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The Optical Fiber Advantage

Information transmission via fiber optic cabling is not a new technology and has been around since its invention in the 1970s; however, it has now become the fastest growing method for transporting high bandwidth data worldwide. Simply put, optical fiber works very well for transmitting bandwidth hungry applications, spanning long distances, and insuring the integrity and network security of the transported data. These inherent characteristics make optical fiber the ideal platform for wide area networks (WANs), broadband Internet connectivity, optical Ethernet, and all other next-generation networking methods like MPLS and VPLS technologies. Let’s take a closer look at the five main advantages of optical fiber:

Extremely High Bandwidth
No other cable-based data transmission medium offers the bandwidth capability of fiber optic. This is an important factor that leads to the choice of optical fiber for data communications over other methods. An important point is that the carrying capacity of any type of transmission cable increases with frequency but the distance it can carry data can decrease with increasing frequency. Generally, copper cabling has a bandwidth capability of a few MHz/km; whereas optical fiber has a bandwidth capability of 400MHz/km or greater. This enables optical fiber to provide data transmission performance up to 10Gbps, 40Gbps and even 100Gbps with new hardware that is now available. This provides network designers an easier path for bandwidth upgrades in the future.
This, however, doesn't mean that optical fiber has an infinite bandwidth, but it's certainly greater than copper cabling. It is true that 10Gbps copper applications have recently appeared on the market, however, copper is only able to transmit 10Gbps for about 50 feet over high-cost copper wire, a distance that is only practical within the confines of the datacenter. Also, some may argue that EoC (optical Ethernet over Copper) data solutions are the way of the future; however, these applications have proven to be not as reliable and only deliver around 15 – 20Mbps of actual bandwidth.

Optical Fiber Transmission Distance
Optical fiber allows data to be sent far greater distances than copper cabling, and it performs this without as many repeater devices that are required by other types of cabling. With copper cabling, as stated above, high bandwidth can be transmitted, however, only for short distances. In order to increase the transmission distance, a repeater must be installed in the middle of the copper path to re-generate the signal. With copper cabling the higher the bandwidth that is needed, the greater the number of repeaters that are required; this can prove costly.

With optical fiber, conventional electrical data signals are converted into a modulated light beam (laser), introduced into the cable and transported via a very small diameter glass or plastic optical fiber to a receiver that converts the light back into electrical signals. This process allows the data to be sent greater distances. In fact, as custom fiber optics have advanced, new long reach lasers have been developed that reduce the number of re-gen sites even further.

Easy to Accommodate Increasing Bandwidth
Using many of the recent generations of custom fiber optics cabling, bandwidth can be easily upgraded by simply changing a card or installing new equipment. This can provide greatly expanded capacity without the need to replace the fiber. High bandwidth copper technology usually requires that the old copper cabling be replaced with new higher performance copper cabling. Another optical technology DWDM (Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing) has the ability to turn on multiple light streams that travel down the same optical fiber, which greatly increases the bandwidth carrying capacity. The Multiplexing of copper has been available for a long time, but it does not have as many advantages as DWDM. These two characteristics of optical fiber enable dynamic bandwidth provisioning, which allows bandwidth needs to be changed on the fly.

Resistance to Electromagnetic Interference
Because optical fiber transmits light (photons) rather than electrons, it does not radiate electromagnetic fields, nor is it susceptible to electromagnetic fields. Thus, optical fiber transmissions do not suffer from cross talk, electrically noisy environments, or electromagnetic interference problems like copper cabling.

Secure Transmissions
Optical fiber cabling provides an extremely secure transmission medium. This is due to the fact that there is no way to detect the data being transmitted by “listening in” to the electromagnetic signal as is possible with traditional copper, electron-based transmissions. Since fiber optic cabling does not radiate magnetic fields; the light (photons) is confined within the fiber which makes it impossible to tap the signal without cutting into the fiber. Physically tapping the fiber would take great skill and can be detected using fiber optic testing equipment. Thus, optical fiber is one of the most secure data solutions available for carrying sensitive data.

Some may state that the downside to optical fiber is the cost; however, the cost for fiber cable, components, and hardware has been on the decline. Installation costs for fiber are still higher than copper because of the skill needed for terminations, and because it is normally installed underground in conduits for protection. This makes fiber more expensive than copper in the short run, but it may actually be less expensive in the long run. Fiber is typically more cost-effective to maintain, has much less downtime, and requires less networking and re-generation hardware. When you add up all the advantages of optical fiber, it is no wonder that it has become the de facto standard for long-haul WAN transmission applications.