Bidirectional OTDR Testing

Oct. 27, 2021
Learn all about bidirectional OTDR testing. Learn how it works, its benefits & drawbacks, and various testing methods and tools you can use!

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Bidirectional OTDR Testing

What is Bidirectional OTDR Testing?

An inherent benefit of OTDR testing is that it requires access to only one end of the fiber optic cable to perform. Because the distance and attenuation measurements are based on optical light backscattering and Fresnel reflection principles, scattered and reflected light photons can be analyzed at the same location where the test signal originated. 

To minimize the impact of errors and uncertainty that can accompany conventional unidirectional testing, bidirectional OTDR testing methods have been developed to enhance the accuracy and precision of this important test methodology.  As the name implies, bidirectional OTDR testing is a method of optical fiber characterization and loss testing that is performed from both ends of the fiber run.

How a Bidirectional Test Works 

In addition to the OTDR equipment and fiber optic cable under test, a basic OTDR test configuration also includes a launch cable and a receive cable. The launch cable connects the OTDR test port to the fiber run under test and is referred to as a “pulse suppressor”, since it serves to stabilize the initial light pulse from the OTDR before it enters the tested cable. The receive cable connects at the far end of the run and provides a mated fiber connection/junction, with an appropriate run-out segment, allowing the losses of the terminating connector to be assessed. 

The existence of these launch and receive cables creates a symmetrical configuration at both ends of the run. In bidirectional OTDR testing, the same fiber characteristics are measured again, using the same (or an additional) OTDR at the opposite end of the run and averaging or combining the results with those obtained in the initial direction.

Bidirectional fiber testing can often produce more accurate results than unidirectional testing, based on the test methodology itself. Since Rayleigh backscattering is used to quantify attenuation and signal loss events, the backscatter coefficient of the fiber must be known and programmed into the OTDR. These coefficients may vary from fiber to fiber, or even within a single fiber. The resulting effect can be misinterpreted as excess signal attenuation or even negative attenuation (gain) at junctions between sections in a fiber run. This variation can be compensated for by averaging the results for end to end loss and individual loss at each connection or splice, using a bidirectional OTDR test.

Benefits of Bidirectional OTDR Testing

If the transition at a fiber junction results in a fiber with a lower backscatter coefficient transitioning to a fiber with higher coefficient, the result could be a masking of the actual loss at the interface or splice. This masking or distorting effect is also known as a gainer since the amount of observed backscattering will be higher after the loss event than before it. Conversely, if the transition is from a higher backscatter coefficient segment to a lower one, the resulting signature might incorrectly show a higher loss event at this same location. Averaging the values obtained from opposite sides can provide a more accurate quantification of loss. 

Actual fiber junction loss revealed through bidirectional OTDR test

Another benefit of bidirectional optical fiber testing is the mitigation of dead zones, where the initial Fresnel reflection from an event, such as a splice or connector, has temporarily blinded the OTDR detector rendering it unable to see reflections and backscatter from additional events directly behind the splice or connector. Since the effect of dead zones tend to occur more frequently closer to the OTDR measuring again from the opposite direction will allow an accurate assessment for the portion of cable that was included/masked in a dead zone during the first measurement.

Long-haul fiber optic cable runs, such as terrestrial networks between cities and countries, require powerful OTDRs with a higher dynamic range in order to accurately assess the fiber span unidirectionally. Using bidirectional fiber testing such as bidirectional OTDR is an excellent way to improve the test integrity over these very long distances.

By combining OTDR measurements obtained from each end, the impact of test pulse degradation at the farthest points from each OTDR can be minimized. Rather than averaging the results, another analysis method used for long-haul applications involves utilizing the OTDR acquisition from each end of a cable run for those sections closer to each end, then creating a composite OTDR trace, where the two acquisitions effectively meet in the middle of the link.

Bidirectional OTDR Testing Drawbacks

Despite the advantages in accuracy and range to be garnered through bidirectional OTDR testing, the additional complexity that can accompany this method needs to be considered. In a basic bidirectional test configuration using a single OTDR device, the OTDR must be transported from one end of the fiber run to the other to complete the testing.

Even when duplicate OTDRs are utilized, bidirectional testing can add additional set-up time, transportation costs and analysis to the OTDR test process.

Bidirectional OTDR testing may improve the quality and accuracy of measurement data overall, but it is important to recognize that bidirectional fiber testing will not compensate for setup issues such as unclean connections, incorrect test parameters 0r excessive noise in the OTDR trace. Since bidirectional OTDR requires a duplication of tests, there are more opportunities for errors and inconsistencies.

Bidirectional OTDR Testing Methods

As the advantages and challenges involved in bidirectional OTDR have emerged over the years, creative solutions, in the form of new and innovative test methods, have been developed. Benefits in accuracy and range may be seen from many of these methods, along with improved efficiency and consistency.

Bidirectional OTDR Test Tools

There are currently a wide variety of bidirectional OTDR test tools available to facilitate efficient and versatile fiber testing. OTDR and multi-use test devices can be easily configured for automated bidirectional OTDR and other bidirectional fiber testing at the push of a button. Test instruments positioned at either end of the fiber run can communicate and share data nearly instantaneously via Ethernet, WiFi or mobile hotspots. These devices also include on-board report generation for convenience and speed.

Integrated test solutions can perform bidirectional fiber tests using multiple wavelengths from a test single port to deliver more efficient test workflow, saving precious time during the installation and acceptance testing phase, as well as streamlining troubleshooting and maintenance. A high level of accuracy, repeatability, and automation provides a reliable solution for many fiber qualification and characterization applications.

With the advent of OTDR, our ability to see inside thousands of miles of microscopic fiber has catapulted fiber optic communications technology to unprecedented heights. Bidirectional OTDR once represented a calculated trade-off between data integrity and convenience. New and improved bidirectional OTDR testing methods and devices have changed the conversation, providing additional capabilities and time-saving features that make precision fiber characterization the new industry standard.

Learn more about bidirectional OTDR testing from VIAVI today!

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