How DSL Works

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Asymmetric DSL

DSL signals can't pass through fiber-optic cables.
DSL signals can't pass through fiber-optic cables.
Photo courtesy Corning

Most homes and small business users are connected to an asymmetric DSL (ADSL) line. ADSL divides up the available frequencies in a line on the assumption that most Internet users look at, or download, much more information than they send, or upload. Under this assumption, if the connection speed from the Internet to the user is three to four times faster than the connection from the user back to the Internet, then the user will see the most benefit most of the time.

Precisely how much benefit you see from ADSL will greatly depend on how far you are from the central office of the company providing the ADSL service. ADSL is a distance-sensitive technology: As the connection's length increases, the signal quality decreases and the connection speed goes down. The limit for ADSL service is 18,000 feet (5,460 meters), though for speed and quality of service reasons many ADSL providers place a lower limit on the distances for the service. At the extremes of the distance limits, ADSL customers may see speeds far below the promised maximums, while customers nearer the central office have faster connections and may see extremely high speeds in the future. ADSL technology can provide maximum downstream (Internet to customer) speeds of up to 8 megabits per second (Mbps) at a distance of about 6,000 feet (1,820 meters), and upstream speeds of up to 640 kilobits per second (Kbps). In practice, the best speeds widely offered today are 1.5 Mbps downstream, with upstream speeds varying between 64 and 640 Kbps. Some vast improvements to ADSL are available in some areas through services called ASDL2 and ASDL2+. ASDL2 increases downstream to 12 Mbps and upstream to 1 Mbps, and ASDL2+ is even better -- it improves downstream to as much as 24 Mbps and upstream to 3 Mbps.­

You might wonder -- if distance is a limitation for DSL, why is it not also a limitation for voice telephone calls? The answer lies in small amplifiers called loading coils that the telephone company uses to boost voice signals. Unfortunately, these loading coils are incompatible with ADSL signals, so a voice coil in the loop between your telephone and the telephone company's central office will disqualify you from receiving ADSL. Other factors that might disqualify you from receiving ADSL include:

  • Bridge taps - These are extensions, between you and the central office, that extend service to other customers. While you wouldn't notice the­se bridge taps in normal phone service, they may take the total length of the circuit beyond the distance limits of the service provider.
  • Fiber-optic cables - ADSL signals can't pass through the conversion from analog to digital and back to analog that occurs if a portion of your telephone circuit comes through fiber-optic cables.
  • Distance - Even if you know where your central office is (don't be surprised if you don't -- the telephone companies don't advertise their locations), looking at a map is no indication of the distance a signal must travel between your house and the office.

Next, we'll look at how the signal is split and what equipment DSL uses.