Which Is Better for 80km Links? PAM4 or Coherent Technology

A significant portion of Data Center Interconnections (DCIs) and telecom router-to-router interconnections rely on simple ZR or 80km transceivers. The former is mostly based on 100Gbps per 100GHz ITU-T window C-band DWDM transceivers, while the latter is mostly 10G or 100G grey wavelength transceivers. In DWDM links, the laser wavelength is fixed to a specified grid, so that with DWDM Mux and Demux 80 or more wavelength channels can be transported through a single fiber. Grey wavelengths are not fixed to a grid and can be anywhere in the C-Band, limiting capacity to one channel per fiber. DCI links tend to use DWDM because they have to utilize the optical fiber bandwidth as much as possible due to the extremely high-volume traffic between data centers.

Another emerging 80km market is the Multi-System Operator (MSO) or the CATV optical access networks. This need emerges because MSOs are running out of their access optical fibers and they need a transmission technology which would allow them to grow to a very large capacity by using the remaining fibers. For this reason, they need to use DWDM wavelengths to pack more channels in a single fiber.

The majority of the 10G transceivers on 80km links will be replaced by 100G or 400G transceivers in the coming years. For that to happen, there are two modulation techniques to enable 80km 100G transceivers.

  • 50G PAM4 with two wavelengths in a 100G transceiver
  • Coherent 100G dual-polarization Quadrature Phase Shifted Keying (DP-QPSK)

Generally speaking, PAM4 is a low-cost solution but require active optical dispersion compensation (which could be a big headache as well as extra expense to data center operators) and extra optical amplification to compensate for the dispersion compensators. By contrast, Coherent approaches do not need any dispersion compensation and the price is coming down rapidly, especially when the same hardware can be configured to upgrade the transmission data rate per wavelength from 100G to 200G (by using DP-16QAM modulation).

When 400G per wavelength is needed in a DCI network within a 100GHz ITU-T window, coherent technology is the only cost-effective solution, because it will not be feasible for PAM4 to achieve the same high spectral efficiency of 4 bit/sec/Hz.

On the standards front, many standards organizations are adopting coherent technology for 80km transmission. The Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF) will adopt coherent DP-16QAM modulation at up to 60Gbaud (400G per wavelength) in an implementation agreement on 400G ZR. This is initially for DCI applications with a transmission distance of more than 80km, and vendors may come up with various derivatives for longer transmission distances. Separately, CableLabs has published a specification document for 100G DP-QPSK coherent transmission over a distance of 80km aimed at MSO applications. In addition, IEEE802.3ct is in the process of adopting coherent technologies for 100G and 400G per wavelength transmissions over 80km.

Since data rates increase from 100G to 400G and capacity requirements per fiber driven by DCI needs and assisted by volume is driving the cost reductions in coherent optics and incoherent DSPs, we expect the coherent transmission to be the technology of choice for 80km links.

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