Atmospheric laser communication, often referred to as free-space optics (FSO) or free-space laser (FSL) communication, is similar to fiber optic cable in terms of carrier wavelength and bandwidth capability, but data are transmitted directly through the atmosphere via laser beams over paths from a few meters to 4 km or longer. FSL uses lasers in the near-infrared spectrum, typically at wavelengths of 850 or 1550 nm. Given these wavelengths, atmospheric attenuation must be considered, and an adequate margin of optical power (dB) must exist to support high system availability (the percentage of time that an FSL link is in operation, typically 99.9%). A visual range of 100 m can attenuate a laser beam at a rate of nearly 130 dB km−1. For short links (< 1200 m), fog and low clouds are the primary concerns. For longer links, scintillation, heavy rain, and snow frequently become issues. To address these issues, long-term climate data are analyzed to determine the frequency of occurrence of low visibilities and low-cloud ceilings. To estimate availability at a site of interest, adjustments to airport climate data are made to accommodate differences in altitude, geography, and the effects of the urban heat island. In sum, communication via FSL is a feasible alternative to fiber optic cable when atmospheric conditions are considered and properly analyzed.

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Terabeam Corporation, Redmond, Washington

Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

*Current affiliation: The Boeing Company, Seattle, Washington

+Current affiliation: Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington