Link Classification in Fiber Optics

While there are several types of link classification in fiber optics, this section classifies links according to the modulation type: either digital or analog. Modulation is the process of varying one or more characteristics of an optical signal to encode and convey information. Generally, the intensity of the optical signal is modulated in fiber optic communications systems.

Digital modulation implies that the optical signal consists of discrete levels. Analog modulation implies that the intensity of the optical signal is proportional to a continuously varying electrical input.

Most fiber optic systems are digital because digital transmission systems generally provide superior performance over analog transmission systems.


A digital signal is a discontinuous signal that changes from one state to another in discrete steps. A popular form of digital modulation is binary, or two level, digital modulation. In binary modulation the optical signal is switched from a low-power level (usually off) to a high-power level. There are a number of modulation techniques used in digital systems, but these will not be discussed here.

Line coding is the process of arranging symbols that represent binary data in a particular pattern for transmission. The most common types of line coding used in fiber optic communications include nonreturn-to-zero (NRZ), return-to-zero (RZ), and biphase, or Manchester. The picture below illustrates NRZ, RZ, and biphase (Manchester) encoding.

NRZ, RZ, and biphase (Manchester) encoding.

NRZ, RZ, and biphase (Manchester) encoding.

NRZ code represents binary 1's and 0's by two different light levels that are constant during a bit duration. The presence of a high-light level in the bit duration represents a binary 1, while a low-light level represents a binary 0. NRZ codes make the most efficient use of system bandwidth. However, lossof timing may result if long strings of 1's and 0's are present causing a lack of level transitions.

RZ coding uses only half the bit duration for data transmission. In RZ encoding, a half period optical pulse present in the first half of the bit duration represents a binary 1. While an optical pulse is present in the first half of the bit duration, the light level returns to zero during the second half. A binary 0 isrepresented by the absence of an optical pulse during the entire bit duration. Because RZ coding uses only half the bit duration for data transmission, it requires twice the bandwidth of NRZ coding. Loss of timing can occur if long strings of 0's are present.

Biphase, or Manchester, encoding incorporates a transition into each bit period to maintain timing information. In Manchester encoding, a high-to-low light level transition occurring in the middle of the bit duration represents a binary 1. A low-to-high light level transition occurring in the middle of the bitduration represents a binary 0.

Digital transmission offers an advantage with regard to the acceptable signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) at the optical receiver. Digital communications systems can tolerate large amounts of signal loss and dispersion without impairing the ability of the receiver to distinguish a binary 1 from a binary 0. Digitalsignalling also reduces the effects that optical source nonlinearities and temperature have on system performance.

Source nonlinearities and temperature variations can severely affect analog transmission. Digital transmission provides superior performance in most complex systems (such as LANs) and long-haul communications systems. In short-haul systems, the cost and complexity of analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion equipment, in some cases, outweigh the benefits of digital transmission.


An analog signal is a continuous signal whose amplitude, phase, or some other property varies in a direct proportion to the instantaneous value of a physical variable. An example of an analog signal is the output power of an optical source whose intensity is a function of a continuous electrical input signal.

Most analog fiber optic communications systems intensity modulate the optical source. In intensity modulation, the intensity of the optical source's output signal is directly modulated by the incoming electrical analog baseband signal. A baseband signal is a signal that is in its original form and has not been changed by a modulation technique.

In some cases, the optical source may be directly modulated by a incoming electrical signal that is not a baseband signal. In these cases the original electrical signal generally modulates an electrical subcarrier frequency. The most common form of analog subcarrier modulation in fiber optic systems isfrequency modulation (FM). The optical source is intensity modulated by the electrical subcarrier.

While most fiber optic systems employ digital modulation techniques, there are certain applications where analog modulation techniques are preferred. The transmission of video using analog techniques is very popular, especially for shorter distances, where costs can be minimized and complex multiplexingand timing equipment is unnecessary.

The transmission of analog voice signals may also be attractive in small, short-haul systems. In addition, fiber optic sensor systems may incorporate analog transmission. Requirements that analog transmission places on applications include high signal-to-noise ratio and high source linearity.

While analog transmission can be attractive for short-haul or medium-haul systems, it is unattractive for long-haul systems where digital techniques provide better performance.

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