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.
A semiconductor laser emits light through stimulated emission rather than spontaneous emission, which results in high output power (~100 mW) as well as other benefits related to the nature of coherent light. The output of a laser is relatively directional, allowing high coupling efficiency (~50 %) into single-mode fiber. The narrow spectral width also allows for high bit rates since it reduces the effect of chromatic dispersion. Furthermore, semiconductor lasers can be modulated directly at high frequencies because of short recombination time.
Laser diodes are often directly modulated, that is the light output is controlled by a current applied directly to the device. For very high data rates or very long distance links, a laser source may be operated continuous wave, and the light modulated by an external device such as an electro-absorption modulator or Mach–Zehnder interferometer. External modulation increases the achievable link distance by eliminating laser chirp, which broadens the linewidth of directly modulated lasers, increasing the chromatic dispersion in the fiber.