Digital Subscriber Line

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is a technology for bringing high-bandwidth information to homes and small businesses over ordinary copper telephone lines.  xDSL refers to different variations of DSL, such as ADSL, HDSL, and RADSL.  Assuming the location is close enough to a telephone company central office that offers DSL service, it may be able to receive data at rates up to 6.1 megabits  (millions of bits) per second (of a theoretical 8.448 megabits per second), enabling continuous transmission of motion video, audio, and even 3-D effects.  More typically, individual connections will provide from 1.544 Mbps to 512 Kbps downstream and about 128 Kbps upstream.  A DSL line can carry both data and voice signals and the data part of the line is continuously connected.  DSL installations began in 1998 and will continue at a greatly increased pace through the next decade in a number of communities in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Splitter-based vs. Splitterless DSL

Most DSL technologies require that a signal splitter be installed at a home or business, requiring the expense of a phone company visit and installation. However, it is possible to manage the splitting remotely from the central office. This is known as splitterless DSL, "DSL Lite," G.Lite, or Universal ADSL and has recently been made a standard.

Modulation Technologies

Several modulation technologies are used by various kinds of DSL, although these are being standardized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).  Different DSL modem makers are using either Discrete Multi-tone Technology (DMT) or Carrierless Amplitude Modulation (CAP).  A third technology, known as Multiple Virtual Line (MVL), is another possibility.

Factors Affecting the Experienced Data Rate

DSL modems follow the data rate multiples established by North American and European standards.  In general, the maximum range for DSL without repeaters is 5.5 km (18,000 feet).  As distance decreases toward the telephone company office, the data rate increases. Another factor is the gauge of the copper wire.  The heavier 24-gauge wire carries the same data rate farther than 26 gauge wire.  If customers live beyond the 5.5 kilometer range, they may still be able to have DSL if the phone company has extended the local loop with optical fiber cable.  As these fiber-based digital loop carrier systems become commercially available, telephone companies can offer virtually ubiquitous access in a relatively short time.

Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM)

To interconnect multiple DSL users to a high-speed backbone network, the telephone company uses a Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM).  Typically, the DSLAM connects to an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) network that can aggregate data transmission at gigabit data rates.  At the other end of each transmission, a DSLAM demultiplexes the signals and forwards them to appropriate individual DSL connections.


ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) is the form of DSL that has been becoming most familiar to home and small business users.  ADSL is called "asymmetric" because most of its two-way or duplex bandwidth is devoted to the downstream direction, sending data to the user.  Only a small portion of bandwidth is available for upstream or user-interaction messages.  However, most Internet and especially graphics- or multi-media intensive Web data need lots of downstream bandwidth, but user requests and responses are small and require little upstream bandwidth.  Using ADSL, up to 6.1 megabits per second of data can be sent downstream and up to 640 Kbps upstream.  The high downstream bandwidth means that the telephone line will be able to bring motion video, audio, and 3-D images to the computer or hooked-in TV set.  In addition, a small portion of the downstream bandwidth can be devoted to voice rather data, and one can hold phone conversations without requiring a separate line.  Unlike a similar service over the cable TV line, using ADSL, it won't be competing for bandwidth with neighbors in the area.  In many cases, the existing telephone lines will work with ADSL, and in some areas, they may need upgrading.

ADSL Technology

ADSL depends upon advanced digital signal processing and creative algorithms to squeeze so much information through twisted-pair telephone lines.  In addition, many advances have been required in transformers, analog filters, and A/D converters.  Long telephone lines may attenuate signals at one megahertz (the outer edge of the band used by ADSL) by as much as 90 dB, forcing analog sections of ADSL modems to work very hard to realize large dynamic ranges, separate channels, and maintain low noise figures. On the outside, ADSL looks simple -- transparent synchronous data pipes at various data rates over ordinary telephone lines.  On the inside, where all the transistors work, there is a miracle of modern technology.

To create multiple channels, ADSL modems divide the available bandwidth of a telephone line in one of two ways -- Frequency Division Multiplexing (FDM) or Echo Cancellation.  FDM assigns one band for upstream data and another band for downstream data.  The downstream path is then divided by time division multiplexing into one or more high-speed channels and one or more low speed channels.  The upstream path is also multiplexed into corresponding low speed channels.  Echo Cancellation assigns the upstream band to over-lap the downstream, and separates the two by means of local echo cancellation, a technique well know in V.32 and V.34 modems.  With either technique, ADSL splits off a 4 kHz region for POTS at the DC end of the band.

ADSL Standards and Associations

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI), working group T1E1.4, recently approved an ADSL standard at rates up to 6.1 Mbps (ANSI Standard T1.413).  The European Technical Standards Institute (ETSI) contributed an Annex to T1.413 to reflect European requirements.  T1.413 currently embodies a single terminal interface at the premise end.  Issue II will expand the standard to include a multiplexed interface at the premise end, protocols for configuration and network management, and other improvements.

The ATM Forum has recognized ADSL as a physical layer transmission protocol for unshielded twisted pair media.  The ADSL Forum was formed in December of 1994 to promote the ADSL concept and facilitate development of ADSL system architectures, protocols, and interfaces for major ADSL applications.  The Forum has approximately 300 members representing service providers, equipment manufacturers, and semiconductor companies from throughout the world.


CDSL (Consumer DSL) is a trademarked version of DSL that is somewhat slower than ADSL (1 Mbps downstream, probably less upstream) but has the advantage that a "splitter" does not need to be installed at the user's end.  Rockwell, which owns the technology and makes a chipset for it, believes that phone companies should be able to deliver it in the $40-45 a month price range.  CDSL uses its own carrier technology rather than DMT or CAP ADSL technology.

G.Lite or DSL Lite

G.Lite (also known as DSL Lite, splitterless ADSL, and Universal ADSL) is essentially a slower ADSL that doesn't require splitting of the line at the user end but manages to split it for the user remotely at the telephone company.  This saves the cost of what the phone companies call "the truck roll."  G.Lite, officially ITU-T standard G-992.2, provides a data rate from 1.544 Mbps to 6 Mpbs downstream and from 128 Kbps to 384 Kbps upstream.  G.Lite is expected to become the most widely installed form of DSL.


The earliest variation of DSL to be widely used has been HDSL (High bit-rate DSL), which is used for wideband digital transmission within a corporate site and between the telephone company and a customer.  The main characteristic of HDSL is that it is symmetrical: an equal amount of bandwidth is available in both directions.  For this reason, the maximum data rate is lower than for ADSL.  HDSL can carry as much on a single wire of twisted-pair as can be carried on a T1 line in North America or an E1 line in Europe (2,320 Kbps).


IDSL (ISDN DSL) is somewhat of a misnomer since it's really closer to ISDN data rates and service at 128 Kbps than to the much higher rates of ADSL.


RADSL (Rate-Adaptive DSL) is an ADSL technology from Westell in which software is able to determine the rate at which signals can be transmitted on a given customer phone line and adjust the delivery rate accordingly.  Westell's FlexCap2 system uses RADSL to deliver from 640 Kbps to 2.2 Mbps downstream and from 272 Kbps to 1.088 Mbps upstream over an existing line.


SDSL (Symmetric DSL) is similar to HDSL with a single twisted-pair line, carrying 1.544 Mbps (U.S. and Canada) or 2.048 Mbps (Europe) each direction on a duplex line. It's symmetric because the data rate is the same in both directions.


UDSL (Unidirectional DSL) is a proposal from a European company. It's a unidirectional version of HDSL.


VDSL (Very high data rate DSL) is a developing technology that promises much higher data rates over relatively short distances (between 51 and 55 Mbps over lines up to 1,000 feet or 300 meters in length).  It's envisioned that VDSL may emerge somewhat after ADSL is widely deployed and co-exist with it.  The transmission technology (CAP, DMT, or other) and its effectiveness in some environments is not yet determined.  A number of standards organizations are working on it.


x2/DSL is a modem from 3Com that supports 56 Kbps modem communication but is upgradeable through new software installation to ADSL when it becomes available in the user's area.  3Com calls it "the last modem you will ever need."