 5G internet services to date, that doesn’t mean they’re as secure as fiber optics.
On the contrary, security researchers consider 5G networks worryingly vulnerable to attack. This means users of 5G home internet services should be as vigilant as possible in their device usage while connected.
As far as reliability, 5G home internet services also enjoy a relatively new infrastructure but aren’t as bulletproof as fiber optic networks.
They are vulnerable to disruption and service degradation due to electrical interference and inclement weather.
Plus, 5G home users have to share bandwidth with mobile users, so speeds and reliability can vary quite a bit depending on your location.
Last but not least, most potential users will weigh the costs of their internet service options before making a decision. Here’s how the costs of fiber optic and 5G internet services compare.
Fiber Optic Internet Cost
Since there are too many fiber optic internet providers in the US to count, it’s quite hard to pin down the costs involved with the service.
Plus, the pricing tiers of most providers depend on how much speed you’re willing to pay for.
In general, though, most residential fiber optic internet service plans in the US fall within the $39.99 to $80 per month range.
At those prices, you can expect speeds starting at around 100Mbps at the low end and 1Gbps at the high end.
Of course, if you’re in an area that offers AT&T’s 5Gbps offering, you could pay up to $395 per month for it, although that’s not typical for most people.
5G Internet Cost
There are considerably fewer 5G residential internet service providers to choose from in the US. So, it’s a bit easier to get a handle on the costs involved.
At the time of this writing, the cheapest 5G internet service offering comes from Verizon, starting at $25 per month for up to 300Mbps speeds—if you also have a mobile plan with them.
On the higher end of the price scale, you’ll find Starry’s Gig Internet plan, which costs $80 per month for speeds up to 1Gbps.
Comparison Table of Fiber vs 5G
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The Bottom Line
As you now know, there are plenty of similarities between residential fiber optic internet services and 5G internet services.
They both offer high speeds and somewhat comparable prices. 5G cellular networks even depend on fiber optic cabling to handle their backhaul traffic! However, there are plenty of differences between the two service types.
For one thing, fiber optic services boast the highest possible speeds, which makes them more of a future-proof service option.
Plus, you can’t beat their reliability and security. The trouble is that more than half of the people living in the US don’t have access to fiber optic internet service, while 5G service is available almost anywhere.
So, the simplest takeaway is this: fiber optic internet is still the hands-down king of home internet options, but 5G offers a flexible and cost-competitive alternative that works well and will only continue getting better.
And which you choose, of course, should come down to availability and the underlying characteristics described above that matter to you most.