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Transceiver noise is major limit to maximising optical communication capacity

Why do lab results never live up to simulations when determining the capacity of optical fibre? That’s the question UNLOC researcher, Dr Lidia Galdino (UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering) asked and was surprised to find that equipment used to transmit and receive optical signals, transceivers, are more important than previously thought.

Dr Galdino’s research involves running experiments to find out how to maximise the capacity of optical fibre communications and in turn future proof our broadband infrastructure. These experiments test new techniques for compensating nonlinearities, which ultimately limit the capacity of data transmission over standard optical fibre. A particular strength of the UCL team is a technique known as digital back-propagation (DBP). DBP detects the key properties of the light – amplitude and phase – and then digitally reverses the light’s journey to cancel out known distortions.

In labs around the world, researchers have consistently found that theoretical results greatly overestimate the gains they can achieve compared to practical experiments. Dr Galdino wanted to determine the cause of these discrepancies; essentially, what was everyone doing wrong?

Until now, researchers thought that the random rotation of light polarization in fibre known as polarization mode dispersion (PMD), which cannot be compensated by DBP, was the main reason lab results didn’t return the gains they had hoped for. However, despite this observed degradation in nonlinearity compensation due to PMD, theory still substantially overestimated the gains measured in experiments.

This is because simulations assume ideal transceivers and, consequently, overestimate the performance of nonlinearity compensation techniques.

Realising this, Dr Galdino and her colleagues entered the specific parameters for their transceiver into a simulation. When the results from the lab matched the theory, they confirmed that the issue must be with transceiver noise. This is hugely significant for the design of fibre infrastructure. It is now possible to identify all sources of error in system performance and, therefore, to find techniques to mitigate them.

In a paper published in Optics Express, Dr Galdino demonstrates for the first time that transceiver noise interferes nonlinearly with the signal, meaning it doesn’t increase proportionately as signal power is increased. Before now, researchers underestimated the impact of transceiver noise by thinking that the interference it caused increased at a steady rate as signal power increases.

“We’ve proposed a new approach that correctly accounts for the nonlinear interference between the transceiver noise and signal in an optical fibre link. For the first time, every system designer can easily predict their transmission system performance in seconds,” said PhD student Daniel Semrau, co-author of the study.

Dr Galdino said: “The noise produced by the transceiver comes from digital-to-analogue and analogue-to-digital converters in the transmitter and receiver respectively. This fundamental noise is present even in our state-of-the-art equipment, but in time manufacturers will be able to improve on this. Our research will help systems designers to correctly predict and design next-generation, high-performance optical transmission systems.

 “We should consider transceiver noise as a more fundamental limit to DBP performance than PMD. Importantly we can now precisely estimate the achievable gains by applying DBP in realistic optical systems. We’ve been doing all the right things and DBP is still one of the most powerful ways to maximise capacity or increase transmission distances. Our data shows that applying DBP to real-world systems can double the achievable data rate to 1Tb/s over 1000km – longer than the length of the UK,” she concluded.


For copy of the paper or to speak to the researchers, please contact: Rachel Cronkshaw, UNLOC Communications Officer T: +44 (0)20 3108 4406, E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

On the limits of digital back-propagation in the presence of transceiver noise 
Lidia Galdino, Daniel Semrau, Domaniç Lavery, Gabriel Saavedra, Cristian B. Czegledi, Erik Agrell, Robert I. Killey, and Polina Bayvel
Optics Express, DOI: 10.1364/OE.25.004564


UNLOC is a 5-year £4.8M project funded by the EPSRC to explore theoretically and experimentally the current limits of optical fibre communications technology. Using a holistic, system based approach, UNLOC researchers aim to devise the next generation technologies that can expand the capacity of global fibre infrastructure so that it continues to meet the exponentially growing demands for faster, more reliable transfer of massive amounts of data across networks of varying sizes and extent. The project is led by researchers at UCL and Aston University and is supported by numerous global industry leaders including service and network providers and equipment manufacturers.  | Follow UNLOC on Twitter @UNLOC_programme