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The Basics of Fiber Optics

Principles and Testing

he popularity of fiber optics is increasing. The need to understand the basic principles of the cable itself and the testing parameters associated with it is

these quick termination connectors can be quite high. There are also many proprietary tools required, in contrast to the generic punchdown tools used with copper. The cost of the active components is also a negative factor. Laying dark fiber (leaving the cable unterminated), however, is an alternative that allows for a ready infrastructure when active components become more affordable.

essential. This article will examine the different types of fiber optic cables, physical characteristics of fiber and connectors, different styles of connectors and splices, testing and types of test equipment, including the specifics of power meter light source (PM/LS) testing and optical time domain reflectometers (OTDR).

Types of Fiber Optic Cable

There are two types of fiber optic cable: Multimode (short range) and singlemode (long range). (See Figure 1.) MULTIMODE CHARACTERISTICS: Typically used in LAN applications Moderate loss (~3 dB/km or 1 dB/km) Operates at 850/1,300 nm wavelengths Bandwidth: 160 MHzkm and 500 MHzkm LED transmission sources typically used SINGLEMODE CHARACTERISTICS: Used in backbone or long-haul applications, Telco and CATV Very low loss (~0.35 dB/km or 0.20 dB/km) Operates at 1,310/1,550nm wavelengths Superior bandwidth of 10 GHz100 km

Why Fiber for Networks?

There are many benefits to fiber networks. It is impervious to noise, which is a great benefit considering the growing number of RF emitting devices popular today. Fiber has extremely high bandwidth and distance benefits when compared to copper. The cost of installation is falling and is becoming more in line with copper due to the availability of numerous quick-install connectors. There are some disadvantages to fiber, however, that should be noted. For one, there is the installation factor. Although, not quite as fragile as many think, installation of fiber does require more care than copper, and there are safety considerations when terminating. The cost of tool kits for

nector form factors: ST, SC and FC

Multimode (mm) Physical Characteristics

Core Diameter from 50 m to 100 m 62.5 m typical for U.S.

(Figure 3). The ST is used in LANs primarily with multimode fiber. It is a BNC type push n twist connection. The SC is used in LANs with singlemode and multimode fiber with a dual strand push-in plug. The dual SC is

Coating Diameter 250 m

Cladding Diameter from 125 m to 140 m

popular because it assures correct polarity between the Tx and Rx ports. The FC is used in telecommunications/CATV applications with singlemode fiber and has a screw-on termination. There have been developments with the connectors using factory polished ferrules and crimp-style terminations. The classic styles use epoxy or hotmelt glue to secure the fiber to the connector. Pre-polished connectors significantly reduce installation time but can cost several times as much as the epoxy styles.

Singlemode (sm) Physical Characteristics

Core Diameter from 5 m to 10 m Cladding Diameter 125 m Coating Diameter 250 m
Figure 1


Physical Connectors
Singlemode Mechanical connections are referred to as PC (physical contact) or 8 m
Figure 2

APC (angled physical contact). (See Figure 4.) Physical contact connectors derive the more pronounced the dispersion. Graded-index fiber can reduce pulse speed and is preferred over stepindexed fiber. Figure 2 illustrates modal dispersion using a car race analogy. As applied to multimode fiber, there are numerous lanes and cars are free to move around the track. Even though they all start at the same time, they will finish in a different order. In the singlemode
End View

Uses laser transmission sources, therefore, costs more Overall, singlemode fiber optic cable can support much more bandwidth and span much greater distances. Because laser sources are required, overall network costs are generally higher.

their name from the fact that the faces of the connectors touch each other


Simplex SC

Modal Dispersion
Modal dispersion is the effect of a single pulse of light spreading out into multiple modes (colors) as it advances through the fiber. The result is that what went in as a tight monochromatic pulse exits as a broad spread of wavelengths. The longer the cable,

analogy, the track is only one lane wide and the cars exit in exactly the same order they went in. There is no room for one car to pass another.

Duplex SC

Connector Types
There are three commonly used conFigure 3

when mated, although there is always a small air gap involved. This air gap has a much different index of refraction than glass and causes a great amount of reflection. Using indexmatching gel in the connector can reduce this by sealing the air gap. Another alternative is to use APC connectors that are angled so that any reflected light is not sent back upstream causing interference, but instead, reflected out of the connector. The result is that there is only an attenuation component of the connection, not reflection.

ment for fiber optic cable: power meter and light source (PM/LS), optical time domain reflectometer (OTDR) and visual fault locator (VFL).

inexpensive, accurate and easy to use. Another benefit is that the PM/LS can be added to nearly all copper certification tools (for contractors moving into fiber installation). This keeps the cost of the unit down and increases the available features since the OTS can use the processor, memory and display of the host device. S ETTING R EFERENCE (See (CALIBRATION). With an OTS, setting the reference value is critical. Figure 7.) This value represents how much power is injected at the source so the correct loss can be calculated.

The Power Meter and Light Source (PM/LS)

The PM/LS is very accurate in measurements of power loss. It measures the amount of light that passes through a fiber, subtracting that from a reference value and determining the loss. (See Figure 6.) Also called an optical test set (OTS), it is the most common certification device. It is

In-line Splices/Connectors
There are two types of splices with fiber optic cable. The first is a mechanical splice. These splices are used for quick restoration of severed lines. The second is a fusion splice that is used during installation for long-term connections where attenuation and longevity is critical. (See Figure 5.) Splices, both mechanical and fusion, are used during initial installation to permanently join sections of fiber. Splices exhibit very little attenuation and usually no detectable reflection. The mechanical splice uses a tube filled with index-matching gel into which the cleaved fiber ends are inserted. The splice is compressed to physically hold the ends of the fibers into position. Fusion splices, on the other hand, use heat to melt the two strands of glass together into one piece. This is quite durable and adds almost no attenuation. Typically, values of .10 to .00 dB can be achieved.

Physical Connectors
PC Connector APC Connector

Fiber (Glass) Ferrule (Ceramic/Tungsten)

Figure 4

Mechanical Splice

Fusion Splice

Splice Device

Fiber (Glass)


Figure 5

850 1,300 OFF LED Source


1.40 dB ON OFf Set Ref

Types of Test Equipment

There are three types of test equipFigure 6

Power Meter

the dynamic range is known, the

Setting Reference (Calibration)

850 1,300 OFF LED Source 850 1,300 OFF LED Source

calculation can be done to determine the approximate distance the unit can measure based on the specs of the fiber optic components (Figure 8).

-15.0 dBm

0.0 dBm


To be

certain of actual loss, each fiber strand should be tested in both directions (bidirectional testing). This is done to ensure the attenuation is similar in both directions. A large discrepancy can be an indicator that there is a

-30.0 dBm
15.0 dB ON OFf Set Ref Power Meter 15.0 dB

-15.0 dBm

poorly polished or fractured connector somewhere in the link, or the fiber core sizes are mismatched (Figure 9). The OTS cannot tell you where the problem is, only that there is a problem. the loss. two For certification purposes, measurements can be

-30.0 dBm -(-15.0) dBm = 15.0 dB (loss)


Set Ref

Power Meter

averaged to give a report on the link

Figure 7

Some upper model kits have sources that are calibrated to output exactly 0.0 dBm. This eliminates the need for reference calibration and makes long distance measurements easier. For example, two workers on opposite ends of a link can make a loss measurement without having to meet and calibrate the test equipment. H OW FAR C AN

00.0 dB ON OFF Set Ref Power Meter

Rx Sensitivity = +5 to -60 dBm

Tx Power = -15 dBm 850 1,300 OFF LED Source Dynamic Range = Rx Sens Tx Pwr = (-60) dBm (-15) dBm = 45 dB Distance = DR/Loss Coefficient = 45(dB)/3(dB/km) = 15 km

PM/LS not a




specification of an OTS. Instead, the correct question to ask is how much loss the OTS can measure (its dynamic range). If the dynamic range of the equipment is known, then the distance can be calculated based on the specifications of the installed components. The dynamic range of the test kit is the difference between the output of the source and the maximum sensitivity of the detector, and is a measure of the maximum attenuation the unit can detect. Once
Figure 9 Figure 8

Origin > Extremity Test Extremity > Origin Test

*Example of increased attenuation due to a fractured fiber in a connector

50 micron core 62.5 micron core diameter

62.5 micron core diameter 50 micron core diameter

*Example of increased attenuation caused by core size mismatch

OTDRs provide much more information than the OTS but are quite expensive. Some models can be slaved to a laptop PC, but most are rugged, standalone field units. OTDRs will accurately provide the length of the entire run, the distance to each event, and the attenuation and reflection of each event. OTDRs send a pulse of light down the fiber and measure the reflected light to determine the loss or reflection at any given point. Units that have a real-time setting are excellent for troubleshooting. OTDRs are also commonly used for restoring a break when it can be quickly located and fixed. The demand for OTDR certification is growing rapidly as a means of checking how a link degrades over time by comparing installation plots vs. plots at a later date. Another benefit is that the OTDR only requires a connection to one side of the fiber; therefore, one person can make fast work of measuring high-count cables. OTDR S ETTINGS/PARAMETERS . The four standard settings on an OTDR are the wavelength, pulse width, range and acquisition time. Most models have an automatic

Time or Pulse Width Distance or Fiber Length

Table 1

5 ns 0.5 m

10 ns 1m

100 ns 10 m

10 ms 1 km

20 ms 2 km

setting, and the OTDR will determine the correct pulse width and range depending on the length of the fiber. The correct setting for the pulse width is critical to get the most out of an OTDR, but in lieu of an automatic setting, generally the smaller the pulse width, the better. A small pulse width gives better resolution and decreases the effects of deadzones while limiting the dynamic OTDR Plot Connector Pair OTDR Fusion Splice

range; therefore the distance can be measured. Short pulse widths (Figure 10) give improved resolution and decreased deadzones. Long pulse widths (Figure 10) increase measurement distance and increase dynamic range, but reduce resolution and increase deadzones. Table 1 shows how the pulse width can affect the deadzone. With a 100 ns pulse, the OTDR will have a deadzone

Bulkhead Connector

Cable Bend

End of Fiber

P o w e r d B m



Distance - m, ft, km, kft

Figure 11

OTDR's Attenuation and Reflection

Short Pulse Width

Long Pulse Width

P o w e r d B m

Reflection of an event is the amount of backscattered light (dB) relative to the input power. Larger values are better.

Attenuation Reflection
of an event is a measure of the difference in power before and after the event (dB).


Distance - m, ft, km, kft

Figure 10 Figure 12

of approximately 10 m (33 ft.) after each reflective event. This means that if two connectors were within 10 m of each other, you would not see the second one as a separate event. OTDR PLOT. Figure 11 provides an example of what can be seen on an OTDR screen. The deadzone is the Transmitted Light Light absorbed by fog turns to heat area where the OTDR is blind after hitting a reflective event. The overall slope of the line indicates the loss/km of the fiber itself. The difference of the Y axis indicates the attenuation of the link. The X axis, on the other hand, indicates distance, and is used to precisely locate an event. OTDR S R EFLECTION . ATTENUATION

Absorption, Reflection and Refraction

Reflected Light Refracted Light

Attenuated Light

Figure 13

Passive Loss Budget

300 m

When the reflective

event is examined, it becomes visible that the attenuation is the vertical difference in power between the start and finish of the event, while the reflection is the vertical component above the slope of the line (Figure 12). ABSORPTION, REFLECTION

Loss Budget Equals: Fiber = 3.5 dB/km @ 850 nm Connector = 0.75 dB Splice = 0.15 dB
3.5 dB/km x 0.3 km= 1.05 dB 0.75 dB x 4 = 3.00 dB 0.15 dB x 1 = 0.15 dB

REFRACTION. Three things happen to light as it travels through a medium: it is reflected, refracted and absorbed. Referring to Figure 13, the example of a car driving through fog with the lights on best describes this. The fog reflects some light at the car, creating glare (optical return loss). This is wasted energy that does not help light the road ahead. Some light is refracted in all directions, causing the fog bank to glow, again not helping the cause. Lastly, some light is absorbed and turned into heat. What light remains and is transmitted through the fog is weaker than what the headlights put in and has been attenuated. This is useable energy that is left over. The same thing happens in fiber optic cables. Microscopic hydroxide (OH) ions present in the glass as imperfec-

SUM = 4.20 dB

Figure 14

tions can have the same effect as fog in the air. HOW MUCH LOSS IS ACCEPTABLE? Loss budget is used to determine how much power loss a network can sustain and still operate. There are two types of loss budgets. The first, cable loss budget (passive), is used by most contractors when the types of electronics used on the network are unknown (Figure 14). The second, active component loss budget is used when the electronics specifications are available to match the Tx and Rx levels (Figure 15). It is important to note that most installers are not privy

to the choice of active components the user will install. installer with This leaves the only enough

information to make sure the links do not exceed the worst-case loss as specified by the manufacturer of the cable and connectors.

The Visual Fault Locator (VFL)

VFLs are similar to flashlights but with visual laser diodes. They are used to quickly check for continuity and to search for breaks that may have occurred where a cable was broken out into individual strands.

VFLs provide no measurement data and cannot be used to certify cable. They are used only as troubleshooting tools. Tx = -15 dBm Rx = -40 dBm +/- 10 dB

Rx Range is -30 to -50 dBm

Fiber is becoming a more cost-effective choice as the actual cost of active components comes down. A simple optical test kit is an invaluable resource, given its potential is understood. Learning how to use an OTS to its full potential and correctly calculating budgets based on active components will allow you to find many problems during the installation process and reduce or eliminate costly service calls. Dan Munch, systems test engineer for Wavetek Wandel Goltermann which reviews the development and independently tests the hardware and software products for the WWG LAN Division. Munch studied electrical engineering at California State University, Northridge. Visit Wavetek Wandel Goltermann on the web at (WWG), has extensive experience in network design, integration, installation and training. Currently in research and development, Munch heads the Systems Test Department,
Figure 15

Required Loss to achieve ideal power at Rx -30.0 dBm - (-15.0 dBm) = 15 dB Budget -50.0 dBm - (-15.0 dBm) = 35 dB Power at Rx with caused by passive loss -15.0 dBm - (4.2 dB) = 19.2 dBm Additional attenuation required to match levels -40.0 dBm (-19.2 dBm) = 20.8 dB
Transmitted power must be attenuated by at least 15 dB to avoid over driving Rx. To receive the ideal power level at the Rx, the signal should be attenuated by 25 dB. Given the cable loss from the previous example of 4.20 dB, a 20 dB attenuator needs to be added.