FREE SPACE OPTICS TECHNOLOGY OVERVIEW

W I R E L E S S   F I B E R   —  B A C K H A U L   R A D I O S  &  L A S E R S

Free Space Optics (FSO) technology is ideal for organizations desiring maximum signal/data security and speed


The Technology at the Heart of Optical Wireless
Imagine a technology that offers full-duplex Gigabit Ethernet throughput. A technology that can be installed license-free worldwide, and can be installed in less than a day. A technology that offers a fast, high ROI. That technology is free-space optics (FSO). This line-of-sight technology approach uses invisible beams of light to provide optical bandwidth connections. It's capable of sending up to 1.25 Gbps of data, voice, and video communications simultaneously through the air — enabling fiber-optic connectivity without requiring physical fiber-optic cable. It enables optical communications at the speed of light. And it forms the basis of a new category of products — optical wireless products from LightPointe, the recognized leader in outdoor wireless bridging communications. This site is intended to provide valuable background and resource information on FSO technology. Whether you're a student, an engineer, account manager, partner, or customer, this site provides the FSO insight you may require. And for providing high-speed connections, across Enterprises and between cell-site towers, it is the best technology available. FSO is a line-of-sight technology that uses invisible beams of light to provide optical bandwidth connections that can send and receive voice, video, and data information. Today, FSO technology — the foundation of LightPointe's optical wireless offerings — has enabled the development of a new category of outdoor wireless products that can transmit voice, data, and video at bandwidths up to 1.25 Gbps. This optical connectivity doesn't require expensive fiber-optic cable or securing spectrum licenses for radio frequency (RF) solutions. FSO technology requires light. The use of light is a simple concept similar to optical transmissions using fiber-optic cables; the only difference is the medium. Light travels through air faster than it does through glass, so it is fair to classify FSO technology as optical communications at the speed of light.

History
Originally developed by the military and NASA, FSO has been used for more than three decades in various forms to provide fast communication links in remote locations. LightPointe has extensive experience in this area: its chief scientists were in the labs developing prototype FSO systems in Germany in the late 1960s, even before the advent of fiber-optic cable. To view a copy of the original FSO white paper in German, published in Berlin, Germany, in the journal Nachrichtentechnik, in June 1968 by Dr. Erhard Kube, LightPointe's Chief Scientist and widely regarded as the "father of FSO technology," click on the link below: "Information transmission by light beams through the atmosphere." While fiber-optic communications gained worldwide acceptance in the telecommunications industry, FSO communications is still considered relatively new. FSO technology enables bandwidth transmission capabilities that are similar to fiber optics, using similar optical transmitters and receivers and even enabling WDM-like technologies to operate through free space. Read more on the ultra high-speed multi-gigabit wireless laser.

How it Works
FSO technology is surprisingly simple. It's based on connectivity between FSO-based optical wireless units, each consisting of an optical transceiver with a transmitter and a receiver to provide full-duplex (bi-directional) capability. Each optical wireless unit uses an optical source, plus a lens or telescope that transmits light through the atmosphere to another lens receiving the information. At this point, the receiving lens or telescope connects to a high-sensitivity receiver via optical fiber. This FSO technology approach has a number of advantages: Requires no RF spectrum licensing. Is easily upgradeable, and its open interfaces support equipment from a variety of vendors, which helps enterprises and service providers protect their investment in embedded telecommunications infrastructures. Requires no security software upgrades. Is immune to radio frequency interference or saturation. Can be deployed behind windows, eliminating the need for costly rooftop rights.

FSO: Optical or Radio Frequency Wireless?
Speed of fiber — flexibility of wireless
Optical wireless, based on FSO-technology, is an outdoor wireless product category that provides the speed of fiber, with the flexibility of wireless. It enables optical transmission at speeds of up to 1.25 Gbps and, in the future, is capable of speeds of 10 Gbps using WDM. This is not possible with any fixed wireless or RF technology. Optical wireless also eliminates the need to buy expensive spectrum (it requires no FCC or municipal license approvals worldwide), which further distinguishes it from fixed wireless technologies. Moreover, FSO technology’s narrow beam transmission is typically two meters versus 20 meters and more for traditional, even newer radio-based technologies such as millimeter-wave radio. Optical wireless products' similarities with conventional wired optical solutions enable the seamless integration of access networks with optical core networks and helps to realize the vision of an all-optical network.

Challenges with first generation 1550 nm FSO bridges (as opposed to new 850 nm LightPointe wireless bridges)

While fiber-optic cable and FSO technology share many of the same attributes, they face different challenges due to the way they transmit information. While fiber is subject to outside disturbances from wayward construction backhoes, gnawing rodents, and even sharks when deployed under sea, FSO technology is subject to its own potential outside disturbances. Optical wireless networks based on FSO technology must be designed to combat changes in the atmosphere, which can affect FSO system performance capacity. And because FSO is a line-of-sight technology, the interconnecting points must be free from physical obstruction and able to "see" each other.

All potential disturbances can be addressed through thorough and appropriate network design and planning. Among the issues to be considered when deploying FSO-based optical wireless systems:

Fog: The primary challenge to FSO-based communications is dense fog. Rain and snow have little effect on FSO technology, but fog is different. Fog is vapor composed of water droplets, which are only a few hundred microns in diameter but can modify light characteristics or completely hinder the passage of light through a combination of absorption, scattering, and reflection. The primary answer to counter fog when deploying FSO-based optical wireless products is through a network design that shortens FSO link distances and adds network redundancies. FSO installations in extremely foggy cities such as San Francisco have successfully achieved carrier-class reliability.

Absorption: Absorption occurs when suspended water molecules in the terrestrial atmosphere extinguish photons. This causes a decrease in the power density (attenuation) of the FSO beam and directly affects the availability of a system. Absorption occurs more readily at some wavelengths than others. However, the use of appropriate power, based on atmospheric conditions, and use of spatial diversity (multiple beams within an FSO-based unit) helps maintain the required level of network availability.

Scattering: Scattering is caused when the wavelength collides with the scatterer. The physical size of the scatterer determines the type of scattering. When the scatterer is smaller than the wavelength, this is known as Rayleigh scattering. When the scatterer is of comparable size to the wavelength, this is known as Mie scattering. When the scatterer is much larger than the wavelength, this is known as non-selective scattering. In scattering — unlike absorption — there is no loss of energy, only a directional redistribution of energy that may have significant reduction in beam intensity for longer distances.

Physical obstructions: Flying birds or construction cranes can temporarily block a single-beam FSO system, but this tends to cause only short interruptions, and transmissions are easily and automatically resumed. LightPointe's optical wireless products use multi-beam systems (spatial diversity) to address temporary obstructions, as well as other atmospheric conditions, to provide for greater availability.

Building sway/seismic activity: The movement of buildings can upset receiver and transmitter alignment. LightPointe's FSO-based optical wireless offerings use a divergent beam to maintain connectivity. When combined with tracking, multiple beam FSO-based systems provide even greater performance and enhanced installation simplicity.
 
Scintillation: Heated air rising from the earth or man-made devices such as heating ducts create temperature variations among different air pockets. This can cause fluctuations in signal amplitude which leads to "image dancing" at the FSO-based receiver end. LightPointe's unique multi-beam system is designed to address the effects of this scintillation. Called "Refractive turbulence," this causes two primary effects on optical beams.

Beam Wander: Beam wander is caused by turbulent eddies that are larger than the beam.
Beam Spreading: Beam spreading — long-term and short-term — is the spread of an optical beam as it propagates through the atmosphere.

Safety: To those unfamiliar with FSO technology, safety can be a concern because the technology uses lasers for transmission. The proper use and safety of lasers have been discussed since FSO devices first appeared in laboratories more than three decades ago. The two major concerns involve eye exposure to light beams and high voltages within the light systems and their power supplies. Strict international standards have been set for safety and performance, and LightPointe's optical wireless systems comply with these standards.