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What is DSL?

2006-02-05 00:00

Digital Subscriber Line

Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL, is a family of technologies that provide digital data transmission over the wires used in the "last mile" of a local telephone network. Typically, the download speed of DSL ranges from 128 kilobits per second (Kbps) to 24,000 Kbps depending on DSL technology and service level implemented. Upload speed is lower than download speed for ADSL and symmetrical for SDSL.

History

The origin of Digital Subscriber Line technology dates back to 1988, when engineers at Bellcore (now Telcordia Technologies) devised a way to carry a digital signal over the unused frequency spectrum available on the twisted pair cables running between the telephone company's central office and the customer premises. Implementation of DSL could permit an ordinary telephone line to provide digital communication without interfering with voice services. However, incumbent local exchange carriers (ILEC) were not enthusiastic about DSL, since it was not as profitable as installing a second phone line for consumers who preferred simultaneous dial-up internet and voice connections, and the broadband data connection would cannibalize existing ISDN customers. This changed in the late 1990s when cable television companies began marketing broadband Internet access. Realizing that most consumers would prefer broadband Internet to dial-up Internet, ILECs rushed out the DSL technology, which they had delayed implementing, as an attempt to win market share from the broadband Internet access offered by cable television operators.

DSL is the principal competition of cable modems for providing high speed Internet access to home consumers in Europe and North America. Older ADSL standards can deliver 8 Mbit/s over about 1¼ miles (2 km) of unshielded twisted pair copper wire. The latest standard, ADSL2+, can deliver up to 24 Mbit/s, depending on the distance from the DSLAM.Some customers, however, are located farther than 1¼ miles (2 km) from the central office, which significantly reduces the amount of bandwidth available (thereby reducing the data rate) on the wires.

Operation

The local loop of the Public Switched Telephone Network was initially designed to carry POTS voice communication and signaling, since the concept of data communications as we know it today did not exist. For reasons of economy, the phone system nominally passes audio between 300 and 3,400 Hz, which is regarded as the range required for human speech to be clearly intelligible. This is known as commercial bandwidth. Dial-up services using modems are constrained by the Shannon capacity of the POTS channel.

At the local telephone exchange (UK terminology) or central office (US terminology) the speech is generally digitized into a 64 kbit/s data stream in the form of an 8 bit signal using a sampling rate of 8,000 Hz, therefore – according to the Nyquist theorem – any signal above 4,000 Hz is not passed by the phone network (and has to be blocked by a filter to prevent aliasing effects).

The local loop connecting the telephone exchange to most subscribers is capable of carrying frequencies well beyond the 3.4 kHz upper limit of POTS. Depending on the length and quality of the loop, the upper limit can be tens of megahertz. DSL takes advantage of this unused bandwidth of the local loop by creating 4312.5 Hz wide channels starting between 10 and 100 kHz, depending on how the system is configured. Allocation of channels continues at higher and higher frequencies (up to 1.1 MHz for ADSL) until new channels are deemed unusable. Each channel is evaluated for usability in much the same way an analog modem would on a POTS connection. More usable channels equates to more available bandwidth, which is why distance and line quality are a factor. The pool of usable channels is then split into two groups for upstream and downstream traffic based on a preconfigured ratio. Once the channel groups have been established, the individual channels are bonded into a pair of virtual circuits, one in each direction. Like analog modems, DSL transceivers constantly monitor the quality of each channel and will add or remove them from service depending on whether or not they are usable.

The commercial success of DSL and similar technologies largely reflects the fact that in recent decades, while electronics have been getting faster and cheaper, the cost of digging trenches in the ground for new cables (copper or fiber) remains expensive. All flavors of DSL employ highly complex digital signal processing algorithms to overcome the inherent limitations of the existing twisted pair wires. Not long ago, the cost of such signal processing would have been prohibitive but because of VLSI technology, the cost of installing DSL on an existing local loop, with a DSLAM at one end and a DSL modem at the other end is orders of magnitude less than would be the cost of installing a new, high-bandwidth fiber-optic cable over the same route and distance.

Most residential and small-office DSL implementations reserve low frequencies for POTS service, so that with suitable filters and/or splitters the existing voice service continues to operate independent of the DSL service. Thus POTS-based communications, including fax machines and analog modems, can share the wires with DSL. Only one DSL modem can use the subscriber line at a time. The standard way to let multiple computers share a DSL connection is to use a router that establishes a connection between the DSL modem and a local Ethernet or Wi-Fi network on the customer's premises.

Once upstream and downstream channels are established, they are used to connect the subscriber to a service such as an Internet service provider.

Equipment

The subscriber end of the connection consists of a DSL modem. This converts data from the digital signals used by computers into a voltage signal of a suitable frequency range which is then applied to the phone line.

In the early days of DSL, installation required a technician to visit the premises. A "splitter" was installed near the demarcation point, from which a dedicated data line was installed. Today, many DSL vendors offer a self-install option, in which they ship equipment and instructions to the customer. In this case, since no changes are made to the cable plant on the customer premises, all the phone wires are carrying both POTS and DSL signal frequencies; therefore the customer generally needs to plug a DSL filter into each telephone outlet. However, this can sometimes cause degradation of the DSL signal (especially if more than 5 analogue devices are connected to the line) because the DSL signal is present on all telephone wiring in the building. A way to circumvent this is to install one filter upstream from all telephone jacks in the building, except for the jack to which the DSL modem will be connected. Since this requires wiring changes by the customer and may not work on some (poorly designed) household telephone wiring, it is rarely done. It is usually much easier to install filters at each telephone jack that is in use.

At the exchange a digital subscriber line access multiplexer (DSLAM) terminates the DSL circuits and aggregates them, where they are handed off onto other networking transports. It also separates out the voice component.

Protocols and configurations

Many DSL technologies implement an ATM layer over the low-level bitstream layer to enable the adaptation of a number of different technologies over the same link.

DSL implementations may create bridged or routed networks. In a bridged configuration, the group of subscriber computers effectively connect into a single subnet. The earliest implementations used DHCP to provide network details such as the IP address to the subscriber equipment, with authentication via MAC address or an assigned host name. Later implementations often use PPP over Ethernet or ATM (PPPoE or PPPoA), while authenticating with a userid and password and using PPP mechanisms to provide network details.

DSL also has contention ratios which need to be taken into consideration when deciding between broadband technologies

DSL technologies

The line length limitations from telephone exchange to subscriber are more restrictive for higher data transmission rates. Technologies such as VDSL provide very high speed, short-range links as a method of delivering "triple play" services (typically implemented in fiber to the curb network architectures).

Example DSL technologies (sometimes called xDSL) include:

  • High-bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (HDSL), covered in this article
  • Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line (SDSL), a standardised version of HDSL
  • Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), a version of DSL with a slower upload speed
  • Rate-Adaptive Digital Subscriber Line (RADSL)
  • Very-high-bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL)
  • Very-high-bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line 2 (VDSL2), an improved version of VDSL
  • G. Symmetric High-speed Digital Subscriber Line (G.SHDSL), a standardised replacement for early proprietary SDSL by the International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector
  • Powerline Digital Subscriber Line (PDSL), a high speed powerline communications solution which modulates high speed data onto existing electricity distribution infrastructure

Transmission methods

Transmission methods vary by market, region, carrier, and equipment.

  • CAP: Carrierless Amplitude Phase Modulation - deprecated in 1996
  • DMT: discrete multitone modulation, otherwise known as OFDM
  • OFDM: Orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing

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