telecommunications media

Introduction

      equipment and systems—metal wire, terrestrial and satellite radio, and optical fibre—employed in the transmission of electromagnetic signals.

Transmission media and the problem of signal degradation
      Every telecommunications system (telecommunication) involves the transmission of an information-bearing electromagnetic signal (electromagnetic radiation) through a physical medium that separates the transmitter from the receiver. All transmitted signals are to some extent degraded by the environment through which they propagate. Signal degradation can take many forms, but generally it falls into three types: noise, distortion, and attenuation (reduction in power). Noise is the presence of random, unpredictable, and undesirable electromagnetic emissions that can mask the intended information signal. Distortion is any undesired change in the amplitude or phase of any component of an information signal that causes a change in the overall waveform of the signal. Both noise and distortion are commonly introduced by all transmission media, and they both result in errors in reception. The relative impact of these factors on reliable communication depends on the rate of information transmission, on the desired fidelity upon reception, and on whether communication must occur in “real time”—i.e., as in telephone conversations and video teleconferencing.

 Various modulating and encoding schemes have been devised to provide protection against the errors caused by channel distortion and channel noise. These techniques are described in the article telecommunication system (telecommunication). In addition to these signal-processing techniques, protection against reception errors can be provided by boosting the power of the transmitter, thus increasing the signal-to-noise ratio (the ratio of signal power to noise power). However, even powerful signals suffer some degree of attenuation as they pass through the transmission medium. The principal cause of power loss is dissipation, the conversion of part of the electromagnetic energy to another form of energy such as heat. In communications media, channel attenuation is typically expressed in decibels (decibel) (dB) per unit distance. Attenuation of zero decibels means that the signal is passed without loss; three decibels means that the power of the signal decreases by one-half. The plot of channel attenuation as the signal frequency is varied is known as the attenuation spectrum, while the average attenuation over the entire frequency range of a transmitted signal is defined as the attenuation coefficient.

      Channel attenuation is an important factor in the use of each transmission medium. Along with noise and distortion, it can influence the choice of one medium over another. As is noted in the introduction to this article, modern telecommunications systems employ three main transmission media: wire, radio, and optical. They are discussed in turn in the following sections.

Wire transmission
      In wire transmission an information-bearing electromagnetic wave is guided along a wire conductor to a receiver. Propagation of the wave is always accompanied by a flow of electric current through the conductor. Since all practical conductor materials are characterized by some electrical resistance, part of the electric current is always lost by conversion to heat, which is radiated from the wire. This dissipative loss leads to attenuation of the electromagnetic signal, and the amount of attenuation increases linearly with increasing distance between the transmitter and the receiver.

Wire media
 Most modern wire transmission is conducted through the metallic-pair circuit, in which a bundled pair of conductors is used to provide a forward current path and a return current path. The most common conductor is hard-drawn copper wire, which has the benefits of low electrical resistance, high tensile strength, and high resistance to corrosion. The basic types of wire media found in telecommunications are single-wire lines, open-wire pairs, multipair cables, and coaxial cables. They are described below.

Single-wire line
      In the early days of the telegraph, a single uninsulated iron wire, strung above ground, was used as a transmission line. Return conduction was provided through an earth ground. This arrangement, known as the single-wire line, was quite satisfactory for the low-frequency transmission requirements of manual telegraph signaling (only about 400 hertz, or cycles per second). However, for transmission of higher-frequency signals, such as speech (approximately 3,000 hertz, or 3 kilohertz), single-wire lines suffer from high attenuation, radiation losses, and a sensitivity to external interference. One common cause of interference is natural electrical disturbances such as lightning or auroras (aurora); another is cross talk, an unwanted transferral of signals from one circuit to another owing to inductive coupling between two or more closely spaced wire lines.

Open-wire pair
      In order to overcome the insufficiencies of single-wire transmission, the early telephone industry shifted to a two-wire system called the open-wire pair. In an open-wire pair the forward and return conductors are copper wires that run in parallel and in a common plane. The parallel arrangement produces a balanced transmission circuit that has low sensitivity to faraway interference sources such as lightning. Immunity to such interference is possible because both of the conductors in the open-wire pair, by running in parallel and in the same plane, are at essentially equal distances from the interference source. The source therefore induces equal currents in the forward and return paths, and these currents are effectively canceled out at the receiving end of the line.

      It is much more difficult to eliminate cross talk between adjacent open-wire pairs than it is to eliminate interference from a faraway source. In order to ensure equal forward and return currents, all adjacent pairs have to be balanced with respect to one another. In early low-density telephone lines, cross talk was reduced through an ingenious and complicated method of periodically transposing the relative positions of the forward and return conductors in each pair. Transposing the wires equalized the relative positions of adjacent circuits as well as the currents that they induced in one another.

Multipair cable
 In multipair cable anywhere from a half-dozen to several thousand twisted-pair circuits are bundled into a common sheath. The twisted pair was developed in the late 19th century in order to reduce cross talk in multipair cables. In a process similar to that employed with open-wire pairs (described above), the forward and return conductors of each circuit in a multipair cable are braided together, equalizing the relative positions of all the circuits in the cable and thus equalizing currents induced by cross talk.

      For many high-speed and high-density applications, such as computer networking, each wire pair is sheathed in metallic foil. Sheathing produces a balanced circuit, called a shielded pair, that benefits from greatly reduced radiation losses and immunity to cross talk interference.

 By enclosing a single conducting wire in a dielectric insulator and an outer conducting shell, an electrically shielded transmission circuit called coaxial cable is obtained. In a coaxial cable the electromagnetic field propagates within the dielectric insulator, while the associated current flow is restricted to adjacent surfaces of the inner and outer conductors. As a result, coaxial cable has very low radiation losses and low susceptibility to external interference.

      In order to reduce weight and make the cable flexible, tinned copper or aluminum foil is commonly used for the conducting shell. Most coaxial cables employ a lightweight polyethylene or wood pulp insulator; although air would be a more effective dielectric, the solid material serves as a mechanical support for the inner conductor.

Applications of wire
      Because of the high signal attenuation inherent in wire, transmission over distances greater than a few kilometres requires the use of regularly spaced repeaters to amplify, restore, and retransmit the signal. Transmission lines also require impedance matching at the transmitter or receiver in order to reduce echo-creating reflections. Impedance matching is accomplished in long-distance telephone cables by attaching a wire coil to each end of the line whose electrical impedance, measured in ohms (ohm), is equal to the characteristic impedance of the transmission line. A familiar example of impedance matching is the transformer used on older television sets to match a 75-ohm coaxial cable to antenna terminals made for a 300-ohm twin-lead connection.

      Coaxial cable is classified as either flexible or rigid. Standard flexible coaxial cable is manufactured with characteristic impedance ranging from 50 to 92 ohms. The high attenuation of flexible cable restricts its utility to short distances—e.g., spans of less than one kilometre, or approximately a half-mile—unless signal repeaters are used. For high-capacity long-distance transmission, a more efficient wire medium is rigid coaxial cable. The first such transatlantic telephone cable (TAT-1) was laid by a consortium that included the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T (AT&T Corporation)) beginning June 28, 1955, from Clarenville, Nfd., Can., reaching the Firth of Lorne in Oban, Scot., on Sept. 26, 1956. TAT-1 had an initial capacity of only 36 two-way voice circuits, but by the time that TAT-6 and TAT-7 were put into service in 1976 and 1978, respectively, capacity had expanded to 4,000 circuits each for these newer cables. However, with the laying in 1987 of the first transatlantic fibre-optic (fibre optics) cable (TAT-8), which could carry some 40,000 circuits, the coaxial cables were gradually phased out of service, with TAT-6 and TAT-7 retired in 1994.

      Although long-distance telephone cable has mostly been phased out in favour of higher-performance fibre-optic (fibre optics) cable, for short-distance applications, where medium bandwidth and low-cost point-to-point communication is required, twisted pair and coaxial cable remain the standard. Voice-grade twisted pair is used for local subscriber loops in the public switched telephone network, and flexible coaxial cable is commonly used for cable television connections from curbside to home. Flexible coaxial cable also has been used for local area network (LAN) interconnections, but it has largely been replaced with lighter and lower-cost data-grade twisted pair (Category 5, or Cat 5) and optical fibre.

radio transmission
 In radio transmission a radiating antenna is used to convert a time-varying electric current into an electromagnetic wave or field (electromagnetic field), which freely propagates through a nonconducting medium such as air or space. In a broadcast radio channel, an omnidirectional antenna radiates a transmitted signal over a wide service area. In a point-to-point radio channel, a directional transmitting antenna is used to focus the wave into a narrow beam, which is directed toward a single receiver site. In either case the transmitted electromagnetic wave is picked up by a remote receiving antenna and reconverted to an electric current.

      Radio wave propagation is not constrained by any physical conductor or waveguide. This makes radio ideal for mobile communications, satellite and deep-space communications, broadcast communications, and other applications in which the laying of physical connections may be impossible or very costly. On the other hand, unlike guided channels such as wire or optical fibre, the medium through which radio waves propagate is highly variable, being subject to diurnal, annual, and solar changes in the ionosphere (ionosphere and magnetosphere), variations in the density of water droplets in the troposphere, varying moisture gradients, and diverse sources of reflection and diffraction.

Radio-wave propagation
      The range of a radio communications link is defined as the farthest distance that the receiver can be from the transmitter and still maintain a sufficiently high signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) for reliable signal reception. The received SNR is degraded by a combination of two factors: beam divergence loss and atmospheric attenuation. Beam divergence loss is caused by the geometric spreading of the electromagnetic field as it travels through space. As the original signal power is spread over a constantly growing area, only a fraction of the transmitted energy reaches a receiving antenna. For an omnidirectional radiating transmitter, which broadcasts its signal as an expanding spherical wave, beam divergence causes the received field strength to decrease by a factor of 1/r2, where r is the radius of the circle, or the distance between transmitter and receiver.

      The other cause of SNR degradation, atmospheric attenuation, depends on the propagation mechanism, or the means by which unguided electromagnetic waves travel from transmitter to receiver. Radio waves are propagated by a combination of three mechanisms: atmospheric wave propagation, surface wave propagation, and reflected wave propagation. They are described below.

Atmospheric propagation
      In atmospheric propagation the electromagnetic wave travels through the air along a single path from transmitter to receiver. The propagation path can follow a straight line, or it can curve around edges of objects, such as hills and buildings, by ray diffraction. Diffraction permits mobile phones (mobile telephone) to work even when there is no line-of-sight transmission path between the phone and the base station.

 Atmospheric attenuation is not significant for radio frequencies below 10 gigahertz. Above 10 gigahertz under clear air conditions, attenuation is caused mainly by atmospheric absorption losses; these become large when the transmitted frequency is of the same order as the resonant frequencies of gaseous constituents of the atmosphere, such as oxygen (O2), water vapour (H2O), and carbon dioxide (CO2). Atmospheric attenuation does not change gradually across the spectrum; there exist short spectral “windows,” which specify frequency bands where transmission occurs with minimal clear-air absorption losses. Additional losses due to scattering occur when airborne particles, such as water droplets or dust, present cross-sectional diameters that are of the same order as the signal wavelengths. Scattering loss due to heavy rainfall is the dominant form of attenuation for radio frequencies ranging from 10 gigahertz to 500 gigahertz (microwave to submillimetre wavelengths), while scattering loss due to fog dominates for frequencies ranging from 103 gigahertz to 106 gigahertz (infrared through visible light range).

Surface propagation
      For low radio frequencies, terrestrial antennas radiate electromagnetic waves that travel along the surface of the Earth as if in a waveguide. The attenuation of surface waves increases with distance, ground resistance, and transmitted frequency. Attenuation is lower over seawater, which has high conductivity, than over dry land, which has low conductivity. At frequencies below 3 megahertz, surface waves can propagate over very large distances. Ranges of 100 km (about 60 miles) at 3 megahertz to 10,000 km (6,000 miles) at 1 kilohertz are not uncommon.

Reflected propagation
      Sometimes part of the transmitted wave travels to the receiver by reflection off a smooth boundary whose edge irregularities are only a fraction of the transmitted wavelength. When the reflecting boundary is a perfect conductor, total reflection without loss can occur. However, when the reflecting boundary is a dielectric, or nonconducting material, part of the wave may be reflected while part may be transmitted (refracted) through the medium—leading to a phenomenon known as refractive loss. When the conductivity of the dielectric is less than that of the atmosphere, total reflection can occur if the angle of incidence (that is, the angle relative to the normal, or a line perpendicular to the surface of the reflecting boundary) is less than a certain critical angle.

      Common forms of reflected wave propagation are ground reflection, where the wave is reflected off land or water, and ionospheric reflection, where the wave is reflected off an upper layer of the Earth's ionosphere (as in shortwave radio; see below The radio-frequency spectrum: HF (telecommunications media)).

      Some terrestrial radio links can operate by a combination of atmospheric wave propagation, surface wave propagation, ground reflection, and ionospheric reflection. In some cases this combining of propagation paths can produce severe fading at the receiver. Fading occurs when there are significant variations in received signal amplitude and phase over time or space. Fading can be frequency-selective—that is, different frequency components of a single transmitted signal can undergo different amounts of fading. A particularly severe form of frequency-selective fading is caused by multipath interference, which occurs when parts of the radio wave travel along many different reflected propagation paths to the receiver. Each path delivers a signal with a slightly different time delay, creating “ghosts” of the originally transmitted signal at the receiver. A “deep fade” occurs when these ghosts have equal amplitudes but opposite phases—effectively canceling each other through destructive interference. When the geometry of the reflected propagation path varies rapidly, as for a mobile radio traveling in an urban area with many highly reflective buildings, a phenomenon called fast fading results. Fast fading is especially troublesome at frequencies above one gigahertz, where even a few centimetres of difference in the lengths of the propagation paths can significantly change the relative phases of the multipath signals. Effective compensation for fast fading requires the use of sophisticated diversity combining techniques, such as modulation of the signal onto multiple carrier waves, repeated transmissions over successive time slots, and multiple receiving antennas.

The radio-frequency spectrum
 Before 1930 the radio spectrum above 30 megahertz was virtually empty of man-made signals. Today, civilian radio signals populate the radio spectrum in eight frequency bands, ranging from very low frequency (VLF), starting at 3 kilohertz, and extending to extremely high frequency (EHF), ending at 300 gigahertz.

      It is frequently convenient to express radio frequencies in terms of wavelength, which is the ratio between the speed of light through a vacuum (approximately 300 million metres per second) and the radio frequency. The wavelength of a VLF radio wave at 3 kilohertz is thus 100 km (about 60 miles), while the wavelength of an EHF radio wave at 300 gigahertz is only 1 mm (about 0.04 inch). An important measure of the efficiency with which a transmitting antenna delivers its power to a remote receiving antenna is the effective isotropic radiated power (EIRP), measured in watts (watt) per metre squared. To achieve high EIRP the antenna dimensions should be several times larger than the largest transmitted wavelength. For frequencies below the medium frequency (MF) band, where wavelengths range upward from 100 metres (about 330 feet), this is usually not practical; in these cases transmitters must compensate for low EIRP by transmitting at higher power. This makes frequency bands up through high frequency (HF) unsuitable for such applications as handheld personal radios, radio pagers, and satellite transponders, in which small antenna size and power efficiency are essential.

      Two radio links can share the same frequency band or the same geographic area of coverage, but they cannot share both without interference. Therefore, international use of the radio spectrum is tightly regulated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), while domestic radio links are regulated by national agencies such as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Each radio link is assigned a specific frequency band of operation, a specific transmitter radiation pattern, and a maximum transmitter power. For example, a broadcast radio or television station may be authorized to broadcast only in certain directions and only at certain times of the day. Frequency bandwidths also are allocated, ranging from 300 hertz for radiotelegraphs to 10 kilohertz for voice-grade radiotelephones to more than 500 megahertz for multichannel digital radio relays in the telephone network to about 850 megahertz for cellular telephones.

VLF-MF
      The very low frequency to medium frequency (VLF-MF) bands extend from 3 kilohertz to 3 megahertz, or wavelengths of 100 km to 100 metres. These bands are used for low-bandwidth analog services such as long-distance radio navigation, maritime telegraph and distress channels, and standard AM radio broadcasting. Owing to insufficient available bandwidth, they are unsuitable for broadband telecommunication services such as television and FM radio. Because of the high conductivity of salt water, maritime radio transmissions at VLF can propagate via surface waves for thousands of kilometres.

HF
      High-frequency (HF) radio is in the 100- to 10-metre wavelength band, extending from 3 megahertz to 30 megahertz. Much of the HF band is allocated to mobile and fixed voice communication services requiring transmission bandwidths of less than 12 kilohertz. International ( shortwave radio) broadcasting also is conducted in the HF band; it is allocated to seven narrow bands between 5.9 megahertz and 26.1 megahertz.

 The primary mode of propagation for HF radio transmissions is reflection off the ionosphere (ionosphere and magnetosphere), a series of ionized layers of the atmosphere ranging in altitude from about 50 to 300 km (about 30 to 200 miles) above the Earth. ionization is caused primarily by radiation from the Sun, so that the layers vary in height and in reflectivity with time. During the day the ionosphere consists of four layers located at average altitudes of 70 km (D layer), 110 km (E layer), 200 km (F1 layer), and 320 km (F2 layer). At night the D and E layers often disappear, and the F1 and F2 layers combine to form a single layer at an average altitude of 300 km. Reflective conditions thus change with time. During the day an HF radio wave can reflect off the E, F1, or F2 layers. At night, however, it can reflect only off the high-altitude F layer, creating very long transmission ranges. (The D layer is nonreflecting at HF frequencies and merely attenuates the propagating radio wave.) In the lower HF band, transmission ranges of many thousands of kilometres can be achieved by multiple reflections, called skips, between the Earth and layers of the ionosphere.

      Strong ionospheric reflections occur only below a maximum usable frequency (MUF), which is determined by the zenith angle of the incident ray and by the ionization density of the reflecting layer. In general, the MUF is higher at larger zenith angles and higher ionization densities. During the peaks of the 11-year sunspot cycle (sunspot), solar ultraviolet radiation produces the highest ionization densities. These sunspot peaks can last several days or months, depending on the persistence of sunspot visibility, producing a sporadic E layer that often can be used for multiple-skip communications by amateur radio operators at frequencies up to 144 megahertz—well into the VHF band.

VHF-UHF
      The very high frequency to ultrahigh frequency ( VHF- UHF) bands are in the wavelength range of 10 metres to 10 cm (33 feet to 4 inches), extending from 30 megahertz to 3 gigahertz. Some of these bands are used for broadcast services such as FM radio (in the United States, 88–108 megahertz), VHF television (54–88 megahertz for channels 2–6, 174–220 megahertz for channels 7–13), and UHF television (frequency slots scattered within 470–806 megahertz). The UHF band also is used for studio and remote-pickup television relays, microwave line-of-sight links (1.7–2.3 gigahertz), and cellular telephony (806–890 megahertz). Parts of the band are used for radio navigation applications, such as instrument landing systems (108–112 megahertz), military aircraft communications (225–400 megahertz), air-traffic control radio beacons (1.03–1.09 gigahertz), and the satellite-based Navstar global positioning system (GPS) (GPS; 1.575-gigahertz uplink and 1.227-gigahertz downlink). In the North American over-the-air digital broadcast system, a television equipped with a QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) tuner can decode digital signals, which are broadcast within each 6-megahertz-wide band already assigned to that station—i.e., a station that now broadcasts analog signals on channel 7, which operates from 174 to 180 megahertz, uses the same bandwidth to broadcast digital signals.

      Powerful UHF transmitters can achieve beyond-the-horizon transmission ranges by scattering transmitted energy off layers of the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere, where most clouds and weather systems are contained). Unlike signals in the longer-wavelength HF band, for which layers in the atmosphere appear as relatively smooth reflective surfaces, signals in the shorter-wavelength UHF band reflect off small irregularities in the atmospheric layers as if these irregularities were randomly oriented granular reflectors. The reflectors disperse the propagating UHF signal in many directions, so that only a fraction of the transmitted signal power may reach the receiver. In addition, owing to unpredictable disturbances in atmospheric conditions, significant fading can occur over a given path, at a given time, and at a given radio frequency. For this reason a tropospheric scatter relay typically uses combinations of space, time, and frequency diversity techniques. A typical relay links two large terminals across spans of 320 to 480 km (200 to 300 miles) and carries up to 100 voice channels.

SHF-EHF
 The superhigh frequency to extremely high frequency (SHF-EHF) bands are in the centimetre to millimetre wavelength range, which extends from 3 gigahertz to 300 gigahertz. Typical allocated bandwidths in the SHF band range from 30 megahertz to 300 megahertz—bandwidths that permit high-speed digital communications (up to 1 gigabit per second). In addition to degradation from fading and from atmospheric attenuation, radio waves in the SHF-EHF band undergo high penetration losses as they propagate through the exterior walls of buildings. Because of the severe atmospheric attenuation, and in particular rainfall scattering losses, the EHF band is currently the least populated radio band for terrestrial communication. However, it has been used for intersatellite communication and satellite (satellite communication) radionavigation—applications in which atmospheric attenuation is not a factor.

Line-of-sight microwave links
      A line-of-sight microwave link uses highly directional transmitter and receiver antennas to communicate via a narrowly focused radio beam. The transmission path of a line-of-sight microwave link can be established between two land-based antennas, between a land-based antenna and a satellite-based antenna, or between two satellite antennas. Broadband line-of-sight links operate at frequencies between 1 and 25 gigahertz (the centimetre wavelength band) and can have transmission bandwidths approaching 600 megahertz. In the United States, line-of-sight microwave links are used for military communications, studio feeds for broadcast and cable television, and common carrier trunks for inter-urban telephone traffic. A typical long-distance, high-capacity digital microwave radio relay system links two points 2,500 km apart by using a combination of nine terrestrial and satellite repeaters. Each repeater operates at 4 gigahertz, transmitting seven 80-megahertz-bandwidth channels at 200 megabits per second per channel.

      The maximum range of land-based line-of-sight systems is limited by the curvature of the Earth. For this reason, a microwave radio repeater with transmitter and receiver dishes mounted on 30-metre (100-foot) towers has a maximum range of approximately 50 km (30 miles), whereas the maximum range will increase to approximately 80 km (50 miles) if the towers are raised to 90 metres (300 feet). Line-of-sight microwave links are subject to severe fading, owing to refraction of the transmitted beam along the propagation path. Under normal conditions the refractive index of the atmosphere decreases with increasing altitude. This means that upper portions of the beam propagate faster, so that the beam is slightly bent toward the Earth, producing transmission ranges that go beyond the geometric horizon. However, temporary atmospheric disturbances can change the refractive index profile, causing the beam to bend differently and, in severe cases, to miss the receiver antenna entirely. For example, a strong negative vapour gradient over a body of water, with vapour concentration increasing closer to the surface, can cause a bending of the beam toward the Earth that is much sharper than the Earth's curvature—a phenomenon called ducting.

Satellite links
      A telecommunications satellite is a sophisticated space-based cluster of radio repeaters, called transponders, that link terrestrial radio transmitters to terrestrial radio receivers through an uplink (a link from terrestrial transmitter to satellite receiver) and a downlink (a link from satellite transmitter to terrestrial receiver). Most telecommunications satellites have been placed in geostationary orbit (GEO), a circular orbit 35,785 km (22,235 miles) above the Earth in which the period of their revolution around the Earth equals the period of the Earth's rotation. Remaining thus fixed above one point on the Earth's surface (in virtually all cases, above the Equator), GEO satellites can view a stationary patch covering more than one-third of the globe. By virtue of such a wide area of coverage, GEO satellites can deliver a variety of telecommunications services, such as long-distance point-to-point transmission, wide area broadcasting (from a single transmitter to multiple receivers), or wide area report-back services (from multiple transmitters to a single receiver). Modern GEO satellites have several microwave transmitter and receiver antennas, which allow a single satellite to form a combination of large area-of-coverage beams for broadcasting and small area-of-coverage “spot beams” for point-to-point communications. By switching between these beams upon request—a process known as demand assigned multiple access (DAMA)—multibeam satellites can link widely distributed mobile and fixed users that cannot be linked economically by optical fibre cables or earthbound radio relays.

      The first Earth terminals were very large installations, having microwave transmitting and receiving antennas that measured 30 or more metres in diameter. Today thousands of cable operators obtain television, radio, and other program feeds from GEO broadcast satellites through a 1.5- to 3-metre (5- to 10-foot) antenna dish mounted on a tower or roof. In the very small aperture terminal (VSAT) network, used mainly for commercial data communication, GEO satellites serve as the central relay between a terrestrial hub and a wide-area network of small and inexpensive terrestrial transceivers with dish antennas as small as 40 cm (16 inches) in diameter. Other satellite systems provide global positioning, navigation, and messaging services to small hand-held devices or to mobile receivers in automobiles, trucks, railroad trains, merchant ships, pleasure boats, and aircraft.

 The atmospheric attenuation for radio transmission between an Earth terminal and a GEO satellite is similar to what is observed for attenuation at sea level, especially for low elevation angles. At microwave frequencies, external noise is caused principally by solar radiation and atmospheric reradiation, so that received noise is at its lowest when an earthbound antenna is pointed at a dark patch of sky and at its highest when the antenna is pointed at the Sun.

      A typical modern GEO satellite, such as the Intelsat series, has more than a hundred separate microwave transponders that service a number of simultaneous users based on a time-division multiple access (TDMA) protocol. (The principles of TDMA are described in telecommunication: Multiple access (telecommunication).) Each transponder consists of a receiver tuned to a specific channel in the uplink frequency band, a frequency shifter to lower the received microwave signals to a channel in the downlink band, and a power amplifier to produce an adequate transmitting power. A single transponder operates within a 36-megahertz bandwidth and is assigned one of many functions, including voice telephony (at 400 two-way voice channels per transponder), data communication (at transmission rates of 120 megabits per second or higher), television and FM radio broadcasting, and VSAT service.

      Many GEO satellites have been designed to operate in the so-called C band, which employs uplink/downlink frequencies of 6/4 gigahertz, or in the Ku band, in which uplink/downlink frequencies are in the range of 14/11 gigahertz. These frequency bands have been selected to exploit spectral “windows,” or regions within the microwave band in which there is low atmospheric attenuation and low external noise. Different microwave frequencies are used for the uplink and downlink in order to minimize leakage of power from on-board transmitters to on-board receivers. Lower frequencies are chosen for the more difficult downlink because atmospheric attenuation is less at lower frequencies.

      Because of the growth in satellite telecommunication since the 1970s, there are very few remaining slots for GEO satellites operating at frequencies below 17 gigahertz. This has led to the development of satellites operating in the Ka band (30/20 gigahertz), despite the higher atmospheric attenuation of signals at these frequencies.

Optical transmission
      Optical communication employs a beam of modulated monochromatic light to carry information from transmitter to receiver. The light spectrum spans a tremendous range in the electromagnetic spectrum, extending from the region of 10 terahertz (104 gigahertz) to 1 million terahertz (109 gigahertz). This frequency range essentially covers the spectrum from far infrared (0.3-mm wavelength) through all visible light to near ultraviolet (0.0003-micrometre wavelength). Propagating at such high frequencies, optical wavelengths are naturally suited for high-rate broadband telecommunication. For example, amplitude modulation of an optical carrier at the near-infrared frequency of 300 terahertz by as little as 1 percent yields a transmission bandwidth that exceeds the highest available coaxial cable bandwidth by a factor of 1,000 or more.

      Practical exploitation of optical media for high-speed telecommunication over large distances requires a strong light beam that is nearly monochromatic, its power narrowly concentrated around a desired optical wavelength. Such a carrier would not have been possible without the invention of the ruby laser, first demonstrated in 1960, which produces intense light with very narrow spectral linewidth by the process of coherent stimulated emission. Today, semiconductor injection-laser diodes are used for high-speed, long-distance optical communication.

      Two kinds of optical channels exist: the unguided free-space channel, where light freely propagates through the atmosphere, and the guided optical fibre channel, where light propagates through an optical waveguide.

The free-space channel
 The loss mechanisms in a free-space optical channel are virtually identical to those in a line-of-sight microwave radio channel. Signals are degraded by beam divergence, atmospheric absorption, and atmospheric scattering. Beam divergence can be minimized by collimating (making parallel) the transmitted light into a coherent narrow beam by using a laser light source for a transmitter. Atmospheric absorption losses can be minimized by choosing transmission wavelengths that lie in one of the low-loss “windows” in the infrared, visible, or ultraviolet region. The atmosphere imposes high absorption losses as the optical wavelength approaches the resonant wavelengths of gaseous constituents such as oxygen (O2), water vapour (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and ozone (O3). On a clear day the attenuation of visible light may be one decibel per kilometre or less, but significant scattering losses can be caused by any variability in atmospheric conditions, such as haze, fog, rain, or airborne dust.

      The high sensitivity of optical signals to atmospheric conditions has hindered development of free-space optical links for outdoor environments. A simple and familiar example of an indoor free-space optical transmitter is the handheld infrared remote control for television and high-fidelity audio systems. Free-space optical systems also are quite common in measurement and remote sensing applications, such as optical range-finding and velocity determination, industrial quality control, and laser altimetry radar (known as LIDAR).

Optical fibre channels
      In contrast to wire transmission, in which an electric current flows through a copper conductor, in optical fibre transmission an electromagnetic (optical) field propagates through a fibre made of a nonconducting dielectric. Because of its high bandwidth, low attenuation, interference immunity, low cost, and light weight, optical fibre is becoming the medium of choice for fixed, high-speed digital telecommunications links. Optical fibre cables (cable) are supplanting copper wire cables in both long-distance applications, such as the feeder and trunk portions of telephone and cable television loops, and short-distance applications, such as local area networks (local area network) (LANs) for computers and home distribution of telephone, television, and data services. For example, the standard Bellcore OC-48 optical cable, used for trunking of digitized data, voice, and video signals, operates at a transmission rate of up to 2.4 gigabits (2.4 billion binary digits) per second per fibre. This is a rate sufficient to transmit the text in all the volumes of the printed Encyclopædia Britannica (2 gigabits of binary data) in less than one second.

      An optical fibre communications link consists of the following elements: an electro-optical transmitter, which converts analog or digital information into a modulated beam of light; a light-carrying fibre, which spans the transmission path; and an optoelectronic receiver, which converts detected light into an electric current. For long-distance links (greater than 30 km, or 20 miles), regenerative repeaters are usually required to offset the attenuation of signal power. In the past, hybrid optical-electronic repeaters commonly were employed; these featured an optoelectronic receiver, electronic signal processing, and an electro-optical transmitter for regenerating the signal. Today, erbium-doped optical amplifiers are employed as efficient all-optical repeaters.

Electro-optical transmitters
      The efficiency of an electro-optical transmitter is determined by many factors, but the most important are the following: spectral linewidth, which is the width of the carrier spectrum and is zero for an ideal monochromatic light source; insertion loss, which is the amount of transmitted energy that does not couple into the fibre; transmitter lifetime; and maximum operating bit rate.

      Two kinds of electro-optical transmitters are commonly used in optical fibre links—the light-emitting diode (LED) and the semiconductor laser. The LED is a broad-linewidth light source that is used for medium-speed, short-span links in which dispersion of the light beam over distance is not a major problem. The LED is lower in cost and has a longer lifetime than the semiconductor laser. However, the semiconductor laser couples its light output to the optical fibre much more efficiently than the LED, making it more suitable for longer spans, and it also has a faster “rise” time, allowing higher data transmission rates. Laser diodes are available that operate at wavelengths in the proximity of 0.85, 1.3, and 1.5 micrometre and have spectral linewidths of less than 0.003 micrometre. They are capable of transmitting at over 10 gigabits per second. LEDs capable of operating over a broader range of carrier wavelengths exist, but they generally have higher insertion losses and linewidths exceeding 0.035 micrometre.

Optoelectronic receivers
      The two most common kinds of optoelectronic receivers for optical links are the positive-intrinsic-negative (PIN) photodiode and the avalanche photodiode (APD). These optical receivers extract the baseband signal from a modulated optical carrier signal by converting incident optical power into electric current. The PIN photodiode has low gain but very fast response; the APD has high gain but slower response.

Optical fibres
 An optical fibre consists of a transparent core sheathed by a transparent cladding and by an opaque plastic protective coating. The core and the cladding are dielectrics with different indexes of refraction, the cladding having a lower index than the core. According to a standard adopted by the International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee (CCITT), the outer diameter of a high-performance clad fibre is approximately 125 micrometres, while the core diameter typically ranges from 8 to 50 micrometres. The abrupt change in refractive index between the core and the cladding makes the inside of the core-to-cladding interface highly reflective to light rays that graze the interface. The fibre therefore acts like a tubular mirror, confining most of the propagating rays of light to the interior of the core.

      The bandwidth of an optical fibre is limited by a phenomenon known as multimode dispersion, which is described as follows. Different reflection angles within the fibre core create different propagation paths for the light rays. Rays that travel nearest to the axis of the core propagate by what is called the zeroth order mode; other light rays propagate by higher-order modes. It is the simultaneous presence of many modes of propagation within a single fibre that creates multimode dispersion. Multimode dispersion causes a signal of uniform transmitted intensity to arrive at the far end of the fibre in a complicated spatial “interference pattern,” and this pattern in turn can translate into pulse “spreading” or “smearing” and intersymbol interference at the optoelectronic receiver output. Pulse spreading worsens in longer fibres.

      When the index of refraction is constant within the core, the fibre is called a stepped-index (SI) fibre. Graded-index (GI) fibre reduces multimode dispersion by grading the refractive index of the core so that it smoothly tapers between the core centre and the cladding. Another type of fibre, known as single-mode (SM) fibre, eliminates multimode dispersion by reducing the diameter of the core to a point at which it passes only light rays of the zeroth order mode. Typical SM core diameters are 10 micrometres or less, while standard SI core diameters are in the range of 50 micrometres. Single-mode fibres have become the dominant medium in long-distance optical fibre links.

      Other important causes of signal distortion in optical fibres are material dispersion and waveguide dispersion. Material dispersion is a phenomenon in which different optical wavelengths propagate at different velocities, depending on the refractive index of the material used in the fibre core. Waveguide dispersion depends not on the material of the fibre core but on its diameter; it too causes different wavelengths to propagate at different velocities. As is the case in multimode dispersion, described above, material and waveguide dispersion cause spreading of the received light pulses and can lead to intersymbol interference.

      Since a transmitted signal always contains components at different wavelengths, material dispersion and waveguide dispersion are problems that affect not only SI and GI fibres but also SM fibres. For SM fibres, however, there exists a transmission wavelength at which the material dispersion exactly cancels the waveguide dispersion. This “zero dispersion” wavelength can be adjusted by modifying the material composition (and hence the refractive index) as well as the diameter of the fibre core. In this way SM fibres are designed to exhibit their zero dispersion wavelength near the intended optical carrier wavelength. For a CCITT standard SM fibre with an 8-micrometre core, the zero dispersion wavelength occurs near the 1.3-micrometre wavelength of certain laser diodes. Other SM fibres have been developed with a zero dispersion wavelength of 1.55 micrometres.

      Noise in an optical fibre link is introduced by the photoelectric conversion process at the receiver. Losses in signal power are primarily caused by radiation of light energy to the cladding as well as absorption of light energy by silica and impurities in the fibre core.

      The production process for manufacturing optical fibre is extremely demanding, requiring very close tolerances on core and cladding thickness. Although the manufacture of low-grade fibre from transparent polymer materials is not uncommon, most high-performance optical fibres are made of fused silica glass. The refractive index of either the core or the cladding is modified during the manufacturing process by diluting pure silica glass with fluorine or germanium in a process known as doping (dopant). (The manufacturing process itself is described in industrial glass: Glass forming: Optical fibres (industrial glass).) Several fibres can be bundled into a common sheath around a central strengthening member to form a fibre-optic cable. For fibre cables that must operate in adverse environments—for instance, undersea cables (undersea cable)—other layers of strengthening and protecting materials may be added. These layers may include single-fibre buffer tubes, textile binder tape, moisture barrier sheathing, corrugated steel tape, and impact-resistant plastic jackets.

Alfred O. Hero III

Additional Reading
An interesting historical perspective on the development of telecommunications media and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is discussed in a special issue of IEEE Communications Magazine, vol. 22, no. 5 (May 1984). Sybil P. Parker (ed.), Communications Source Book (1988), is an elementary overview of many aspects of communication systems and media. Roger L. Freeman, Reference Manual for Telecommunications Engineering, 2nd ed. (1993), comprehensively discusses all types of telecommunications media and standards.The physics of wave propagation and scattering is discussed in Leopold B. Felsen and Nathan Marcuvitz, Radiation and Scattering of Waves (1972, reissued 1994). George Jacobs and Theodore J. Cohen, The Shortwave Propagation Handbook, 2nd ed. (1982), is a nontechnical discussion of high-frequency radio propagation. Lucien Boithias, Radio Wave Propagation, rev. and updated ed. (1987; originally published in French, 2nd ed., 1983), discusses the general principles underlying the propagation of waves in the radio spectrum from VLF to EHF (very low frequency to extremely high frequency). H.L. Bertoni et al., “UHF Propagation Prediction for Wireless Personal Communications,” Proceedings of the IEEE, 82:1333–59 (September 1994), is an in-depth discussion of channel characteristics for mobile radio. Louis J. Ippolito, Jr., Radiowave Propagation in Satellite Communications (1986), deals with microwave propagation relevant to satellite communications.Historical coverage of satellite communications systems and equipment is provided in J.R. Pierce, The Beginnings of Satellite Communications (1968). Heather E. Hudson, Communication Satellites: Their Development and Impact (1990), is an excellent nontechnical history. Walter L. Morgan and Gary D. Gordon, Communications Satellite Handbook (1989), focuses on technology. David W.E. Rees, Satellite Communications: The First Quarter Century of Service (1990), emphasizes early international telecommunications.John Gowar, Optical Communications Systems, 2nd ed. (1993), thoroughly discusses optical communications media, including free space and fibre. Richard D. Hudson, Jr., Infrared System Engineering (1969), discusses the applications of free space optical channels, including infrared communication systems. Raymond M. Measures (ed.), Laser Remote Sensing: Fundamentals and Applications (1984, reissued 1992), characterizes free space optical channels in the context of remote sensing. A unified treatment of microwave and optical communications can be found in A. David Olver, Microwave and Optical Transmission (1992). Govind P. Agrawal, Fiber-Optic Communication Systems (1992), is an excellent presentation of optical fibre communications, including erbium-doped optical amplifiers. A thorough treatment of erbium-doped amplifiers for repeaterless long-distance optical communications is Emmanuel Desurvire, Erbium-Doped Amplifiers: Principles and Applications (1994).Alfred O. Hero III

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Universalium. 2010.

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