ADSL System Overview

Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), a new modem technology, converts existing twisted-pair telephone lines into access paths for multimedia and high speed data communications. ADSL transmits more than 6 Mbps to a subscriber, and as much as 640 kbps more in both directions. Such rates expand existing access capacity by a factor of 50 or more without new cabling. ADSL can literally transform the existing public information network from one limited to voice, text and low resolution graphics to a powerful, ubiquitous system capable of bringing multimedia, including full motion video, to everyone’s home this century.

ADSL will play a crucial role over the next ten or more years as telephone companies enter new markets for delivering information in video and multimedia formats. New broadband cabling will take decades to reach all prospective subscribers. But success of these new services will depend upon reaching as many subscribers as possible during the first few years. By bringing movies, television, video catalogs, remote CD-ROMs, corporate LANs, and the Internet into homes and small businesses, ADSL will make these markets viable, and profitable, for telephone companies and application suppliers alike.


An ADSL circuit connects an ADSL modem on each end of a twisted-pair telephone line, creating three information channels — a high speed downstream channel, a medium speed duplex channel, and a POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) channel. The POTS channel is split off from the digital modem by filters, thus guaranteeing uninterrupted POTS, even if ADSL fails. The high speed channel ranges from 1.5 to 6.1 Mbps , while duplex rates range from 16 to 640 kbps. Each channel can be submultiplexed to form multiple, lower rate channels.

ADSL modems provide data rates consistent with North American and European digital hierarchies (see Table 1) and can be purchased with various speed ranges and capabilities. The minimum configuration provides 1.5 or 2.0 Mbps downstream and a 16 kbps duplex channel; others provide rates of 6.1 Mbps and 64 kbps duplex. Products with downstream rates up to 8 Mbps and duplex rates up to 640 kbps are available today. ADSL modems will accommodate ATM transport with variable rates and compensation for ATM overhead, as well as IP protocols.

Downstream data rates depend on a number of factors, including the length of the copper line, its wire gauge, presence of bridged taps, and cross-coupled interference. Line attenuation increases with line length and frequency, and decreases as wire diameter increases.

While the measure varies from telco to telco, these capabilities can cover up to 95% of a loop plant depending on the desired data rate. Customers beyond these distances can be reached with fiber-based digital loop carrier systems. As these DLC systems become commercially available, telephone companies can offer virtually ubiquitous access in a relatively short time.

Many applications envisioned for ADSL involve digital compressed video. As a real time signal, digital video cannot use link or network level error control procedures commonly found in data communications systems. ADSL modems therefore incorporate forward error correction that dramatically reduces errors caused by impulse noise. Error correction on a symbol by symbol basis also reduces errors caused by continuous noise coupled into a line.


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.

An ADSL modem organizes the aggregate data stream created by multiplexing downstream channels, duplex channels, and maintenance channels together into blocks, and attaches an error correction code to each block. The receiver then corrects errors that occur during transmission up to the limits implied by the code and the block length. The unit may, at the users option, also create superblocks by interleaving data within subblocks; this allows the receiver to correct any combination of errors within a specific span of bits. This allows for effective transmission of both data and video signals alike.

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, now under study by T1E1.4, 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 and DAVIC have both 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 more than 200 members representing service providers, equipment manufacturers, and semiconductor companies from throughout the world.

Market Status

ADSL modems have been tested successfully in more than 30 telephone companies, and thousands of lines have been installed in various technology trials in North America and Europe. Several telephone companies plan market trials using ADSL, principally for data access, but also including video applications for such applications as personal shopping, interactive games, and educational programming.

Semiconductor companies have introduced transceiver chipsets that are already being used in market trials. These chipsets combine off the shelf components, programmable digital signal processors and custom ASICS. Continued investment by these semiconductor companies have increased functionality and reduce chip count, power consumption, and cost, enabling mass deployment of ADSL-based services.