Optical Fiber Properties


The principles behind the transfer of light along an optical fiber were discussed earlier in this topic. You learned that propagation of light depended on the nature of light and the structure of the optical fiber. However, our discussion did not describe how optical fibers affect system performance.

In this case, system performance deals with signal loss and bandwidth.

Signal loss and system bandwidth describe the amount of data transmitted over a specified length of fiber. Many optical fiber properties increase signal loss and reduce system bandwidth. The most important properties that affect system performance are fiber attenuation and dispersion.

Attenuation reduces the amount of optical power transmitted by the fiber. Attenuation controls the distance an optical signal (pulse) can travel as shown in the picture below. Once the power of an optical pulse is reduced to a point where the receiver is unable to detect the pulse, an error occurs. Attenuation is mainly a result of light absorption, scattering, and bending losses. Dispersion spreads the optical pulse as it travels along the fiber.

This spreading of the signal pulse reduces the system bandwidth or the information-carrying capacity of the fiber. Dispersion limits how fast information is transferred as shown in the picture below. An error occurs when the receiver is unable to distinguish between input pulses caused by the spreading of each pulse. The effects of attenuation and dispersion increase as the pulse travels the length of the fiber as shown in the next picture "Pulse spreading and power loss along an optical fiber".

Fiber transmission properties.

Pulse spreading and power loss along an optical fiber.

In addition to fiber attenuation and dispersion, other optical fiber properties affect system performance. Fiber properties, such as modal noise, pulse broadening, and polarization, can reduce system performance.

Modal noise, pulse broadening, and polarization are too complex to discuss as introductory level material. However, you should be aware that attenuation and dispersion are not the only fiber properties that affect performance.


Attenuation in an optical fiber is caused by absorption, scattering, and bending losses. Attenuation is the loss of optical power as light travels along the fiber. Signal attenuation is defined as the ratio of optical input power (Pi) to the optical output power (Po). Optical input power is the power injected into the fiber from an optical source. Optical output power is the power received at the fiber end or optical detector. The following equation defines signal attenuation as a unit of length:

Signal attenuation is a log relationship. Length (L) is expressed in kilometers. Therefore, the unit of attenuation is decibels/kilometer (dB/km). As previously stated, attenuation is caused by absorption, scattering, and bending losses. Each mechanism of loss is influenced by fiber-material properties and fiber structure. However, loss is also present at fiber connections.

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