Fiber Optic Cable Types—Complete Guide

By Greg Martinez / October 9, 2020
two fiber optic cables

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As science unearths new and better ways to do things with technology, it’s only logical to do things differently.

Let’s take copper wire for instance. It’s the go-to means of signal transmission.

Where such wires used to be irreplaceable, today they’re being switched out for fiber optic cable types that can do so much more, both in terms of reliability as well as in quality of signal transmission.

It’s easy to see why this is happening. On the face of it, fiber optic cables have an incredible number of advantages over copper wire signal transmission.

These include:

  • Speed: Fiber optic cables operate at extremely high speeds; some even reaching gigabits.
  • Distance: Whereas distances over which signals are transmitted may vary with copper wire, fiber optic cables don’t have this issue. Yes, there’s a limit to the distance that fiber optic cables can transmit signals at better quality, but that limit is far larger than what copper wires can cover.
  • Bandwidth: Fiber optic cables typically have a larger bandwidth carrying capacity.
  • Maintenance: Fiber optic cables don’t cost as much to maintain.
  • Resistance: Fiber optic cables offer greater resistance to bothersome technological interference such as electromagnetic noise from motors, radios, nearby cables, and so on.

These are just some of the main reasons why you’re more likely to find a huge selection of fiber optic cable types in the market than you would copper HDMI cables.

They’re also the reason you need to learn about the different fiber optic cable types to know exactly which type is suitable for what purpose around the home or office.

How Fiber Optic Cables Work

The truth is that fiber optic cables are quite similar to the copper wire system they replace.

The biggest difference is that, instead of using electronic pulses, fiber optic cables use light pulses to transmit information.

To understand just how different these two signal transmission systems are, you need to look at fiber optic cables’ components.

For fiber optic cable systems to work, there needs to be a transmitter at one end. This is the origin of the information being transmitted. This transmitter is designed to accept coded information from copper wires.

Its job is to process and translate that information into coded light pulses. There’s an injection-laser diode (ILD), or a light-emitting diode (LED) used to generate light pulses.

A lens then funnels the light pulses through the fiber optic cables. This near-infrared light can be transmitted at 1,300nm for longer distances and 850nm for shorter distances, or 1,300nm for shorter distances and 1,500nm for longer distances.

The above stats depend on which type of fiber optic cable you’re using —which we discuss below.

What Are the Different Fiber Optic Cable Types?

There are three main types of fiber optic cables:

  • Single mode
  • Multimode
  • Plastic optical fiber (POF)

You’ll most likely come across the single mode and multimode type, instead of the plastic optical fiber type, because of application and popularity.

That being said, let’s take a closer look at each type.

Single Mode Fiber Optic Cables

1M OS2 LC SC Fiber Patch Cable

Single Mode fiber optic cables have a small diametric core (8.3 to 10 microns), allowing for a single light path.

While this might sound like a disadvantage, it’s in fact advantageous since this small core combined with the single light wave pretty much eliminates any kind of distortion that might come about thanks to overlapping light pulses.

This means that this type of fiber optic cable offers the least signal attenuation (reduction in strength).

This particular feature also means that the number of light reflections that can be created as the light passes through the fiber optic cable’s core is greatly reduced, lowering the attenuation and giving this type of cable the ability to transmit signals further, as well as at the highest possible speeds.

The Main Types of Single Mode Fiber Optic Cables

There are two main categories of single mode fiber optic cables:

  • OS1: This type of single mode fiber optic cable is a tight, buffered cable designed specifically for indoor applications. You’ll often find this type of fiber optic cable on campuses or in data centers where the cable’s maximum distance will cover around 10KM (32,000 feet).
  • OS2: This type of fiber optic cable, on the other hand, is a loose tube cable that’s designed to be used in outdoor settings, such as underground or on the streets. The maximum distance that can be covered using this cable is 200 KM (656,000 feet).

Common Applications for Single Mode Fiber Optic Cables

The most common application for single mode cables includes long-distance networking, where high-bandwidth signal transmission capabilities are necessary.

This means institutions such as telcos, colleges, cable TV companies, data Centers, and universities all need this type of cable.

Multimode Fiber Optic Cable

3 Meter Multimode Duplex Fiber Optic Cable

Multimode fiber optic cables, on the other hand, have a much larger diametric core (50 to 100 microns), which allows for multiple modes of light to get through.

This means an increased number of light reflections can be created as it passes through the core.

That in itself increases the ability of this type of fiber optic cable to transmit more data at any given time.

Unfortunately, it also causes a high rate of dispersion and attenuation, which means that this type of fiber optic cable tends to lose the signal quality over long distances.

The Main Types of Multimode Fiber Optic Cables

There are five main types of multimode fiber optic cables in the market today:

  • OM1: With a core size of 62.5 µm, this type of multimode fiber optic cable typically has an orange jacket. It’s designed to support up to 10 gigabit Ethernet at up to 33 meters of length. This type of cable typically uses an LED light source and is often used for 100 Megabit Ethernet applications.
  • OM2: Quite similar to OM1, OM2 fiber optic cables come in an orange jacket and use an LED light source. The biggest difference here is that it has a smaller core size of 50 µm. With the capability to support up to 10 Gigabit Ethernet at around 82 meters, this type of cable is typically used for 1 Gigabit Ethernet applications.
  • OM3: Typically found in an aqua colored jacket, this type of multimode fiber optic cable also has a core size of 50 µm. The biggest differentiator here is that it’s designed for laser-based equipment. It typically supports 10 Gigabit Ethernet at an impressive 300 meters’ length. It is, however, capable of supporting 40 – 100 Gigabit Ethernet up to about 100 meters. However, only 10 Gigabit Ethernet is commonly used.
  • OM4: Quite compatible with OM3, OM4 fiber optic cables even share the same aqua colored jacket as OM3s. Designed for use with VSCEL laser transmission, this cable allows for 10 Gigabits with distances of up to 550 meters. It can also run 40 – 100 Gigabit Ethernet over 150 meters.
  • OM5: Commonly known as wideband multimode fiber (WBMMF), this is the newest type of multimode fiber optic cable. Not only is it compatible with OM3, but it also has the same core size (50 µm). It comes in a lime green jacket and is designed to support speeds of up to 28 Gigabits per channel.

Common Applications of Multimode Fiber Optic Cables

The most common applications for multimode fiber optic cables include short-distance data and audio or video applications such as in LANs (Local Area Networks).

What About Plastic Optical Fibers?

The third (not so popular) fiber optic type is Plastic Optical Fibers (POF).

While this type of fiber optic cable has been touted as a workable alternative for glass when it comes to wired communication applications, it just hasn’t taken off with most service providers.

That being said, plastic optical fibers have seen a great deal of success in the aircraft, industrial, and automotive sectors.

POF provides you with the same advantages as any other fiber optic cable (resistance to noise, greater capacity, improved security, and so on).

With a core area of 1 mm, this type of fiber optic cable is typically larger than its counterparts that are made with glass. It’s also quite simple to handle, which means you don’t need complicated tools and skills.

The biggest disadvantage is that it doesn’t offer the same kind of reach that its counterparts do. It typically tops off at around 150 Mbps over 50 meters in Ethernet, making it much slower than the alternatives. That is the main reason why this type of fiber optic cable isn’t quite as popular as the rest.