Coherent Optics 101: Coming at You at 0.69c
Welcome back to the CableLabs 101 series! In our previous post, we discussed the basic components of a typical hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) cable network infrastructure and the role of DOCSIS® technology in data transmission over the coaxial portion of the network. Today, we’ll focus on the fiber portion of the HFC network, as well as the coherent optics technology that’s widely considered to be the hyper-capacity future of internet connectivity.
What Is Coherent Optics Technology?
Cable’s HFC networks are “fiber-rich,” which means they’re composed mostly of fiber—a bundle of very thin, hair-like strands of glass or plastic wire. Fiber is light, durable, and most importantly, capable of transmitting a lot of data over very long distances incredibly quickly. Light travels through a vacuum at 186,282 miles per second, a universal constant that scientists denote as “c.” Although light traveling through fiber optic cable moves a little slower than that (69 percent of the speed of light in a vacuum, or 0.69c), it’s still incredibly fast at over 128,000 miles per second. That’s fast enough for a single burst of light to circle the earth more than five times in a single second.
Until recently, signals in a typical HFC network were transmitted over fiber using analog technologies: an electrical radio frequency signal would be converted to an analog optical signal, transmitted over fiber optic cables, and then converted back to an electrical signal at the fiber node. With the advent of Distributed Access Architecture technologies, which will help cable operators cost-effectively add more capacity to their networks, that same fiber is being re-used to carry digital signals rather than analog ones.
The digital fiber technology being deployed today in access networks uses an “on-off keying” approach, in which a transmitter rapidly turns the laser on and off to send a signal; each pulse can signal a single bit of digital information (a 1 or a 0). Coherent optics adds further dimensions to the optical signal to carry more information simultaneously: rather than just pulsing the light on and off, it uses other properties of light (e.g., amplitude, phase and polarization) to carry multiple bits with each burst of information rather than just one bit. That can increase the data-carrying capacity of a single fiber by as much as 70 times, compared with non-coherent technology.
How Has This Technology Evolved?
Coherent optics technology is not new. It’s been used for over 10 years in long-haul fiber networks that span thousands of miles between cities and countries. More recently, as the cost of coherent optics technology has come down and speeds have gone up (from forty to now hundreds of gigabits per second) it has seen growing deployment in metropolitan or regional networks. The one remaining frontier has been the access network—such as in a cable HFC network, which has a large number of relatively short links, requiring a very low-cost solution.
It was for this reason that CableLabs embarked on an effort to define the use of coherent optics for cable access networks: to define requirements specific to access networks, thereby promoting interoperability, scale and competition. All this reduces the cost of this technology to the point at which it could be used widely to grow the capacity of cable operator fiber networks.
This vision was realized with the publication of our initial Point-to-Point (P2P) Coherent Optics specifications (released in June 2018), which defined how to send 100 Gigabits per second (Gbps) on a single wavelength, and how to send up to 48 wavelengths on a single fiber. That was followed by our version 2 specifications (released in March 2019), which defined interoperable operations at 200 Gbps per wavelength, doubling the capacity of the network. And both specifications included support for another key technology called Full Duplex Coherent Optics, which doubles the capacity of each fiber yet again while enabling the cost-effective use of a single fiber rather than the normal fiber pair.
How Does This Technology Affect Me and My Future?
When you think about current technology trends and predictions for the future, you’ll notice a common thread. Future innovations—like holograms, 360° virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence and so on—will all require super high-capacity, low-latency networks that can transmit a ton of data very, very quickly. We’re not talking about just long-haul networks between cities and countries, but everywhere.
This is why cable companies started investing in the expansion of their fiber infrastructure and fiber optic technology decades ago. By focusing on “fiber deep” architectures—a fancy term for bringing fiber closer to subscribers’ homes—and using technologies such as coherent optics to mine even more bandwidth out of the fiber that we already have in the ground today, we can ensure that our cable networks continue meeting the requirements of current and future innovations. Thanks to those efforts, you’ll be able to one day enjoy your VR chats in “Paris,” work in a “holo-room” and much, much more.
What is Full Duplex Coherent Optics?
A brand new innovation, Full Duplex Coherent Optics uses the same wavelength, in two different directions, over the same fiber at the same time. As a result, Full Duplex Coherent Optics technology supports over 200 times more capacity compared to non-coherent digital transmission over a single fiber. This makes Coherent Optics technology well suited for deployment in many more cable access network fibers. Watch our video to see how this technology will significantly increase the value of the currently deployed fiber infrastructure.
Click below to learn more about Full Duplex Coherent Optics.
Inform[ED] Video: Full Duplex Coherent Optics over Fiber Networks
Last week, CableLabs Distinguished Technologist Steve Jia posted a blog "Doubling up on Fiber Capacity: A Winning Strategy for Full Duplex Coherent Optics." In that blog, Steve describes how the CableLabs Full Duplex Coherent Optics innovation doubles the bi-directional capacity of each cable access network fiber, multiplies the capacity of each existing access network fiber by over 200 times and simultaneously makes Coherent Optics technology well suited for deployment in many more cable access network fibers.
Watch our Inform[ED] video below to learn more about this groundbreaking technology.
Full Duplex Coherent Optics has the potential to have a huge impact on operator networks. Don't forget to subscribe to our blog to learn more about coherent optics in the future.
Doubling up on Fiber Capacity: A Winning Strategy for Full Duplex Coherent Optics
During our 2017 Winter Conference, CableLabs announced the launch of the point-to-point (P2P) Coherent Optics specification project, potentially multiplying the capacity of each existing cable access network fiber by over 100 times and possibly indefinitely deferring new fiber builds on existing routes. Now, a new CableLabs innovation, Full Duplex Coherent Optics:
- Doubles the bi-directional capacity of each fiber
- Multiplies the capacity of each existing access network fiber by over 200 times
- Simultaneously makes Coherent Optics technology well suited for deployment in many more cable access network fibers
Why CableLabs Began the Coherent Optics Project
Most cable operators have a somewhat limited fiber count between the headend and the fiber node, so maximizing the capacity provided by this scarce resource has real economic advantages for cable operators. Getting more capacity out of the existing fibers can eliminate the need to dig more trenches to lay more fiber. This allows operators to best leverage the existing fiber infrastructure to withstand the exponential growth in capacity and services for residential and business subscribers.
There are two fundamental topologies to achieve bidirectional P2P coherent transport:
According to a recent operators survey, 20 percent of existing cable access networks use a single-fiber topology. That means that downstream and upstream transmission to nodes takes place on a single strand of fiber. It is estimated that over the next 5 years, this number will grow to 60 percent. Therefore, bidirectional transmission over a single fiber is needed for coherent signals to support single-fiber topologies and to facilitate the redundancy of optical links.
The Dual-Fiber Approach
Today, achieving bidirectional transmission in an optical domain with a single laser requires two fibers. This is the standard practice using today’s coherent optical technology. One laser in a transceiver performs two functions:
- as the optical signal source in the transmitter
- as the reference local oscillator signal in the receiver
Because of the use of the same wavelength from the same laser, a second fiber must be available for the other direction—one fiber for downstream and a second fiber for upstream.
The Single-Fiber Approach
The second typical approach is to use a single fiber but transmit at different frequencies or wavelengths, similar to the upstream and downstream spectrum split that we implement in our HFC networks. To accomplish this frequency/wavelength multiplexing approach, two lasers operating at different wavelengths are needed. Wavelength multiplexers and demultiplexers following a wavelength management and allocation strategy are needed to combine these different wavelengths over the same fiber. The second laser ends up costing a lot more than money—increasing power consumption, operational complexity, and transceiver footprint.
CableLabs’ Full Duplex Coherent Optics Approach
CableLabs proposes an alternative method to achieve full duplex coherent optics. We leverage two optical circulators on each end in a special configuration. The circulator is a low-cost, passive, but directional device—much like a traffic roundabout for cars, but this is an optical roundabout. Instead of using two fibers, a single fiber is connected for bidirectional transmission. Most importantly, instead of using two lasers, a single laser is employed for single-fiber coherent systems.
How Does It Work in a Cable?
Many scenarios in cable focus on the access environment with limited transmission distances. Unlike backbone and metropolitan coherent optical networks, access networks don’t require multiple directional optical amplifiers in cascade. By definition, the introduction of directional components hampers bidirectional transmission.
When dealing with coherent signals, we have much higher Optical Signal to Noise Ratio (OSNR) sensitivity and higher tolerance to the impairments from the spontaneous Rayleigh backscattering than intensity-modulated systems. In addition, the threshold of the stimulated Brillouin scattering (SBS) nonlinear effect is much higher because of the nature of phase-modulated signals on the reduction of optical carrier power and the increase of effective linewidth.
With this new dimension of direction-division multiplexing (DDM) in the optical domain, any coherent wavelength can be used twice, once in each direction, thus doubling the whole fiber system capacity. This full duplex implementation is not bandwidth-limited. It works for 100G, 200G and future 400G. It is also not wavelength-selective. It works for short wavelengths and for long wavelengths, and it would cover not only the entire C-Band but, with different optical sources, the entire fiber spectrum. All these features have been experimentally verified in CableLabs’ Optical Center of Excellence (OCE) over distances of up to 100 kilometers.
Impacts/Benefits of Full Duplex Coherent Optics
Full duplex coherent optics will significantly increase the value of the currently-deployed fiber infrastructure. It has been implemented in an elegant way, without the requirement of redesigning new chips for digital signal processing. This scheme can be seamlessly incorporated into the ongoing CableLabs’ P2P Coherent Optics specification effort, which will be issued in mid-2018.
Dr. Alberto Campos, a CableLabs Fellow, also contributed to this article.
Interested in learning more about our point-to-point (P2P) Coherent Optics specification project? A follow-up video containing more information on the technology will be posted next week. Click below to join our working group.