Advocates claim fiber is "greener" than copper or cable

Environmentally friendly or sustainable business practices are an integral part of all industries, and the telecom sector is not immune. Not only is being “green” good for the environment, it’s also good for business because companies that are committed to energy-saving initiatives are popular with consumers and with investors.

Frontier Communications, which is in the midst of a transformation from old-school telco to fiber powerhouse, often touts its commitment to sustainability during its earnings calls with investors and the company recently published its first-ever environmental, social and governance (ESG) report.

In addition, Frontier’s Executive Chairman of the Board John Stratton highlighted the company’s belief in fiber’s superiority during the company’s third quarter 2021 earnings call. “Fiber is a passive technology and uses less energy than competing technologies like cable,” Stratton said. “As we upgrade our copper network to fiber, we will be on a path to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Fiber is often referred to as a “passive” technology because it is uses passive optical networking, or PON, technology and therefore doesn’t require any electricity to power it. Instead, it uses unpowered optical splitters.

Steve Alexander, CTO and SVP at Ciena, said that fiber definitely can be considered more environmentally friendly than cable because it has far more capacity than coax cable and also because the losses from fiber are lower.

“You can have relatively high-capacity connections over reasonable distances without intermediary electronics,” Alexander said. “Over PON there is no requirement for power, so there’s energy savings to be had.”

However, Alexander also noted that the physical act of replacing copper with fiber connections will add to the carbon footprint. But he said that upgrading copper to fiber is a one-time occurrence.

The Fiber Broadband Association’s “2022 Status of U.S. Broadband” report, compiled by RVA Market Research and Consulting, also said that fiber reduces CO2 output because it requires fewer truck rolls to service fiber vs. copper or cable.

In addition, the report said that there are likely more savings in CO2 transmissions from fiber because when it’s deployed in neighborhoods it means more people can work from home reducing the amount of energy used to commute to work.

But the FBA isn’t the only organization touting the benefits of fiber. The European Commission studied different broadband technologies in Germany and found that fiber was the most energy efficient. The study noted that at 50 Mbps, fiber connections emitted 1.7 tons of CO2 per year compared to copper, which emitted 2.7 tons. The reason for fiber’s efficiency, the commission said, was because fiber can transmit data much longer distances than copper and copper connections need more amplifiers, which in turn require electrical power.