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The Increasingly Important Role of Specialty Optical Fibers — Not all optical fibers are the same

By Dr. Carl Crossland
Published: September 14, 2021

When people hear the word “fiber” as it relates to the telecommunications and technology fields, they tend to imagine miles of glass optical fibers laid underground. It is true, after all, that fiber helps us stay connected. From city-to-city and country-to-country, optical fiber is at the core of keeping the Internet of Things (IoT) running and ensuring that people around the world can access data, communicate, and stay connected.

While fiber plays a role in our daily lives, it isn’t always at this magnitude. In fact, specialty optical fibers often act as the true connector between people. These fibers are customized to fit specific needs and applications, are central to any connection we rely on, and are becoming increasingly important as our data demands and expectations grow. It’s essential as we look toward the future that these fibers – a small part of the overall solution, yet mighty – are not forgotten when considering the way we build the networks of tomorrow. 

Specialty optical fibers are typically used in much shorter lengths than their telecom counterparts, averaging anywhere from a few centimeters to just a few meters in distance per application. Despite their smaller usage, the capabilities these fibers provide go far beyond those of traditional telecom optical fiber. Specialty optical fiber is designed to be application specific, and can condition and amplify light in a way that traditional telecom optical fiber can’t, providing a necessary service so that networks can offer faster and more reliable connections. They can also be tailored to fit specific needs, such as carrying polarized light in a transceiver or amplifying attenuated light, and can be customized in terms of their diameters, coatings, length, and more. An example is polarization-maintaining fiber in a transceiver. The laser light in the transceiver must be kept in a polarized state so that it can be properly modulated – something that only a specialty optical fiber is designed to do.    

Emerging trends are changing the role of specialty optical fibers

To really envision the importance of specialty optical fibers, imagine the technology that is required when you make a call on your cellphone. The signal you send and receive is done wirelessly, sending and receiving data from your phone to a tower and then over a fiber optic network until it reaches its final destination. Those networks may be rooted in traditional, longer fiber lines, but it’s the specialty optical fibers within the transceivers, amplifiers, and optical switches that make the overall process possible. Specialty optical fibers are important to making data connections possible, and the demand for greater bandwidth is only expected to grow due to ongoing trends in the data and telecommunications space.

One of the trends driving the need for more sophisticated specialty optical fibers is the movement toward reducing component and module size while expanding performance, commonly referred to as “densification.” The first computers used to take up an entire room; now, you can access advanced technology and sophisticated software in the palm of your hand. This same phenomenon is happening in the world of data centers.  As carriers and hyperscale data center operators look for new ways to increase bandwidth capacity while shrinking the volume of space that equipment occupies, specialty optical fiber will become more and more important in providing the enhanced functionality and supporting increased bandwidth in a smaller package. Solutions must be created that fit into existing space enclosures but still allow for more and more connections. 

Coherent technology is also another player in the specialty optical fiber shift. This form of technology provides ways to more efficiently use existing buried fiber infrastructure and encode more data by using other characteristics of the light, in turn allowing more information to get shared.  Specialty optical fibers play a key role in enabling coherent communications as they are designed to be compatible with coherent technology and package data in a more efficient way, therefore strengthening connections.

Reliable specialty optical fibers are necessary for the future

Both of these trends, as well as others affecting the tech space, are driven by one thing: bandwidth usage. Consumers and businesses alike are looking for more high-speed bandwidth to support the Internet of Things that have begun to fill our daily lives. That hunger will not be dying down anytime soon as the desire for “always on” connectivity and high-definition streaming services to multiple platforms have become the norm. This is another area where specialty fiber will play a key role in enabling greater and greater bandwidth utilization.

Specialty optical fiber is only going to have to become more robust in the coming years, as the demands that network providers, carriers, and data center operators place on it become more and more severe. These demands include both optical (bend loss) and mechanical (long term reliability) requirements. Specialty optical fiber providers must be able to show and support that their fiber is mechanically reliable and maintains optical integrity as it bent and deployed in ways that support densification and greater bandwidth. The fiber that customers invest in today should be able to lead them into the next five, ten, even 20 years without fear of mechanical or optical failure, and requires providers to show experience and expertise in reliability modeling to convince customers that the fiber will not break after it has been deployed in a component or module under the bending conditions that the customer is using. 

As a leader in the specialty fiber space since the 1990’s, we see the future of optical communications and understand the role of specialty optical fiber – it’s why we work with businesses to develop solutions tailored to their specific needs both now and down the road. We also know the importance of integrating traditional telecom with the specialty fiber market as these two will only become more intertwined moving forward. Our specialty optical fiber offerings stand out among competitors by delivering the quality needed to keep networks and data running around the clock. We also provide service that’s unmatched by working closely with companies to develop customized solutions for their needs rather than trying to use a one-size-fits-all approach. Our customers know they can depend on us for consistent, quality specialty optical fibers that will not just meet their needs, but continue to deliver for them for years to come. Investing in specialty fibers is investing in a true partnership designed to take you and your company into the future, hand-in-hand, and that is exactly what Corning provides. 

For more information on the capabilities of specialty fiber, visit our page here.

Dr. Carl Crossland
is the New Business Development Manager for Corning’s Photonic Materials within the Optical Communications group.  He started with Corning in 1997 as a Development Scientist working on erbium-doped fibers for optical amplifiers.  His career has covered both technical and commercial roles involving technologies such as specialty optical fibers, fiber lasers and hyperspectral imaging systems.

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