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Black Box Explains Testing and Certifying Fiber

If you’re accustomed to certifying copper cable, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to certify fiber optic cable because it’s immune to electrical interference. You only need to check a few measurements.

Attenuation (or decibel loss)—Measured in decibels/kilometer (dB/km), this is the decrease of signal strength as it travels through the fiber cable. Generally, attenuation problems are more common on multimode fiber optic cables.

Return loss—This is the amount of light reflected from the far end of the cable back to the source. The lower the number, the better. For example, a reading of -60 decibels is better than -20 decibels. Like attenuation, return loss is usually greater with multimode cable.

Graded refractive index—This measures how the light is sent down the fiber. This is commonly measured at wavelengths of 850 and 1300 nanometers. Compared to other operating frequencies, these two ranges yield the lowest intrinsic power loss. (NOTE: This is valid for multimode fiber only.)

Propagation delay—This is the time it takes a signal to travel from one point to another over a transmission channel.

Optical time-domain reflectometry (OTDR)—This enables you to isolate cable faults by transmitting high-frequency pulses onto a cable and examining their reflections along the cable. With OTDR, you can also determine the length of a fiber optic cable because the OTDR value includes the distance the optic signal travels.

There are many fiber optic testers on the market today. Basic fiber optic testers function by shining a light down one end of the cable. At the other end, there’s a receiver calibrated to the strength of the light source. With this test, you can measure how much light is going to the other end of the cable. Generally these testers give you the results in dB lost, which you then compare to the loss budget. If the measured loss is less than the number calculated by your loss budget, your installation is good.
Newer fiber optic testers have a broader range of capabilities. They can test both 850- and 1300-nanometer signals at the same time and can check your cable for compliance with specific standards.