A fiber-optic cable, also known as an optical-fiber cable, is an assembly similar to an electrical cable but containing one or more optical fibers that are used to carry light. The optical fiber elements are typically individually coated with plastic layers and contained in a protective tube suitable for the environment where the cable is used. Different types of cable are used for optical communication in different applications, for example long-distance telecommunication or providing a high-speed data connection between different parts of a building.
Optical fiber consists of a core and a cladding layer, selected for total internal reflection due to the difference in the refractive index between the two. In practical fibers, the cladding is usually coated with a layer of acrylate polymer or polyimide. This coating protects the fiber from damage but does not contribute to its optical waveguide properties. Individual coated fibers (or fibers formed into ribbons or bundles) then have a tough resin buffer layer or core tube(s) extruded around them to form the cable core. Several layers of protective sheathing, depending on the application, are added to form the cable. Rigid fiber assemblies sometimes put light-absorbing ("dark") glass between the fibers, to prevent light that leaks out of one fiber from entering another. This reduce crosstalk between the fibers, or reduces flare in fiber bundle imaging applications.
For indoor applications, the jacketed fiber is generally enclosed, together with a bundle of flexible fibrous polymer strength members like aramid (e.g. Twaronor Kevlar), in a lightweight plastic cover to form a simple cable. Each end of the cable may be terminated with a specialized optical fiber connector to allow it to be easily connected and disconnected from transmitting and receiving equipment.
For use in more strenuous environments, a much more robust cable construction is required. In loose-tube construction the fiber is laid helically into semi-rigid tubes, allowing the cable to stretch without stretching the fiber itself. This protects the fiber from tension during laying and due to temperature changes. Loose-tube fiber may be "dry block" or gel-filled. Dry block offers less protection to the fibers than gel-filled, but costs considerably less. Instead of a loose tube, the fiber may be embedded in a heavy polymer jacket, commonly called "tight buffer" construction. Tight buffer cables are offered for a variety of applications, but the two most common are "Breakout" and "Distribution". Breakout cables normally contain a ripcord, two non-conductive dielectric strengthening members (normally a glass rod epoxy), an aramid yarn, and 3 mm buffer tubing with an additional layer of Kevlar surrounding each fiber. The ripcord is a parallel cord of strong yarn that is situated under the jacket(s) of the cable for jacket removal. Distribution cables have an overall Kevlar wrapping, a ripcord, and a 900 micrometer buffer coating surrounding each fiber. These fiber units are commonly bundled with additional steel strength members, again with a helical twist to allow for stretching.
A critical concern in outdoor cabling is to protect the fiber from damage by water. This is accomplished by use of solid barriers such as copper tubes, and water-repellent jelly or water-absorbing powder surrounding the fiber.
Finally, the cable may be armored to protect it from environmental hazards, such as construction work or gnawing animals. Undersea cables are more heavily armored in their near-shore portions to protect them from boat anchors, fishing gear, and even sharks, which may be attracted to the electrical power that is carried to power amplifiers or repeaters in the cable.
Modern cables come in a wide variety of sheathings and armor, designed for applications such as direct burial in trenches, dual use as power lines, installation in conduit, lashing to aerial telephone poles, submarine installation, and insertion in paved streets.
In September 2012, NTT Japan demonstrated a single fiber cable that was able to transfer 1 petabit per second (1015bits/s) over a distance of 50 kilometers.
Although larger cables are available,the highest strand-count single-mode fiber cable commonly manufactured is the 864-count, consisting of 36 ribbons each containing 24 strands of fiber.
In some cases, only a small fraction of the fibers in a cable may actually be in use. Companies can lease or sell the unused fiber to other providers who are looking for service in or through an area. Depending on specific local regulations, companies may overbuild their networks for the specific purpose of having a large network of dark fiber for sale, reducing the overall need for trenching and municipal permitting. Alternatively, they may deliberately under-invest to prevent their rivals from profiting from their investment.
Optical fibers are very strong, but the strength is drastically reduced by unavoidable microscopic surface flaws inherent in the manufacturing process. The initial fiber strength, as well as its change with time, must be considered relative to the stress imposed on the fiber during handling, cabling, and installation for a given set of environmental conditions. There are three basic scenarios that can lead to strength degradation and failure by inducing flaw growth: dynamic fatigue, static fatigues, and zero-stress aging.
Telcordia GR-20, Generic Requirements for Optical Fiber and Optical Fiber Cable, contains reliability and quality criteria to protect optical fiber in all operating conditions. The criteria concentrate on conditions in an outside plant (OSP) environment. For the indoor plant, similar criteria are in Telcordia GR-409, Generic Requirements for Indoor Fiber Optic Cable.