An optical fiber is a flexible, transparent fiber made by drawing glass (silica) or plastic to a diameter slightly thicker than that of a human hair. Optical fibers are used most often as a means to transmit light between the two ends of the fiber and find wide usage in fiber-optic communications, where they permit transmission over longer distances and at higher bandwidths (data rates) than electrical cables. Fibers are used instead of metal wires because signals travel along with them with less loss; in addition, fibers are immune to electromagnetic interference, a problem from which metal wires suffer. Fibers are also used for illumination and imaging and are often wrapped in bundles so they may be used to carry light into, or images out of confined spaces, as in the case of a fiberscope. Specially designed fibers are also used for a variety of other applications, some of them being fiber optic sensors and fiber lasers.
Optical fibers typically include a core surrounded by a transparent cladding material with a lower index of refraction. Light is kept in the core by the phenomenon of total internal reflection which causes the fiber to act as a waveguide. Fibers that support many propagation paths or transverse modes are called multi-mode fibers, while those that support a single mode are called single-mode fibers (SMF). Multi-mode fibers generally have a wider core diameter and are used for short-distance communication links and for applications where high power must be transmitted. Single-mode fibers are used for most communication links longer than 1,000 meters (3,300 ft).
Being able to join optical fibers with low loss is important in fiber optic communication. This is more complex than joining electrical wire or cable and involves careful cleaving of the fibers, precise alignment of the fiber cores, and the coupling of these aligned cores. For applications that demand a permanent connection, a fusion splice is common. In this technique, an electric arc is used to melt the ends of the fibers together. Another common technique is a mechanical splice, where the ends of the fibers are held in contact by mechanical force. Temporary or semi-permanent connections are made by means of specialized optical fiber connectors.
The field of applied science and engineering concerned with the design and application of optical fibers is known as fiber optics. The term was coined by Indian-American physicist Narinder Singh Kapany, who is widely acknowledged as the father of fiber optics.
Optical fiber is used as a medium for telecommunication and computer networking because it is flexible and can be bundled as cables. It is especially advantageous for long-distance communications because infrared light propagates through the fiber with much lower attenuation compared to electrical cables. This allows long distances to be spanned with few repeaters.
The per-channel light signals propagating in the fiber have been modulated at rates as high as 111 gigabits per second (Gbit/s) by NTT, although 10 or 40 Gbit/s is typical in deployed systems. In June 2013, researchers demonstrated the transmission of 400 Gbit/s over a single channel using 4-mode orbital angular momentum multiplexing. Each fiber can carry many independent channels, each using a different wavelength of light (wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM)). The net data rate (data rate without overhead bytes) per fiber is the per-channel data rate reduced by the FEC overhead, multiplied by the number of channels (usually up to 80 in commercial dense WDM systems as of 2008). As of 2011, the record for bandwidth on a single core was 101 Tbit/s (370 channels at 273 Gbit/s each). The record for a multi-core fiber as of January 2013 was 1.05 Pbit/s. In 2009, Bell Labs broke the 100 (Pbit/s)·km barrier (15.5 Tbit/s over a single 7000 km fiber). For short-distance applications, such as a network in an office building (see fiber to the office), fiber-optic cabling can save space in cable ducts. This is because a single fiber can carry much more data than electrical cables such as standard category 5 Ethernet cabling, which typically runs at 100 Mbit/s or 1 Gbit/s speed.
Fiber is also immune to electrical interference; there is no cross-talk between signals in different cables and no pickup of environmental noise. Non-armored fiber cables do not conduct electricity, which makes fiber a good solution for protecting communications equipment in high voltage environments, such as power generation facilities, or metal communication structures prone to lightning strikes, and also preventing problems with ground loops. They can also be used in environments where explosive fumes are present, without danger of ignition. Wiretapping (in this case, fiber tapping) is more difficult compared to electrical connections, and there are concentric dual-core fibers that are said to be tap-proof.
Fibers are often also used for short-distance connections between devices. For example, most high-definition televisions offer a digital audio optical connection. This allows the streaming of audio over light, using the TOSLINK protocol.
Information traveling inside the optical fiber is even immune to electromagnetic pulses generated by nuclear devices.
Copper cable systems use large amounts of copper and have been targeted for metal theft, since the 2000s commodities boom.