ADSL uses two pieces of equipment, one on the customer end and one at the Internet service provider, telephone company or other provider of DSL services. At the customer's location there is a DSL transceiver, which may also provide other services. The DSL service provider has a DSL Access Multiplexer (DSLAM) to receive customer connections.
Most residential customers call their DSL transceiver a "DSL modem." The engineers at the telephone company or ISP call it an ATU-R. Regardless of what it's called, it's the point where data from the user's computer or network is connected to the DSL line.
The transceiver can connect to a customer's equipment in several ways, though most residential installation uses USB or 10 base-T Ethernet connections. While most of the ADSL transceivers sold by ISPs and telephone companies are simply transceivers, the devices used by businesses may combine network routers, network switches or other networking equipment in the same platform.
The DSLAM at the access provider is the equipment that really allows DSL to happen. A DSLAM takes connections from many customers and aggregates them onto a single, high-capacity connection to the Internet. DSLAMs are generally flexible and able to support multiple types of DSL in a single central office, and different varieties of protocol and modulation -- both CAP and DMT, for example -- in the same type of DSL. In addition, the DSLAM may provide additional functions including routing or dynamic IP address assignment for the customers.
The DSLAM provides one of the main differences between user service through ADSL and through cable modems. Because cable-modem users generally share a network loop that runs through a neighborhood, adding users means lowering performance in many instances. ADSL provides a dedicated connection from each user back to the DSLAM, meaning that users won't see a performance decrease as new users are added -- until the total number of users begins to saturate the single, high-speed connection to the Internet. At that point, an upgrade by the service provider can provide additional performance for all the users connected to the DSLAM.
For information on ADSL rates and availability in the United States, go to Broadband Reports. This site can provide information on ADSL service companies in your area, the rates they charge, and customer satisfaction, as well as estimating how far you are from the nearest central office.
ADSL isn't the only type of DSL, and it's not the only way to get high-speed Internet access. Next, we'll look at ADSL alternatives.