6: ORL & Back Reflection Guide

Written by Bruce Robertson, 97. Reviewed Dec 2005. © Kingfisher International

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Fiber Optic ORL Test Overview

Optical Return Loss (ORL) and Back Reflection tend to be of concern in the following fiber optic applications:

What is Back Reflection?

The definition of back reflection is the % of power reflected back from a particular point in a light path. It is usually expressed as a negative dB figure.

What is Return Loss?

Return loss is the % of total reverse power in relation to total forward power at a particular point (eg at the measurement instrument). This is probably not the arithmetic sum of all the accumulated individual or distributed back reflections, since some back reflections have probably been attenuated before reaching this point. For example if a point has a back reflection of -20 dB, and the fiber attenuation to that point is 10 dB, then the measured return loss contribution due to that point will be 30 dB.

The difference between return loss and back reflection

The difference between return loss and back reflection can be subtle but is exact. Confusion here tends to be due to a lack of understanding.

Return loss is usually displayed on test instruments as a -ve figure. This is consistent with normal optical loss, which is also displayed as a -ve figure. This generally avoids confusion, even though some scientific people argue that it’s technically inconsistent.

The effects of reflected light tend to be:

The effects can be very polarisation sensitive. So to perform proper characterization, some sort of polarisation controller may be useful. This is particularly the case with laser problems.
Reflections are caused by:

The most common glass/air interface is a connector end or opto-electric device. In the case of a mated connector with a small air gap, there are two glass / air interfaces, resulting in roughly twice the reflection, eg approximately 12 dB. We have seen systems with high connector density, where the return loss was about 6 dB, which was sufficient to disrupt transmission from a simple 1 MHz analogue signal produced by a LED.

The effect of joining fibers depend on the splicing method. Fusion splicing tends to produce negligible reflections. However mechanical splices can result in high reflection levels, depending on the exact splicing and method used. This is one of many reasons why a fusion splicer is the preferred method of jointing.

DFB lasers are particularly susceptible to reflections, and may require an ORL level as low as -50 dB to operate to specification. Since the intrinsic link backscatter is generally higher than this, an isolator is positioned near the laser, or is built into the laser package, to reduce the reflection level seen by the laser.

In many cases where reflection is an issue, the limits for the installed system and the transmitters may be different. The cable system specification may be in the region of -30 dB, to prevent excessive receiver noise caused by the signal bouncing around the link. The transmitter specification may be in the region of -50 dB, to prevent spurious operation of the laser.

Reflections caused by material scattering may have a different effect to reflections caused by a point event. A point reflection will cause a sudden impulse of reflected light, whereas backscattered light is a very low level distributed reflection. Therefore in some critical applications, connector reflections of -60 dB might be specified in a link with -32 dB inherent backscatter, to reduce the effect of sudden impulse reflections.

ORL Measurement

It is convenient to measure return loss with a return loss meter. Back reflections of individual components can sometimes be measured with an OTDR, however this is generally of limited accuracy, and in some situations the back reflections may cause saturation of the instrument input amplifier, making measurement impossible. So return loss meters are commonly used for for acceptance work.

Some instruments can measure return loss each end of a system while simultaneously performing a two-way attenuation measurement, which achieves a comprehensive analysis with no extra effort at all.

Better ORL meters have a couple of standard features which may be required for a particular method:

Connector return loss measurement challenges commonly depend on the connector end polish. A PC polish connector with a performance of around -40 dB is a lot easier to measure than an APC connector, which is normally unmeasurably low.

Due to the intrinsic Rayleigh scattering mentioned earlier, a return loss meter has limited sensitivity due to the practical requirement of having a length of fiber connected to it. A return loss meter with -70 dB sensitivity would require a total fiber length of less than 1 metre. It is possible to make some allowance for this, however it also assumes that the value of stray reflected light is constant, which it often is not.

The amount of intrinsic link back-reflection can be approximated to:

Link length Return loss
10 meters 60 dB
100 meters 50 dB
1Km 40 dB
Infinite 32 dB

Another problem with very sensitive measurements, is that low levels of stray ambient light can leak in and create a false reading.

An isolator is a somewhat new class of component, and is now a fairly cheap device. However historically engineers have spent a lot of effort trying to prevent reflections, since isolators have not been a practical option until recently. There are now inexpensive transmitters available with built-in isolators, thus making the rest of the system less critical and easier to install and maintain.

Solutions to Back Reflections

To reduce back reflections:

Practical use of return loss meters