How Fiber Optics Work

By: Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. & Chris Pollette  | 

A Fiber-Optic Relay System

To understand how optical fibers are used in communications systems, let's look at an example from a World War II movie or documentary where two naval ships in a fleet need to communicate with each other while maintaining radio silence or on stormy seas. One ship pulls up alongside the other. The captain of one ship sends a message to a sailor on deck. The sailor translates the message into Morse code (dots and dashes) and uses a signal light (floodlight with a venetian blind type shutter on it) to send the message to the other ship. A sailor on the deck of the other ship sees the Morse code message, decodes it into English and sends the message up to the captain.

Now, imagine doing this when the ships are on either side of the ocean separated by thousands of miles and you have a fiber-optic communication system in place between the two ships. Fiber-optic relay systems consist of the following:


  • transmitter - produces and encodes the light signals
  • optical fiber - conducts the light signals over a distance
  • optical regenerator - may be necessary to boost the light signal (for long distances)
  • optical receiver - receives and decodes the light signals


The transmitter is like the sailor on the deck of the sending ship. It receives and directs the optical device to turn the light "on" and "off" in the correct sequence, thereby generating a light signal.

The transmitter is physically close to the optical fiber and may even have a lens to focus the light into the fiber. Lasers have more power than LEDs, but vary more with changes in temperature and are more expensive. The most common wavelengths of light signals are 850 nm, 1,300 nm and 1,550 nm (infrared, non-visible portions of the spectrum).

Optical Regenerator

As mentioned above, some signal loss occurs when the light is transmitted through the fiber, especially over long distances such as with undersea cables. Therefore, one or more optical regenerators is spliced along the cable to boost the degraded light signals.

An optical regenerator consists of optical fibers with a special coating (doping). The doped portion is "pumped" with a laser. When the degraded signal comes into the doped coating, the energy from the laser allows the doped molecules to become lasers themselves. The doped molecules then emit a new, stronger light signal with the same characteristics as the incoming weak light signal. Basically, the regenerator is a laser amplifier for the incoming signal.

Optical Receiver

The optical receiver is like the sailor on the deck of the receiving ship. It takes the incoming digital light signals, decodes them and sends the electrical signal to the other user's computer, TV or telephone (receiving ship's captain). The receiver uses a photocell or photodiode to detect the light.