OTDR Breakdown: Why You Need To Use One!

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An OTDR (Optical Time-Domain Reflectometer) is an instrument used to test optical fibers.

OTDRs inject several optical pulses through the fiber and extract light scattered (Rayleigh backscatter) or reflected (Fresnel reflections) back. Specifically, this technology uses scattered or reflected light to portray the optical fiber.

Y34 Quad Wavelength OTDR
Y34 Quad Wavelength OTDR

Rayleigh scattering is the result of variations in fiber density. For instance, inconsistencies in the index of refraction. This may cause small amounts of light to reflect from each point in the fiber back toward the transmitter.

Fresnel reflections may occur at connections or breaks where an air gap exists. Subsequently, the light traveling down the fiber encounters changes in material density. A large amount of light, compared with the Rayleigh scattering, is reflected.

Benefits of an OTDR

  • OTDRs can locate defects and faults.
  • Can determine the amount of signal loss at any point in a fiber optic run.

  • Only need to have access to one end of a fiber to make their measurements.
  • This technology allows the machine to take thousands of measurements along a fiber.

It shows a snapshot of the cable run that is displayed on the screen as a line sloping down from left to right. Showing distance on the horizontal line and signal level on the vertical line.

• OTDRs are widely used in all phases of a fiber system’s life from installation, maintenance, fault locating to restoration. If you are installing an outside plant network you will want an OTDR to check that the splices along the run and that the fiber itself is good. OTDRs locate splices after they are made and confirm the performance of the joint.

An Optical Time-Domain Reflectometer can also find any stress fractures in the cables caused by improper handlings, such as exceeding the bend radius, during installation. If you are doing any restoration because a cable has been cut, an OTDR will help find where it has been cut and assist to confirm the quality of the splice after restoration. On single-mode fibers where connector reflections are of a concern, an OTDR will pinpoint any issue very easily.

Dual Wavelength Singlemode OTDR
Y32 Dual Wavelength OTDR
Tri-Wavelength Singlemode OTDR
Y33 Tri-Wavelength OTDR

Testing Optical fiber for loss

Basically, OTDR technology is not recommended to be used to measure cable plant loss. That is the job of the Light source and Power meter. They are able to duplicate the actual fiber optic link. The loss measured by a light source and power meter will not be the same as an OTDR. This device cannot show the actual cable plant loss that the system will see.

For that reason, many standards will not allow you to measure the loss of an installed cable with an OTDR. Total attenuation in a fiber is best measured by injecting a known level of light in one end and measure the level when it is returned to the other end.

The difference, measured in decibels (dB) is the end-to-end attenuation or IL (insertion loss). However, this does not locate the exact location of the attenuation problem along the cable run?

This is where an OTDR comes into its own as it can provide a plot of distance versus signal and will show where there is a problem in the fiber along the run.

Optical Time Domain Reflectometer Trace


• In summary an OTDR is an invaluable test instrument when it comes to installation, maintenance, fault locating and restoration.

Moreover, many standards will not allow you to measure the loss of an installed cable with an OTDR. The best way to measure total attenuation in a fiber remains with a calibrated light source and power meter.