Wavelength-division multiplexing

In fiber-optic communications, wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) is a technology which multiplexes a number of optical carrier signals onto a single optical fiber by using different wavelengths (i.e., colors) of laser light. This technique enables bidirectional communications over one strand of fiber, as well as multiplication of capacity. The term wavelength-division multiplexing is commonly applied to an optical carrier, which is typically described by its wavelength, whereas frequency-division multiplexing typically applies to a radio carrier which is more often described by frequency. This is purely conventional because wavelength and frequency communicate the same information.

WDM systems

A WDM system uses a multiplexer at the transmitter to join the several signals together, and a demultiplexer at the receiver to split them apart. With the right type of fiber it is possible to have a device that does both simultaneously, and can function as an optical add-drop multiplexer. The optical filtering devices used have conventionally been etalons (stable solid-state single  frequency Fabry–Pérot interferometers in the form of thin-film-coated optical glass).

As there are three different WDM types, whereof one is called “WDM”, the notation “xWDM” is normally used when discussing the technology as such.

WDM systems are popular with telecommunications companiesbecause they allow them to expand the capacity of the network without laying more fiber. By using WDM and optical amplifiers, they can accommodate several generations of technology development in their optical infrastructure without having to overhaul the backbone network. Capacity of a given link can be expanded simply by upgrading the multiplexers and demultiplexers at each end.


WDM systems are divided into three different wavelength patterns,

  • normal (WDM),
  • coarse (CWDM)
  • dense (DWDM).


Normal WDM (sometimes called BWDM) uses the two normal wavelengths 1310 and 1550 on one fiber. Coarse WDM provides up to 16 channels across multiple transmission windows of silica fibers. Dense wavelength division multiplexing(DWDM) uses the C-Band (1530 nm-1565 nm) transmission window but with denser channel spacing. Channel plans vary, but a typical DWDM system would use 40 channels at 100 GHz spacing or 80 channels with 50 GHz spacing. Some technologies are capable of 12.5 GHz spacing (sometimes called ultra dense WDM). New amplification options (Raman amplification) enable the extension of the usable wavelengths to the L-band (1565 nm-1625 nm), more or less doubling these numbers.

Coarse wavelength division multiplexing (CWDM) in contrast to DWDM uses increased channel spacing to allow less sophisticated and thus cheaper transceiver designs. To provide 16 channels on a single fiber CWDM uses the entire frequency band spanning the second and third transmission window (1310/1550 nm respectively) including both windows (minimum dispersion window and minimum attenuation window) but also the critical area where OH scattering may occur, recommending the use of OH-free silica fibers in case the wavelengths between second and third transmission windows are to be used. Avoiding this region, the channels 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 61 remain and these are the most commonly used. With OS2 fibers the water peak problem is overcome, and all possible 18 channels can be used.

WDM, DWDM and CWDM are based on the same concept of using multiple wavelengths of light on a single fiber, but differ in the spacing of the wavelengths, number of channels, and the ability to amplify the multiplexed signals in the optical space. EDFA provide an efficient wideband amplification for the C-band, Raman amplification adds a mechanism for amplification in the L-band. For CWDM, wideband optical amplification is not available, limiting the optical spans to several tens of kilometres.


Dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) refers originally to optical signals multiplexed within the 1550 nm band so as to leverage the capabilities (and cost) of erbium doped fiber amplifiers (EDFAs), which are effective for wavelengths between approximately 1525–1565 nm (C band), or 1570–1610 nm (L band). EDFAs were originally developed to replace SONET/SDHoptical-electrical-optical (OEO) regenerators, which they have made practically obsolete. EDFAs can amplify any optical signal in their operating range, regardless of the modulated bit rate. In terms of multi-wavelength signals, so long as the EDFA has enough pump energy available to it, it can amplify as many optical signals as can be multiplexed into its amplification band (though signal densities are limited by choice of modulation format). EDFAs therefore allow a single-channel optical link to be upgraded in bit rate by replacing only equipment at the ends of the link, while retaining the existing EDFA or series of EDFAs through a long haul route. Furthermore, single-wavelength links using EDFAs can similarly be upgraded to WDM links at reasonable cost. The EDFA’s cost is thus leveraged across as many channels as can be multiplexed into the 1550 nm band.