DSL or xDSL, is a family of technologies that provides digital data transmission over the wires of a local telephone network. DSL originally stood for digital subscriber loop, although in recent years, the term digital subscriber line has been widely adopted as a more marketing-friendly term for ADSL, which is the most popular version of consumer-ready DSL. DSL uses high frequency, while regular telephone uses low frequency on the same telephone line.
Typically, the download speed of consumer DSL services ranges from 256 kilobits per second (kbit/s) to 24,000 kbit/s, depending on DSL technology, line conditions and service level implemented. Typically, upload speed is lower than download speed for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) and equal to download speed for the rarer Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line (SDSL).
DSL, like many other forms of communication, stems directly from Claude Shannon's seminal 1948 scientific paper: A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Employees at Bellcore (now Telcordia Technologies) developed ADSL in 1988 by placing wideband digital signals above the existing baseband analog voice signal carried between telephone company central offices and customers on conventional twisted pair cabling.
U.S. telephone companies promote DSL to compete with cable modems. DSL service was first provided over a dedicated "dry loop", but when the FCC required the incumbent local exchange carriers ILECs to lease their lines to competing providers such as Earthlink, shared-line DSL became common. Also known as DSL over Unbundled Network Element, this allows a single pair to carry data (via a digital subscriber line access multiplexer [DSLAM]) and analog voice (via a circuit switched telephone switch) at the same time. Inline low-pass filter/splitters keep the high frequency DSL signals out of the user's telephones. Although DSL avoids the voice frequency band, the nonlinear elements in the phone would otherwise generate audible intermodulation products and impair the operation of the data modem.
Older ADSL standards can deliver 8 Mbit/s to the customer over about 2 km (1.25 miles) of unshielded twisted-pair copper wire. The latest standard, ADSL2+, can deliver up to 24 Mbit/s, depending on the distance from the DSLAM. Distances greater than 2 km (1.25 miles) significantly reduce the bandwidth usable on the wires, thus reducing the data rate. By using an ADSL loop extender, these distances can be increased substantially.
In 2007, Dr. John Papandriopoulos, a University of Melbourne engineering researcher, patented algorithms that can potentially boost DSL line speeds to a maximum of 250 Mbit/s.
At the local telephone exchange (United Kingdom) or central office (United States) 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 laws of physics, specifically the Shannon limit, cap the speed of data transmission. For a long time, it was believed that a conventional phone line couldn't be pushed beyond low speed limits (typically under 9600 bit/s). In the 1950s, 4 MHz television signals were often carried between studios on ordinary twisted pair telephone cable, suggesting that the Shannon Limit would allow transmitting many megabits per second. However, these cables had other impairments besides Gaussian noise, preventing such rates from becoming practical in the field. In the 1980s techniques were developed for broadband communications that allowed the limit to be greatly extended.
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 higher frequencies used by DSL travel only short distances). The pool of usable channels is then split into two different frequency bands for upstream and downstream traffic, based on a preconfigured ratio. This segregation reduces interference. 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 they are usable.
One of Lechleider's contributions to DSL was his insight that an asymmetric arrangement offered more than double the bandwidth capacity of symmetric DSL. This allowed Internet Service Providers to offer efficient service to consumers, who benefitted greatly from the ability to download large amounts of data but rarely needed to upload comparable amounts. ADSL supports two modes of transport: fast channel and interleaved channel. Fast channel is preferred for streaming multimedia, where an occasional dropped bit is acceptable, but lags are less so. Interleaved channel works better for file transfers, where transmission errors are impermissible, even though resending packets may increase latency.
Because DSL operates at above the 3.4 kHz voice limit, it cannot be passed through a load coil. Load coils are, in essence, filters that block out any non-voice frequency. They are commonly set at regular intervals in lines placed only for POTS service. A DSL signal cannot pass through a properly installed and working load coil, nor can voice service be maintained past a certain distance without such coils. Some areas that are within range for DSL service are disqualified from eligibility because of load coil placement. Because of this phone companies are endeavoring to remove load coils on copper loops that can operate without them, and conditioning lines not to need them through the use of fiber to the neighborhood or node FTTN.
The commercial success of DSL and similar technologies largely reflects the advances made in electronics, that, over the past few decades, have been getting faster and cheaper even while digging trenches in the ground for new cables (copper or fiber optic) remains expensive. Several factors contributed to the popularization of DSL technology:
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, Powerline, or Wi-Fi network on the customer's premises.
Dry-loop DSL or "naked DSL," which does not require the subscriber to have traditional land-line telephone service, started making a comeback in the US in 2004 when Qwest started offering it, closely followed by Speakeasy. As a result of AT&T's merger with SBC, and Verizon's merger with MCI, those telephone companies are required to offer naked DSL to consumers.
Even without the regulatory mandate, however, many ILECs offer naked DSL to consumers. The number of telephone landlines in the US has dropped from 188 million in 2000 to 172 million in 2005, while the number of cellular subscribers has grown to 195 million. This lack of demand for landline service has resulted in the expansion of naked DSL availability.
Modern DSL gateways have more functionality and usually go through an initialization procedure that is very similar to a PC starting up. The system image is loaded from the flash memory; the system boots, synchronizes the DSL connection and establishes the IP connection between the local network and the service provider, using protocols such as DHCP or PPPoE. The system image can usually be updated to correct bugs, or to add new functionality.
In some DSL variations (for example, HDSL), the terminal adapter is directly connected to the computer via a serial interface, using protocols such as RS-232 or V.35. In other cases (particularly ADSL), it is common for the customer equipment to be integrated with higher level functionality, such as routing, firewalling, or other application-specific hardware and software. In this case, the entire equipment is usually referred to as a DSL router or DSL gateway.
Some kinds of DSL technology require installation of appropriate filters to separate, or "split", the DSL signal from the low frequency voice signal. The separation can be done either at the demarcation point, or can be done with filters installed at the telephone outlets inside the customer premises. Either way has its practical and economical limitations. See ADSL for more information about this.
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. In the case of ADSL, the voice component is also separated at this step, either by a filter integrated in the DSLAM or by a specialized filtering equipment installed before it. The DSLAM terminates all connections and recovers the original digital information.
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.
Example DSL technologies (sometimes called xDSL) include: