How Ethernet Works

Collision Detection

Carrier-sense multiple access gives us a good start in regulating our conversation, but there is one scenario we still need to address. Let’s go back to our dinner table analogy and imagine that there is a momentary lull in the conversation. You and I both have something we would like to add, and we both "sense the carrier" based on the silence, so we begin speaking at approximately the same time. In Ethernet terminology, a collision occurs when we both spoke at once.

In our conversation, we can handle this situation gracefully. We both hear the other speak at the same time we are speaking, so we can stop to give the other person a chance to go on. Ethernet nodes also listen to the medium while they transmit to ensure that they are the only station transmitting at that time. If the stations hear their own transmission returning in a garbled form, as would happen if some other station had begun to transmit its own message at the same time, then they know that a collision occurred. A single Ethernet segment is sometimes called a collision domain because no two stations on the segment can transmit at the same time without causing a collision. When stations detect a collision, they cease transmission, wait a random amount of time, and attempt to transmit when they again detect silence on the medium.


The random pause and retry is an important part of the protocol. If two stations collide when transmitting once, then both will need to transmit again. At the next appropriate chance to transmit, both stations involved with the previous collision will have data ready to transmit. If they transmitted again at the first opportunity, they would most likely collide again and again indefinitely. Instead, the random delay makes it unlikely that any two stations will collide more than a few times in a row.