Fiber-Optic Technologies

  • Sample Chapter is provided courtesy of Cisco Press.
  • Date: Apr 23, 2004.

Chapter Description

Vivek Alwayn discusses in this chapter the increasing demand of optical-fiber and its wide spread applications ranging from global networks to desktop computers.

Fiber-Optic Characteristics

Optical-fiber systems have many advantages over metallic-based communication systems. These advantages include interference, attenuation, and bandwidth characteristics. Furthermore, the relatively smaller cross section of fiber-optic cables allows room for substantial growth of the capacity in existing conduits. Fiber-optic characteristics can be classified as linear and nonlinear. Nonlinear characteristics are influenced by parameters, such as bit rates, channel spacing, and power levels.


Light signals traveling via a fiber-optic cable are immune from electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radio-frequency interference (RFI). Lightning and high-voltage interference is also eliminated. A fiber network is best for conditions in which EMI or RFI interference is heavy or safe operation free from sparks and static is a must. This desirable property of fiber-optic cable makes it the medium of choice in industrial and biomedical networks. It is also possible to place fiber cable into natural-gas pipelines and use the pipelines as the conduit.

Linear Characteristics

Linear characteristics include attenuation, chromatic dispersion (CD), polarization mode dispersion (PMD), and optical signal-to-noise ratio (OSNR).


Several factors can cause attenuation, but it is generally categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic attenuation is caused by substances inherently present in the fiber, whereas extrinsic attenuation is caused by external forces such as bending. The attenuation coefficient α is expressed in decibels per kilometer and represents the loss in decibels per kilometer of fiber.

Intrinsic Attenuation

Intrinsic attenuation results from materials inherent to the fiber. It is caused by impurities in the glass during the manufacturing process. As precise as manufacturing is, there is no way to eliminate all impurities. When a light signal hits an impurity in the fiber, one of two things occurs: It scatters or it is absorbed. Intrinsic loss can be further characterized by two components:

  • Material absorption

  • Rayleigh scattering

Material Absorption@Material absorption occurs as a result of the imperfection and impurities in the fiber. The most common impurity is the hydroxyl (OH-) molecule, which remains as a residue despite stringent manufacturing techniques. Figure 3-12 shows the variation of attenuation with wavelength measured over a group of fiber-optic cable material types. The three principal windows of operation include the 850-nm, 1310-nm, and 1550-nm wavelength bands. These correspond to wavelength regions in which attenuation is low and matched to the capability of a transmitter to generate light efficiently and a receiver to carry out detection.

Figure 12Figure 3-12 Attenuation Versus Wavelength

The OH- symbols indicate that at the 950-nm, 1380-nm, and 2730-nm wavelengths, the presence of hydroxyl radicals in the cable material causes an increase in attenuation. These radicals result from the presence of water remnants that enter the fiber-optic cable material through either a chemical reaction in the manufacturing process or as humidity in the environment. The variation of attenuation with wavelength due to the water peak for standard, single-mode fiber-optic cable occurs mainly around 1380 nm. Recent advances in manufacturing have overcome the 1380-nm water peak and have resulted in zero-water-peak fiber (ZWPF). Examples of these fibers include SMF-28e from Corning and the Furukawa-Lucent OFS AllWave. Absorption accounts for three percent to five percent of fiber attenuation. This phenomenon causes a light signal to be absorbed by natural impurities in the glass and converted to vibration energy or some other form of energy such as heat. Unlike scattering, absorption can be limited by controlling the amount of impurities during the manufacturing process. Because most fiber is extremely pure, the fiber does not heat up because of absorption.

Rayleigh Scattering@As light travels in the core, it interacts with the silica molecules in the core. Rayleigh scattering is the result of these elastic collisions between the light wave and the silica molecules in the fiber. Rayleigh scattering accounts for about 96 percent of attenuation in optical fiber. If the scattered light maintains an angle that supports forward travel within the core, no attenuation occurs. If the light is scattered at an angle that does not support continued forward travel, however, the light is diverted out of the core and attenuation occurs. Depending on the incident angle, some portion of the light propagates forward and the other part deviates out of the propagation path and escapes from the fiber core. Some scattered light is reflected back toward the light source. This is a property that is used in an optical time domain reflectometer (OTDR) to test fibers. The same principle applies to analyzing loss associated with localized events in the fiber, such as splices.

Short wavelengths are scattered more than longer wavelengths. Any wavelength that is below 800 nm is unusable for optical communication because attenuation due to Rayleigh scattering is high. At the same time, propagation above 1700 nm is not possible due to high losses resulting from infrared absorption.

Extrinsic Attenuation

Extrinsic attenuation can be caused by two external mechanisms: macrobending or microbending. Both cause a reduction of optical power. If a bend is imposed on an optical fiber, strain is placed on the fiber along the region that is bent. The bending strain affects the refractive index and the critical angle of the light ray in that specific area. As a result, light traveling in the core can refract out, and loss occurs.

A macrobend is a large-scale bend that is visible, and the loss is generally reversible after bends are corrected. To prevent macrobends, all optical fiber has a minimum bend radius specification that should not be exceeded. This is a restriction on how much bend a fiber can withstand before experiencing problems in optical performance or mechanical reliability.

The second extrinsic cause of attenuation is a microbend. Microbending is caused by imperfections in the cylindrical geometry of fiber during the manufacturing process. Microbending might be related to temperature, tensile stress, or crushing force. Like macrobending, microbending causes a reduction of optical power in the glass. Microbending is very localized, and the bend might not be clearly visible on inspection. With bare fiber, microbending can be reversible.

Chromatic Dispersion

Chromatic dispersion is the spreading of a light pulse as it travels down a fiber. Light has a dual nature and can be considered from an electromagnetic wave as well as quantum perspective. This enables us to quantify it as waves as well as quantum particles. During the propagation of light, all of its spectral components propagate accordingly. These spectral components travel at different group velocities that lead to dispersion called group velocity dispersion (GVD). Dispersion resulting from GVD is termed chromatic dispersion due to its wavelength dependence. The effect of chromatic dispersion is pulse spread.

As the pulses spread, or broaden, they tend to overlap and are no longer distinguishable by the receiver as 0s and 1s. Light pulses launched close together (high data rates) that spread too much (high dispersion) result in errors and loss of information. Chromatic dispersion occurs as a result of the range of wavelengths present in the light source. Light from lasers and LEDs consists of a range of wavelengths, each of which travels at a slightly different speed. Over distance, the varying wavelength speeds cause the light pulse to spread in time. This is of most importance in single-mode applications. Modal dispersion is significant in multimode applications, in which the various modes of light traveling down the fiber arrive at the receiver at different times, causing a spreading effect. Chromatic dispersion is common at all bit rates. Chromatic dispersion can be compensated for or mitigated through the use of dispersion-shifted fiber (DSF). DSF is fiber doped with impurities that have negative dispersion characteristics. Chromatic dispersion is measured in ps/nm-km. A 1-dB power margin is typically reserved to account for the effects of chromatic dispersion.

Polarization Mode Dispersion

Polarization mode dispersion (PMD) is caused by asymmetric distortions to the fiber from a perfect cylindrical geometry. The fiber is not truly a cylindrical waveguide, but it can be best described as an imperfect cylinder with physical dimensions that are not perfectly constant. The mechanical stress exerted upon the fiber due to extrinsically induced bends and stresses caused during cabling, deployment, and splicing as well as the imperfections resulting from the manufacturing process are the reasons for the variations in the cylindrical geometry.

Single-mode optical fiber and components support one fundamental mode, which consists of two orthogonal polarization modes. This asymmetry introduces small refractive index differences for the two polarization states. This characteristic is known as birefringence. Birefringence causes one polarization mode to travel faster than the other, resulting in a difference in the propagation time, which is called the differential group delay (DGD). DGD is the unit that is used to describe PMD. DGD is typically measured in picoseconds. A fiber that acquires birefringence causes a propagating pulse to lose the balance between the polarization components. This leads to a stage in which different polarization components travel at different velocities, creating a pulse spread as shown in Figure 3-13. PMD can be classified as first-order PMD, also known as DGD, and second-order PMD (SOPMD). The SOPMD results from dispersion that occurs because of the signal's wavelength dependence and spectral width.

PMD is not an issue at low bit rates but becomes an issue at bit rates in excess of 5 Gbps. PMD is noticeable at high bit rates and is a significant source of impairment for ultra-long-haul systems. PMD compensation can be achieved by using PMD compensators that contain dispersion-maintaining fibers with degrees of birefringence in them. The introduced birefringence negates the effects of PMD over a length of transmission. For error-free transmission, PMD compensation is a useful technique for long-haul and metropolitan-area networks running at bit rates greater than 10 Gbps. Note in Figure 3-13 that the DGD is the difference between Z1 and Z2. The PMD value of the fiber is the mean value over time or frequency of the DGD and is represented as ps/ km. A 0.5-dB power margin is typically reserved to account for the effects of PMD at high bit rates.

Figure 13Figure 3-13 Polarization Mode Dispersion

Polarization Dependent Loss

Polarization dependent loss (PDL) refers to the difference in the maximum and minimum variation in transmission or insertion loss of an optical device over all states of polarization (SOP) and is expressed in decibels. A typical PDL for a simple optical connector is less than .05 dB and varies from component to component. Typically, the PDL for an optical add/drop multiplexer (OADM) is around 0.3 dB. The complete polarization characterization of optical signals and components can be determined using an optical polarization analyzer.

Optical Signal-to-Noise Ratio

The optical signal-to-noise ratio (OSNR) specifies the ratio of the net signal power to the net noise power and thus identifies the quality of the signal. Attenuation can be compensated for by amplifying the optical signal. However, optical amplifiers amplify the signal as well as the noise. Over time and distance, the receivers cannot distinguish the signal from the noise, and the signal is completely lost. Regeneration helps mitigate these undesirable effects before they can render the system unusable and ensures that the signal can be detected at the receiver. Optical amplifiers add a certain amount of noise to the channel. Active devices, such as lasers, also add noise. Passive devices, such as taps and the fiber, can also add noise components. In the calculation of system design, however, optical amplifier noise is considered the predominant source for OSNR penalty and degradation.

OSNR is an important and fundamental system design consideration. Another parameter considered by designers is the Q-factor. The Q-factor, a function of the OSNR, provides a qualitative description of the receiver performance. The Q-factor suggests the minimum signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) required to obtain a specific BER for a given signal. OSNR is measured in decibels. The higher the bit rate, the higher the OSNR ratio required. For OC-192 transmissions, the OSNR should be at least 27 to 31 dB compared to 18 to 21 dB for OC-48.

Nonlinear Characteristics

Nonlinear characteristics include self-phase modulation (SPM), cross-phase modulation (XPM), four-wave mixing (FWM), stimulated Raman scattering (SRS), and stimulated Brillouin scattering (SBS).

Self-Phase Modulation

Phase modulation of an optical signal by itself is known as self-phase modulation (SPM). SPM is primarily due to the self-modulation of the pulses. Generally, SPM occurs in single-wavelength systems. At high bit rates, however, SPM tends to cancel dispersion. SPM increases with high signal power levels. In fiber plant design, a strong input signal helps overcome linear attenuation and dispersion losses. However, consideration must be given to receiver saturation and to nonlinear effects such as SPM, which occurs with high signal levels. SPM results in phase shift and a nonlinear pulse spread. As the pulses spread, they tend to overlap and are no longer distinguishable by the receiver. The acceptable norm in system design to counter the SPM effect is to take into account a power penalty that can be assumed equal to the negative effect posed by XPM. A 0.5-dB power margin is typically reserved to account for the effects of SPM at high bit rates and power levels.

Cross-Phase Modulation

Cross-phase modulation (XPM) is a nonlinear effect that limits system performance in wavelength-division multiplexed (WDM) systems. XPM is the phase modulation of a signal caused by an adjacent signal within the same fiber. XPM is related to the combination (dispersion/effective area). CPM results from the different carrier frequencies of independent channels, including the associated phase shifts on one another. The induced phase shift is due to the walkover effect, whereby two pulses at different bit rates or with different group velocities walk across each other. As a result, the slower pulse sees the walkover and induces a phase shift. The total phase shift depends on the net power of all the channels and on the bit output of the channels. Maximum phase shift is produced when bits belonging to high-powered adjacent channels walk across each other.

XPM can be mitigated by carefully selecting unequal bit rates for adjacent WDM channels. XPM, in particular, is severe in long-haul WDM networks, and the acceptable norm in system design to counter this effect is to take into account a power penalty that can be assumed equal to the negative effect posed by XPM. A 0.5-dB power margin is typically reserved to account for the effects of XPM in WDM fiber systems.

Four-Wave Mixing

FWM can be compared to the intermodulation distortion in standard electrical systems. When three wavelengths (λ1, λ 2, and λ 3) interact in a nonlinear medium, they give rise to a fourth wavelength (λ 4), which is formed by the scattering of the three incident photons, producing the fourth photon. This effect is known as four-wave mixing (FWM) and is a fiber-optic characteristic that affects WDM systems.

The effects of FWM are pronounced with decreased channel spacing of wavelengths and at high signal power levels. High chromatic dispersion also increases FWM effects. FWM also causes interchannel cross-talk effects for equally spaced WDM channels. FWM can be mitigated by using uneven channel spacing in WDM systems or nonzero dispersion-shifted fiber (NZDSF). A 0.5-dB power margin is typically reserved to account for the effects of FWM in WDM systems.

Stimulated Raman Scattering

When light propagates through a medium, the photons interact with silica molecules during propagation. The photons also interact with themselves and cause scattering effects, such as stimulated Raman scattering (SRS), in the forward and reverse directions of propagation along the fiber. This results in a sporadic distribution of energy in a random direction.

SRS refers to lower wavelengths pumping up the amplitude of higher wavelengths, which results in the higher wavelengths suppressing signals from the lower wavelengths. One way to mitigate the effects of SRS is to lower the input power. In SRS, a low-wavelength wave called Stoke's wave is generated due to the scattering of energy. This wave amplifies the higher wavelengths. The gain obtained by using such a wave forms the basis of Raman amplification. The Raman gain can extend most of the operating band (C- and L-band) for WDM networks. SRS is pronounced at high bit rates and high power levels. The margin design requirement to account for SRS/SBS is 0.5 dB.

Stimulated Brillouin Scattering

Stimulated Brillouin scattering (SBS) is due to the acoustic properties of photon interaction with the medium. When light propagates through a medium, the photons interact with silica molecules during propagation. The photons also interact with themselves and cause scattering effects such as SBS in the reverse direction of propagation along the fiber. In SBS, a low-wavelength wave called Stoke's wave is generated due to the scattering of energy. This wave amplifies the higher wavelengths. The gain obtained by using such a wave forms the basis of Brillouin amplification. The Brillouin gain peaks in a narrow peak near the C-band. SBS is pronounced at high bit rates and high power levels. The margin design requirement to account for SRS/SBS is 0.5 dB.

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