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Fiber Optic Cabling
Adobe Stock/ TheCatEmpire Studio
By Gayla Arrindell

Consider this: 10 years ago, the average internet speed in the U.S. was less than 9 megabits per second (Mbps)—about half the bandwidth needed for just one device to stream a 4K video. By 2022, it had skyrocketed to nearly 120 Mbps. With the number of connected devices growing by the day, and new data-intensive applications like artificial intelligence joining the fold, it’s critical that educational institutions begin planning their networks with fiber optic cabling now for the next 10 years and beyond.

When it comes to building out infrastructure for future connectivity, the most prudent choice is fiber optic cabling. Not only is it capable of handling virtually unlimited bandwidth, but it’s also less expensive than traditional copper-based cabling, more adaptable, and more environmentally friendly—among many other benefits.

This article will explore what’s driving the increasing need for bandwidth in K-12 and higher education, and the various fiber optic architectures that can help equip these facilities for whatever demands emerge down the road.

A Higher Bar

Among the many changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic was the permanence of hybrid education. Since classes went fully remote in March 2020, new methods of distance learning have been codified, and streaming is now an enduring fixture of higher education. This alone has driven up network usage—live streaming requires 5–25 Mbps of upload speed—significantly cutting into the bandwidth for other connected applications.

Naturally, the need for interconnected devices and a greater network bandwidth is constantly growing. More schools are transforming their facilities to become smart schools in the effort to engage students and create a more cohesive learning environment. From augmented reality and smart boards, to cloud computing and artificial intelligence, schools are incorporating more network bandwidth intensive applications.

Also, to improve the student experience, universities are expanding Wi-Fi coverage to cover campuses top to toe, indoors and outdoors, which requires a plethora of access points throughout the campus. Additionally, new generations of Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi 6 and 7, will require a higher and higher network bandwidth to be fully optimized.

Over the next several years, schools will need to upgrade and expand their networks to enable these new Wi-Fi generations and other applications that will dramatically raise the bar for network speed. While Wi-Fi 6 is still ramping up to replace Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 7-capable products are already going on sale. These bandwidth-guzzling devices are projected to become commonplace by the end of the decade.

What does this mean for school networks? Whereas Wi-Fi 6E has a maximum of 10 Gbps throughput—a dizzying rate even for many of today’s enterprise-grade networks—Wi-Fi 7 will unlock speeds of up to 40 Gbps, but it will require a drastic network overhaul to fiber optic cabling for buildings and campuses wired with traditional copper-based infrastructures.

Wiring For The Future

To handle the demands of future networks, institutions have two choices. The first is to rip and replace their existing copper cables with a fiber optic cabling cable or to run more copper Ethernet cables to handle the additional load. Due to the physical limitations of copper Category cables which can only carry up to 10 Gbps at a maximum distance of 100 meters (330 feet) in a single run, to make Wi-Fi 7’s 40 Gbps available across a campus, schools would need to put in additional runs of cabling in already congested pathways. Not only is this disruptive, it’s temporary—when speeds rise even higher down the line, they’ll have to do this again.

The second (and more practical) choice is to re-wire facilities with fiber optic cabling, which has virtually unlimited throughput and can be extended to distances of up to 20 kilometers in a single run. Not only does this approach relieve schools of the need to make disruptive upgrades every five to 10 years as demands rise, but it also enables much greater flexibility in where connectivity is delivered and what technologies are connected.

Using a long-reach fiber technology architecture, schools can bring connectivity to locations beyond the 100-meter constraint of Ethernet cabling. This means universities can place wireless access points and security cameras in more remote campus locations, providing coverage further from buildings. In addition, there are hybrid-fiber solutions that can carry low-voltage power up to 2,000 feet to these endpoints, simplifying the need for additional power cabling to operate them.

For safety reasons, schools also require pervasive cellular coverage in all areas of buildings and across campuses. With fiber and wireless technologies, campuses can enable stronger cell service throughout buildings for emergency calling, even in difficult-to-penetrate areas like basements and stairwells.

Affordability And Sustainability

So, why should schools make the switch to fiber sooner than later? Beyond its long-term benefits, it also brings immediate advantages in cost and sustainability. First, it requires far less raw material, with a single strand of fiber taking the place of hefty bundles of Ethernet cabling—cabling that will need to be replaced several times over during the lifespan of a single fiber installation.

Second, because it can carry signals at much greater distances, it doesn’t need nearly as many telecom rooms, which are traditionally required both to extend connectivity beyond copper’s 100-meter barrier and to break out connections to endpoints. Financial studies have shown that the investment in fiber can be up to 30% less expensive upfront due to the drastic reduction of cabling and equipment and the resources needed to install and operate it.

That’s just the initial savings. The equipment in telecom rooms generate a lot of heat; by eliminating many of them, schools could save considerably in HVAC costs and have the potential to lower their carbon footprint in the process. Also, the cost to add, move, and change network infrastructure can be costly not only monetarily but also in time and logistics. By installing a fiber-backed network, campuses can adjust their network locations and capacity with ease and lower their carbon footprint in the process. Over the long term, the combined savings from network upgrades can add up to as much as 50% over conventional copper.

While the future is difficult to predict, two things are certain: people will always need reliable connectivity, and we’ll need to take better care of our planet. By upgrading to fiber, schools can offer their students superior connectivity for years to come and do it in a way that reduces their impact on the environment.


Arrindell is the Market Development Director – In-Building Networks for Corning Optical Communications. A 33-year leader with an excellent mix of international and corporate level sales, marketing, and business development experience in the telecommunications Industry.

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