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    Understanding Fiber-Optic Cable Signal Loss, Attenuation, and Dispersion

    This topic describes signal loss, attenuation, and dispersion in fiber-optic cable. For information about calculating power budget and power margin for fiber-optic cable, see Calculating Power Budget and Power Margin for Fiber-Optic Cables and Supported Network Interface Standards by Transceiver for ACX, M, MX, and T Series Routers or Supported Network Interface Standards by Transceiver for PTX Series Routers.

    Signal Loss in Multimode and Single-Mode Fiber-Optic Cable

    Multimode fiber is large enough in diameter to allow rays of light to reflect internally (bounce off the walls of the fiber). Interfaces with multimode optics typically use LEDs as light sources. However, LEDs are not coherent sources. They spray varying wavelengths of light into the multimode fiber, which reflects the light at different angles. Light rays travel in jagged lines through a multimode fiber, causing signal dispersion. When light traveling in the fiber core radiates into the fiber cladding, higher-order mode loss results. Together these factors limit the transmission distance of multimode fiber compared with single-mode fiber.

    Single-mode fiber is so small in diameter that rays of light can reflect internally through one layer only. Interfaces with single-mode optics use lasers as light sources. Lasers generate a single wavelength of light, which travels in a straight line through the single-mode fiber. Compared with multimode fiber, single-mode fiber has higher bandwidth and can carry signals for longer distances.

    Exceeding the maximum transmission distances can result in significant signal loss, which causes unreliable transmission.

    Attenuation and Dispersion in Fiber-Optic Cable

    Correct functioning of an optical data link depends on modulated light reaching the receiver with enough power to be demodulated correctly. Attenuation is the reduction in power of the light signal as it is transmitted. Attenuation is caused by passive media components, such as cables, cable splices, and connectors. Although attenuation is significantly lower for optical fiber than for other media, it still occurs in both multimode and single-mode transmission. An efficient optical data link must have enough light available to overcome attenuation.

    Dispersion is the spreading of the signal over time. The following two types of dispersion can affect an optical data link:

    • Chromatic dispersion—Spreading of the signal over time resulting from the different speeds of light rays.
    • Modal dispersion—Spreading of the signal over time resulting from the different propagation modes in the fiber.

    For multimode transmission, modal dispersion, rather than chromatic dispersion or attenuation, usually limits the maximum bit rate and link length. For single-mode transmission, modal dispersion is not a factor. However, at higher bit rates and over longer distances, chromatic dispersion rather than modal dispersion limits maximum link length.

    An efficient optical data link must have enough light to exceed the minimum power that the receiver requires to operate within its specifications. In addition, the total dispersion must be less than the limits specified for the type of link in Telcordia Technologies document GR-253-CORE (Section 4.3) and International Telecommunications Union (ITU) document G.957.

    When chromatic dispersion is at the maximum allowed, its effect can be considered as a power penalty in the power budget. The optical power budget must allow for the sum of component attenuation, power penalties (including those from dispersion), and a safety margin for unexpected losses.

    Modified: 2015-10-16