New technique doubles the distance of optical fibre communications

Created February 3, 2015
Applications and Research

A new method of processing fibre optic signals has been demonstrated by researchers at University College London, which could double the distance at which data travels error-free through transatlantic sub-marine cables. The researchers, led by Dr Robert Maher, say that the new method has the potential to reduce the costs of long-distance optical fibre communications as signals would not need to be electronically boosted on their journey – important when the cables are buried underground or at the bottom of the ocean.

As the technique can correct the transmitted data if they are corrupted or distorted on the journey, it could also help to increase the useful capacity of fibres. Conventionally, this is done at the end of the link, at the receiver, without having to introduce new components within the link itself. Increasing capacity in this way is important as optical fibres carry 99% of all data now transmitted worldwide and changing the receivers is far cheaper and easier than re-laying cables.

To cope with increasing demand for bandwidth, more information is being sent using the existing fibre infrastructure with different frequencies of light creating the data signals. The large number of light signals being sent can interact with each other and distort, causing the data to be received with errors.

The study published in Scientific Reports today and sponsored by the UK’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) reports a new way of improving the transmission distance, by undoing the interactions that occur between different optical channels as they travel side-by-side over an optical cable.

Study author Dr Robert Maher (UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering), commented, “By eliminating the interactions between the optical channels, we are able to double the distance signals can be transmitted error-free, from 3190km to 5890km, which is the largest increase ever reported for this system architecture. The challenge is to devise a technique to simultaneously capture a group of optical channels, known as a super-channel, with a single receiver. This allows us to undo the distortion by sending the data channels back on a virtual digital journey at the same time.”

The researchers used a so-called ‘16QAM super-channel’ made of a set of frequencies, which could be coded using amplitude, phase and frequency to create a high-capacity optical signal. The super-channel was then detected using a high-speed super-receiver and new signal processing techniques developed by the team enabled the reception of all the channels together and without error.

Study co-author Professor Polina Bayvel (in the same UCL department) who is Professor of Optical Communications and Networks and Director of UNLOC, said, “We’re excited to report such an important finding that will improve fibre optic communications. Our method greatly improves the efficiency of transmission of data – almost doubling the transmission distances that can be achieved, with the potential to make significant savings over current state-of-the art commercial systems.

By Matthew Peach

Maher et al., ‘Spectrally Shaped DP-16QAM Super-Channel Transmission with Multi-Channel Digital Back-Propagation’, will be published in Scientific Reports at the following address:

Matthew Peach

This article was written
by Matthew Peach

Matthew Peach is a freelance technology journalist specialising in photonics and communications. He has previously worked for several business-to-business publishers, editing a range of high-tech magazines and websites.