Wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) is a method of combining multiple signals on laser beams at various infared (IR) wavelengths for transmission along fiber optic media. Each laser is modulated by an independent set of signals. Wavelength-sensitive filters, the IR analog of visible-light color filters, are used at the receiving end.
WDM is similar to frequency-division multiplexing (FDM). But instead of taking place at radio frequencies (RF), WDM is done in the IR portion of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. Each IR channel carries several RF signals combined by means of FDM or time-division multiplexing (TDM). Each multiplexed IR channel is separated, or demultiplexed, into the original signals at the destination. Using FDM or TDM in each IR channel in combination with WDM of several IR channels, data in different formats and at different speeds can be transmitted simultaneously on a single fiber.
In early WDM systems, there were two IR channels per fiber. At the destination, the IR channels were demultiplexed by a dichroic (two-wavelength) filter with a cutoff wavelength approximately midway between the wavelengths of the two channels. It soon became clear that more than two multiplexed IR channels could be demultiplexed using cascaded dichroic filters, giving rise to coarse wavelength-division multiplexing (CWDM) and dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM). In CWDM, there are usually eight different IR channels, but there can be up to 18. In DWDM, there can be dozens. Because each IR channel carries its own set of multiplexed RF signals, it is theoretically possible to transmit combined data on a single fiber at a total effective speed of several hundred gigabits per second (Gbps).
The use of WDM can multiply the effective bandwidth of a fiber optic communications system by a large factor. But its cost must be weighed against the alternative of using multiple fibers bundled into a cable. A fiber optic repeater device called the erbium amplifier promises to make WDM a cost-effective long-term solution to the bandwidth exhaustion problem.