Fiber optic media are any network transmission media that generally use glass, or plastic fiber in some special cases, to transmit network data in the form of light pulses. Within the last decade, optical fiber has become an increasingly popular type of network transmission media as the need for higher bandwidth and longer spans continues.
Fiber optic technology is different in its operation than standard copper media because the transmissions are “digital” light pulses instead of electrical voltage transitions. Very simply, fiber optic transmissions encode the ones and zeroes of a digital network transmission by turning on and off the light pulses of a laser light source, of a given wavelength, at very high frequencies. The light source is usually either a laser or some kind of Light-Emitting Diode (LED). The light from the light source is flashed on and off in the pattern of the data being encoded. The light travels inside the fiber until the light signal gets to its intended destination and is read by an optical detector.
Fiber optic cables are optimized for one or more wavelengths of light. The wavelength of a particular light source is the length, measured in nanometers (billionths of a meter, abbreviated “nm”), between wave peaks in a typical light wave from that light source. You can think of a wavelength as the color of the light, and it is equal to the speed of light divided by the frequency. In the case of Single-Mode Fiber (SMF), many different wavelengths of light can be transmitted over the same optical fiber at any one time. This is useful for increasing the transmission capacity of the fiber optic cable since each wavelength of light is a distinct signal. Therefore, many signals can be carried over the same strand of optical fiber. This requires multiple lasers and detectors and is referred to as Wavelength-Division Multiplexing (WDM).
Typically, optical fibers use wavelengths between 850 and 1550 nm, depending on the light source. Specifically, Multi-Mode Fiber (MMF) is used at 850 or 1300 nm and the SMF is typicallyused at 1310, 1490, and 1550 nm (and, in WDM systems, in wavelengths around these primary wavelengths). The latest technology is extending this to 1625 nm for SMF that is being used for next-generation Passive Optical Networks (PON) for FTTH (Fiber-To-The-Home) applications. Silica-based glass is most transparent at these wavelengths, and therefore the transmission is more efficient (there is less attenuation of the signal) in this range. For a reference, visible light (the light that you can see) has wavelengths in the range between 400 and 700 nm. Most fiber optic light sources operate within the near infrared range (between 750 and 2500 nm). You can’t see infrared light, but it is a very effective fiber optic light source.
Tips: Most traditional fiber optic light sources can only operate within the visible wavelength spectrum and over a range of wavelengths, not at one specific wavelength. Lasers (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and LEDs produce light in a more limited, even single-wavelength, spectrum.
WARNING: Laser light sources used with fiber optic cables (such as the OM3 cables) are extremely hazardous to your vision. Looking directly at the end of a live optical fiber can cause severe damage to your retinas. You could be made permanently blind. Never look at the end of a fiber optic cable without first knowing that no light source is active.
The attenuation of optical fibers (both SMF and MMF) is lower at longer wavelengths. As a result, longer distance communications tends to occur at 1310 and 1550 nm wavelengths over SMF. Typical optical fibers have a larger attenuation at 1385 nm. This water peak is a result of very small amounts (in the part-per-million range) of water incorporated during the manufacturing process. Specifically it is a terminal –OH(hydroxyl) molecule that happens to have its characteristic vibration at the 1385 nm wavelength; thereby contributing to a high attenuation at this wavelength. Historically, communications systems operated on either side of this peak.
When the light pulses reach the destination, a sensor picks up the presence or absence of the light signal and transforms the pulses of light back into electrical signals. The more the light signal scatters or confronts boundaries, the greater the likelihood of signal loss (attenuation). Additionally, every fiber optic connector between signal source and destination presents the possibility for signal loss. Thus, the connectors must be installed correctly at each connection.
Most LAN/WAN fiber transmission systems use one fiber for transmitting and one for reception. However, the latest technology allows a fiber optic transmitter to transmit in two directions over the same fiber strand (e.g, a passive CWDM MUX using WDM technology). The different wavelengths of light do not interfere with each other since the detectors are tuned to only read specific wavelengths. Therefore, the more wavelengths you send over a single strand of optical fiber, the more detectors you need.