Wavelength-division multiplexing

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In fiber-optic communications, wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) is a technology which multiplexes a number of optical carrier signals onto a single optical fiber by using different wavelengths (colours) of laser light. This technique enables bidirectional communications over one strand of fiber, as well as multiplication of capacity.

The term wavelength-division multiplexing is commonly applied to an optical carrier (which is typically described by its wavelength), whereas frequency-division multiplexing typically applies to a radio carrier (which is more often described by frequency). Since wavelength and frequency are tied together through a simple relationship, the two terms actually describe the same concept.

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WDM systems

A WDM system uses a multiplexer at the transmitter to join the signals together, and a demultiplexer at the receiver to split them apart. With the right type of fiber it is possible to have a device that does both simultaneously, and can function as an optical add-drop multiplexer. The optical filtering devices used have traditionally been etalons, stable solid-state single-frequency Fabry–Pérot interferometers in the form of thin-film-coated optical glass.

The concept was first published in 1970, and by 1978 WDM systems were being realized in the laboratory. The first WDM systems only combined two signals. Modern systems can handle up to 160 signals and can thus expand a basic 10 Gbit/s system over a single fiber pair to over 1.6 Tbit/s.

WDM systems are popular with telecommunications companies because they allow them to expand the capacity of the network without laying more fiber. By using WDM and optical amplifiers, they can accommodate several generations of technology development in their optical infrastructure without having to overhaul the backbone network. Capacity of a given link can be expanded by simply upgrading the multiplexers and demultiplexers at each end.

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