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Why Use Attenuators?
The ability of any fiber optic system to transmit data ultimately depends on the optical power at the receiver as shown below, which shows the data link bit error rate as a function of optical power at the receiver. (BER is the inverse of signal-to-noise ratio, e.g. high BER means poor signal to noise ratio.) Either too little or too much power will cause high bit error rates.
Too much power, and the receiver amplifier saturates, too little and noise becomes a problem as it interferes with the signal. Fiber optic attenuators are mainly used for adjusting the Optical Power to a desired level. Attenuators are available in models with variable attenuation or with fixed values from a few dB to 20 dB or more.
Does Multimode or Singlemode Systems need attenuators?
Generally, multimode systems do not need attenuators, because multimode sources rarely have enough power output to saturate receivers. Singlemode systems, especially short links, often have too much power and need attenuators.
For a singlemode applications, the most important specification, after the correct loss value, is return loss or reflectance! Choose a type of attenuator with good reflectance specifications and always install the attenuator ( X in the drawing) as shown at the receiver end of the link. This is because it's more convenient to test the receiver power before and after attenuation or while adjusting it with your power meter at the receiver, plus any reflectance will be attenuated on its path back to the source.