Fiber-to-the-home broadband travels through cables.

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Active and Passive Optical Networks

Fiber optics uses light signals to transmit data. As this data moves across a fiber, there needs to be a way to separate it so that it gets to the proper destination.

There are two important types of systems that make fiber-to-the-home broadband connections possible. These are active optical networks and passive optical networks. Each offers ways to separate data and route it to the proper place, and each has advantages and disadvantages as compared to the other [source: Ftth Council].

An active optical system uses electrically powered switching equipment, such as a router or a switch aggregator, to manage signal distribution and direct signals to specific customers. This switch opens and closes in various ways to direct the incoming and outgoing signals to the proper place. In such a system, a customer may have a dedicated fiber running to his or her house.

A passive optical network, on the other hand, does not include electrically powered switching equipment and instead uses optical splitters to separate and collect optical signals as they move through the network. A passive optical network shares fiber optic strands for portions of the network. Powered equipment is required only at the source and receiving ends of the signal.

In some cases, FTTH systems may combine elements of both passive and active architectures to form a hybrid system.

Passive optical networks, or PONs, have some distinct advantages. They're efficient, in that each fiber optic strand can serve up to 32 users. PONs have a low building cost relative to active optical networks along with lower maintenance costs. Because there are few moving or electrical parts, there's simply less that can go wrong in a PON.

Passive optical networks also have some disadvantages. They have less range than an active optical network, meaning subscribers must be geographically closer to the central source of the data. PONs also make it difficult to isolate a failure when they occur. Also, because the bandwidth in a PON is not dedicated to individual subscribers, data transmission speed may slow down during peak usage times in an effect known as latency. Latency quickly degrades services such as audio and video, which need a smooth rate to maintain quality.

Active optical networks offer certain advantages, as well. Their reliance on Ethernet technology makes interoperability among vendors easy. Subscribers can select hardware that delivers an appropriate data transmission rate and scale up as their needs increase without having to restructure the network.

Active optical networks, however, also have their weaknesses. They require at least one switch aggregator for every 48 subscribers. Because it requires power, an active optical network inherently is less reliable than a passive optical network.

What does this mean for the international fiber-to-the-home broadband connection? Check out the next page to find out.