The most commonly used optical transmitters are semiconductor devices such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and laser diodes. The difference between LEDs and laser diodes is that LEDs produce incoherent light, while laser diodes produce coherent light. For use in optical communications, semiconductor optical transmitters must be designed to be compact, efficient, and reliable, while operating in an optimal wavelength range, and directly modulated at high frequencies.
In its simplest form, a LED is a forward-biased p-n junction, emitting light through spontaneous emission, a phenomenon referred to as electroluminescence. The emitted light is incoherent with a relatively wide spectral width of 30-60 nm. LED light transmission is also inefficient, with only about 1% of input power, or about 100 microwatts, eventually converted into launched power which has been coupled into the optical fiber. However, due to their relatively simple design, LEDs are very useful for low-cost applications.
Communications LEDs are most commonly made from Indium gallium arsenide phosphide (InGaAsP) or gallium arsenide (GaAs). Because InGaAsP LEDs operate at a longer wavelength than GaAs LEDs (1.3 micrometers vs. 0.81-0.87 micrometers), their output spectrum, while equivalent in energy is wider in wavelength terms by a factor of about 1.7. The large spectrum width of LEDs is subject to higher fiber dispersion, considerably limiting their bit rate-distance product (a common measure of usefulness). LEDs are suitable primarily for local-area-network applications with bit rates of 10-100 Mbit/s and transmission distances of a few kilometers. LEDs have also been developed that use several quantum wells to emit light at different wavelengths over a broad spectrum, and are currently in use for local-area WDM networks.
Today, LEDs have been largely superseded by VCSEL (Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Laser) devices, which offer improved speed, power and spectral...