A guiding light in fibre optics

Maintaining the signal

By Morand Fachot

Ever since the invention of the first low-loss optical fibre in 1970 and the initial installation of optical fibre networks in the early 1980s, the market for fibre optic-based components and systems has been expanding globally. International Standards prepared by IEC TC (Technical Committee) 86, Fibre optics, and its SCs (Subcommittees) have been instrumental in this development by ensuring the industry has been able to roll out new products and develop the performance of the various components and systems that underpin it.

Faster computing will be possible thanks to optical transmitters (Photo: Intel Corp) Faster computing will be possible thanks to optical transmitters (Photo: Intel Corp)

An expanding market

The actual value of the fibre optics market is assessed using physical as well as financial indicators: the demand for optical fibre itself is measured in thousands (or millions) of kilometres. The global demand for optical fibre grew from around 60 million kilometres in 2002 (down 50 % on 2001, following the so-called dot-com bubble burst) to 184 million in 2009. A slowdown resulting from the financial crisis and ensuing recession followed, before a a steady growth returned.

Where the value of metal-based cables is linked closely to highly volatile global prices for copper and aluminium, that of optical fibre cables is dependent on glass, a raw material whose price tends not to fluctuate widely. Improving manufacturing processes, a somewhat inelastic supply chain and a fairly stable demand in recent years (owing to a rather global sluggish economic situation) have led to stable and even lower prices for optical fibres over the years.

Components-driven growth

According to a report by GIA (Global Industry Analysts, Inc.) the fibre optic components and assemblies market is forecast to reach USD 31,3 billion by 2015. Demand is driven by continued migration from copper to fibre networks, in particular for the so-called FTTx (Fibre to the x), the replacement of metal local loops for the "last mile" connection to nodes, homes or businesses. TC 86 and its SCs are closely involved in the preparation of standards and testing procedures for all these components and subsystems.

In fibre optic transmission, the signal, in the form of light produced by optical transmitters such as LEDs (light-emitting diodes) or semiconductor lasers, loses its intensity over distance, a loss measured in dB/km (decibels per kilometre). Great advances have been made in the quality of fibres and performance of optical transmitters that produce the initial signal, thus cutting significantly this loss. However amplifiers of various kinds are still needed along the cables to ensure the maintenance of good signal quality over very long distances.

Other components and subsystems with a central role to play in transmission and connection are chromatic compensators, regenerators, transponders, attenuators and various interfaces and connectors, to name just a few.

Healthy prospects

According to TC 86 Secretary Steve Swanson the following trends will drive growth in the sector:

  • worldwide development of FTTx (Fibre to the premises, in any configuration), calling for new products/new (improved) solutions to ease installation and reduce deployment costs;
  • bandwidth demands are going up exponentially and expected to be four times larger in 2015 than in 2010, resulting in deeper penetration of communications and data transmission-related applications that use fibre optic technology;
  • short reach communication on optics more important today and into the future – optical backplane inevitable for next generation switches and routers.

This growth will in turn drive demand for new / improved products in particular for FTTx, such as:

  • new fibre and new cable types, specifically designed for in-the-premises application and deployment;
  • new passive components, for the improved performances of NGANs (next generation access networks) optical access systems (in close cooperation with ITU-T);
  • new fibre development, especially in the field of multi-mode fibres, which had been completely neglected in public NGAN applications.

Central role and full agenda for IEC TC 86 and its SCs

The IEC's involvement in the preparation of International Standards for fibre optics systems dates back to the late 1970s when its SC 46E was tasked with preparing "International Standards intended for application in telecommunication equipment and in devices employing similar techniques". At its first meeting in 1978, SC 46E set up a number of WGs (Working Groups) to assist in the preparation of these standards.

TC 86: Fibre optics, was established in December 1984 from SC 46E. Today TC 86 has three SCs, 12 WGs and numerous project teams and coordination groups. Some 250 experts from 26 countries are active participants in the work covered by TC 86.

TC 86 and its three SCs – SC 86A: Fibres and cables; SC 86B: Fibre optic interconnecting devices and passive components and SC 86C: Fibre optic systems and active devices – prepare International Standards for devices and tests in their respective domains.

Swanson lists the following as the main focus areas for TC 86 and its SCs currently:

  • integration of optical components: optical circuit boards, optical backplanes, combining active and passive optics;
  • high density low-cost components: cables and components minimizing first installation costs in FTTx applications, multi-fibre connectors, bend resistant fibres;
  • dynamically-adaptive components;
  • fibre optic sensors;
  • collaboration with other TCs.

With over 440 International Standards covering test methods, interface and performance standards, specifications and technical reports currently available, and 109 active work projects, this TC and its SCs are particularly productive, their agenda shows this will remain the case in the future.

Faster computing will be possible thanks to optical transmitters (Photo: Intel Corp) Faster computing will be possible thanks to optical transmitters (Photo: Intel Corp)
Optical fibre GBIC (gigabit interface converter) for networking equipment Optical fibre GBIC (gigabit interface converter) for networking equipment
MultiDyne fibre-optic transceiver/receiver solution for the transmission of TV signals (Photo: MultiDyne) MultiDyne fibre-optic transceiver/receiver solution for the transmission of TV signals (Photo: MultiDyne)