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Scientists Have Broken One of the Biggest Limits in Fibre Optic Networks

Sunday, June 28th, 2015 (9:22 am) - Score 8,689

One of the biggest limitations in ultrafast fibre optic communications is that even optical signals can weaken over long distances, which requires expensive electronic regenerators (repeaters) to be placed along the route to boost the signal. But what if you didn’t need those? Future networks could be both faster and cheaper.

Last year a research group (Photonics Systems Group) working out of the University of California in San Diego (USA), specifically its Qualcomm Institute, published a paper that theorised how it might be possible to pre-empt “the distortion effects that will happen in the optical fiber” and in so doing you could also remove the interference.

Nikola Alic, co-Author of the Research Paper, said:

Today’s fiber optic systems are a little like quicksand. With quicksand, the more you struggle, the faster you sink. With fiber optics, after a certain point, the more power you add to the signal, the more distortion you get, in effect preventing a longer reach.

Our approach removes this power limit, which in turn extends how far signals can travel in optical fiber without needing a repeater.”

Until now it has remained a significant roadblock that any increase in optical data transmission rates, beyond a threshold power level, would effectively distort the information travelling inside the cable. But the same team that last year theorised a solution to this problem has now proven their work in a live experiment.

The team were able to boost the power of their transmission some 20 fold and push data over a “record-breaking12,000km (7,400 miles) long fibre optic cable. Amazingly the data was still intact at the other end and that was achieved without using repeaters and only needing standard amplifiers (the cost of repeaters plays a big part in the overall expense of such networks).

How did they do it?

Information sent down fibre optic cables is generally split into multiple channels of communication (up to 200 can be used in modern cables), which each operate at different frequencies (i.e. light can be split into different colours [red, green, blue etc.] and this is a good way of visualising how the different channels are separated).

Essentially what the UC San Diego researchers did was to develop a system (frequency comb) that acts a bit like a concert conductor, which is the person responsible for tuning multiple instruments in an orchestra to the same pitch at the beginning of a concert.

The engineers then used this comb to synchronize the frequency variations of the different streams of optical information (optical carriers), which can compensate in advance for the crosstalk interference (this will be familiar to those who have been reading about FTTC / VDSL2 Vectoring technology on copper cables) that can occur between multiple communication channels within the fibre optic cable. The frequency comb also ensures that the crosstalk interference is reversible.

In some approaches this calculation of pre-distortion is already done with existing systems, but not across all the channels together. Apparently the experimental setup only tested the approach with 3 and 5 optical frequency channels, although the researchers claim that their system could be used in significantly larger setups with many channels. This is important to know since many of today’s primary capacity carrying cables use around 30+ channels.

Stojan Radic, UC San Diego Professor, said:

Crosstalk between communication channels within a fiber optic cable obeys fixed physical laws. It’s not random. We now have a better understanding of the physics of the crosstalk. In this study, we present a method for leveraging the crosstalk to remove the power barrier for optical fiber.

Our approach conditions the information before it is even sent, so the receiver is free of crosstalk caused by the Kerr effect.”

The solution, assuming it propagates well into an existing commercial environment (the cost of transmitters might still be an issue), suggests that the future cost of both national and international data capacity could be about to fall. It may also delay the need to build new cables and stave off fears of a future “capacity crunch“.. at least for a little longer, which is always welcome.

At the same time by improving the transmission quality with this method you also make it possible to sustain faster speeds over longer distances, although this is more relevant to international transmissions.

Home users won’t be demanding more speed from 1000Mbps FTTH/P lines anytime soon (not that many people have those) and in any case domestic services are usually delivered over shorter distances where issues like the one explain above are less of a problem.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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6 Responses
  1. PBUK says:

    The team have done an impressive experiment, but their press office could do with some wide reading.

    Pre-distortion of signals is already used in the fibre systems deployed by BT, Virgin Media, Vodafone, O2, SSE, and many others. The same coherent technology is already doing 22,000km unrepeatered across the Pacific. A 20 fold launch power improvement is only 13dB, which is about 50km.

    What is new is processing all the channels together to calculate the pre-distortion. Lovely idea for the lab, but wouldn’t work in practice where channels are deployed one at a time, as each transmitter costs as much as a house (so you don’t deploy them unless you use them).

  2. a d00d says:

    Oh yeah? Tell that to those of us who can’t even get T1/E1 speeds, much less enough to support Netflix and the like.

    Still, as for the main article, this is HUGE and will change the game particularly for long trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic cables. If this had come out a few years ago, it would have made a huge difference with the arctic cable transiting from London to Tokyo via the Northwest Passage as well. There’s simply no way to understate this achievement, assuming it can be put into actual commercial, installable hardware at the endpoints.

  3. “A 20 fold launch power improvement is only 13dB, which is about 50km”

    I think you should explain that one 🙂

  4. JAG says:

    So in short, it’s not that what you’re hearing is static, it’s just that the person listening is too dumb to understand it. Sounds like a promising technique for alot of problems.

  5. PBUK says:

    Typical fibre in the ground has a loss of 0.2 to 0.25 dB per km. Those are power decibels, so a 20 fold increase in launch power is 10log10(20)=13dB. Divide 13 by 0.25 and you get 52km.

    So increase the launch power by 20 fold, and you can go about 50km further, before you need to amplify.

    You can’t increase the power of the amplifiers under the ocean, without re-laying the cable, so you can’t increase the launch power after the first link. Also, repeaters have not been used under the water for a decade or so – it has all been amplified since TAT-13.

    So, a nice lab result that will not help on already deployed systems.

  6. tony stark (sudaname) says:

    ever created a fibre using a different method of containment particals under a high stressed confinment standing the fibre would have less fall off and would be able to handle the flow load and give a better power the weight ratio also enclosing it in a aluminum based foil would refract the light loss of the fibre for each strand

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