Optical communication links have probably been around for more than a millennium and have been under serious technical investigation for over a century, ever since Alexander Graham Bell experimented with them in the late 1800s. However, within the last decade or so optical links have moved into the communications mainstream with the availability of low loss optical fibers. There are of course many reasons for this, but from a link design point of view, the reason for fiber's popularity is that it provides a highly efficient and flexible means for coupling the optical source to a usually distant optical detector. For example, the optical loss of a typical terrestrial 10-km free-space optical link would be at least 41 dB (Gowar, 1983), whereas the loss of 10 km of optical fiber is about 3 dB at wavelengths of ~1.55 μm. To put the incredible clarity of optical fibers in perspective, if we take 0.3 dB/km as a representative loss for present optical fibers, we see that they are more transparent than clear air, which at this wavelength has an attenuation of 0.4 to 1 dB/km (Taylor and Yates, 1957).
Today the vast majority of fiber optic links are digital, for telecommunications and data networks. However, there is a growing, some might say exploding, number of applications for analog fiber optic links. In this case, the comparison is not between an optical fiber and free space but between an optical fiber and an electrical cable.