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DSL is a telephone loop technology that uses existing copper phones lines, and provides a dedicated, high speed Internet connection. One of the big advantages of some DSLs (notably ADSL), are that they can co-exist on the same line with a traditional voice service or "POTS" (Plain Old Telephone Service). This is accomplished by utilizing different frequency ranges above the voice range (voice is up to 4KHz). Essentially, this gives two lines in one: one for POTS, and one for Internet connectivity. When all is working normally, there should be no interference between the two "lines". This gives DSL a potentially broad consumer base, and helps minimize costs for providers.
DSL is positioned for the Home and Small Office (SOHO) market that is looking for high speed Internet access at reasonable prices. Since it also typically provides dedicated, "always on" access, it can be used for interconnecting low to mid range bandwidth servers, and provides a great access solution for small LANs. It is also great for those Linux power users that just want a fast pipe :-).
Phone companies, and other independent telecommunications providers (CLECs), are now deploying DSL as fast as they can to stay ahead of the Cable companies -- the main consumer and SOHO competition for DSL providers. This mad rush to get "a piece of the pie", is bringing much competition (a good thing!), much diversity, and some confusion, into the consumer market. The DSL provider (often, but not always, the phone company) will provide the DSL infrastructure. This would include your line, the DSLAM, and physical connection to the outside world. From there it is typically picked up by an ISP, who provides the traditional Internet services.
Consumer DSL plans are typically "best effort" services. While boasting speeds approaching T1, and even surpassing that in some cases, it is not necessarily as reliable as T1 however. Business class DSL offers more reliability at a higher cost than consumer plans, and is a good compromise where both reliability and bandwidth are at a premium. All in all, the cost of DSL compared to traditional telco services, such as T1, is attractive and substantially more affordable for home and small business users.
DSL providers often do not have service contracts for home users, while business class DSL services typically do include similar SLAs (Service Level Agreements) to that offered for a T1 line.
The downside is that DSL is not available everywhere. Availability, and available bit rate (speed), are purely a function of where you live, where the telco has installed the prerequisite hardware, how far you are from the DSLAM/CO, and the quality of your phone line (loop). Not all loops are created equal, unfortunately. The primary limitation is distance.
This technology is made possible by the placement of DSLAMs, or Digital Subscriber Loop Access Multiplexers, from such suppliers as Alcatel and Cisco, in the telco's Central Office, or sometimes a suitable remote location. DSLAMs come in various shapes and sizes, and are the one, single complex and costly component of a DSL connection. When a qualified phone line is connected to a modem at the user's end of the loop, a high speed digital connection is established, typically over ATM, or sometimes frame relay. The DSLAM splits the signal back into separate voice and data channels. The voice channel stays within the telco network, whereas the data is picked up by an ISP.
Figure 4: A Typical DSL Connection Path
A good, working connection to the DSLAM is referred to as "syncing". This is typically indicated by LEDs on the modem. Without sync, nothing happens. The modem will establish a sync rate which is often throttled by the provider at a predefined limit. This limit, or "cap", is at the provider's discretion and is part of the service that is being provided. Your modem may well sync at a higher rate than the "cap", but your speed will be limited to whatever "cap" the provider is enforcing. So while ADSL has an upward theoretical limit of 8 Mbps, you will not see that speed -- unless of course your provider is selling an 8 Mbps plan. Most plans are well below this.
Below is the status information from a SpeedStream 5660 modem/router via the built-in telnet interface. In this example, the customer is on a 1.5 Mbps/384 Kbps service:
First notice the "Current Attainable Rate" in the "ATU-C" column. This is the downstream sync rate negotiated by the modem and DSLAM, which is over 3.5 Mbps. The actual speed is limited, however, to 1.5 Mbps/384 Kbps from the first row "TX Rate". This is the theoretical limit of this connection. This limit, or "cap", can be enforced at the DSLAM, as is the case the here, or further upstream. Had the first row "TX Rate" been lower than the provider's imposed limit, then this would indicate some kind of problem with the connection, perhaps due to distance or some kind of line impairment.
The attainable sync rate is the result of a number of factors, including wire distance to the DSLAM, quality of both inside and outside wiring, the loop wire gauge and various other factors within the loop. Actual measurable, real world throughput, on the other hand, is first of all dependent on sync rate. Low sync rate means low throughput. In the above example, had the sync rate been lower, say 500 Kbps, then that would be the maximum for that connection, even though the customer is paying for a 1.5 Mbps service.
Secondarily, throughput will depend also on the ISP's network, and then the ISP's upstream provider. You will lose approximately 10-20% of potential throughput to networking overhead. In the above example where the connection is throttled at 1.5 Mbps, the actual, real-world maximum throughput would be somewhere around 1.2-1.3 Mbps when overhead is taken into account. Moreover, once you hit the Internet proper, all bets are off as there are any number of factors that may impact throughput. A overloaded or busy server is likely to be slow no matter how fast your DSL connection is.
The modem is the last piece of the connection. The modem is connected directly to the DSLAM via the copper loop on the telco end, and plugs into a wall jack on your end. When all is well, the modem "syncs" with the DSLAM, and then makes an IP connection to the ISP, and off we go!
For Linux users, the modem is a very important consideration! There are many modems supplied by ISPs that are not Linux compatible. Your best bet is an external, ethernet interfaced modem (or modem/router combo) that connects via a standard ethernet NIC, since most other modem options (PCI, USB, onboard) will not work due to a lack of drivers at this time! All ethernet based modems will work fine. (See the Modems Section for an up-to-date list of compatible modems.)
With ethernet modems, the only potential compatibility issue is the Network Card (NIC). (And really any compatible ethernet NIC should do just fine -- 100 Mbps is not even necessary.) You are probably better off anyway, since PCI and USB modems tend to be more problem prone. If your chosen provider does not offer a compatible modem as an option, then you either need to look elsewhere, or you will have to buy one outright from a third party.
As always, there are exceptions. Xpeed now has drivers for two PCI modems included with the kernel drivers (as of 2.2.18). These are the first open source Linux DSL modem drivers, and is welcomed news. Alcatel's ADSL SpeedTouch USB modem now has Linux drivers. Diamond makes an internal PCI modem which has binary-only drivers, but it is not in widespread use. Efficient Networks has reportedly been working on Linux drivers for their SpeedStream 3060 and 3061 PCI modems. It is also possible to make a direct ATM connection using a modem plus an ATM card, though this delivery system is not used in the U.S. as far as I know, and should not be considered as a viable option. This would also require a 2.4 kernel.
The most common type of modem in use today is actually a combination "bridge" and modem device. The bridge is a simple device, typically with little configuration. Network traffic passes blindly across the ATM to ethernet bridge in either direction. Your point of exposure is the interface (typically a NIC) that is connected to the modem/bridge.
Some ISPs are also be offering "routers". These are basically combination modem/routers that can handle NAT, and may have other feature enhancements such as port forwarding, a built in hub, etc. These are all external, so should work too. But probably not a big deal for Linux users, since Linux can do anything these do, and more. A locked down Linux box makes a most excellent firewall/gateway/proxy!
To confuse things even more, there are also all-in-one devices: combo bridge+router+modem, sometimes called "brouters". In this case, the modem can be configured for either bridged or routed modes -- but it can't be both at the same time.
All providers should make available a modem of some sort. Many ISPs will have more than one modem option. Some may give away the modem at no additional charge. Some may offer a free base model, and charge the difference for the better models with more features. Many of the modems that ISPs supply are not available through normal retail channels. Should you want to buy one yourself, this leaves used equipment outlets (e.g. ebay), or possibly buying a modem that your ISP may not support (i.e. a possibility of no tech support if you have a problem).
While some ISPs provide modems that are not readily available through normal retail channels, there are a number of manufacturers that are getting on the DSL modem bandwagon, and offering a good selection. Most have a number of enhancements. At this time Alcatel, Intel, Zyxel, Cisco, 3Com, and Cayman have products available. Depending on model and feature set, prices range from a little over $100 US to $800 and up. Many of these handle their own authentication and encapsulation (DHCP, PPPoE, etc).
Are some modems better than others? Short answer: no. Modems are not much of a factor in speed. But some do have enhanced features, such as diagnostics or the combo modem/routers. Ethernet modems are generally considered the most reliable. Fewer IRQ hassles, no buggy drivers, etc. So the fact that Linux users are mostly relegated to ethernet modems is a blessing in disguise really. Are any of these better than others? Hard to say since most of this is so new there is not enough of a track record to compare brands and models with any degree of assurance. In other words, any old external, ethernet modem should do -- provided it matches your provider's DSL, and is configured for that service. Remember, there can be differences here.
The modem connects to the DSLAM, and then the DSLAM is connected to the telco's ATM network (or frame relay), where it is picked up by the ISP. The ISP will take over at what we "see" as the first hop on a traceroute. Everything up to that point is in the hands of the telco/DSL provider. The ISP will connect to the ATM side of the DSLAM via a high-speed data connection, usually ATM over a DS3 (45 Mbps) or possibly an OC-3 (155 Mbps). The important thing here is that an ISP must "subscribe" with your telco to provide this connection. The ISP will provide traditional ISP type services: email, DNS, news, etc. It is really a two step connection -- DSL from one provider, Internet from a second -- even though these may be combined into one billing.
The Baby Bells (RBOCs) all own ISPs. These, of course, are connected to their DSLAMs, and are providing Internet services via the telco's ISP subsidiary. Many independent ISPs are availing themselves of the ILEC's DSL services, and in essence "reselling" the DSL services of the ILEC. While the underlying infrastructure is the same in this case, having more than one ISP working out of a CO may mean a better selection of features and prices for the consumer.
CLECs (independent telcos) are now installing their own DSLAMs. This makes them a direct competitor to the ILEC. In this scenario, there would be two (or more) DSL providers in the same CO, each with their own DSLAM(s), and each competing against each other. This complicates the ISP situation even further, as each DSL provider will be "partnered" with one or more ISPs. If you are lucky here, you will have many choices of plans and pricing structures.
Typically, your service agreement is with the ISP, and not the DSL provider. This makes the actual DSL provider a "behind the scenes" player. This may vary, and in some cases, you may wind up with a separate service agreement for both the DSL provider and the ISP.
See the Appendix for a list of Linux Friendly ISPs.
Who can get DSL? The first requirement is that a telco has installed the necessary hardware somewhere on their end. Typically this is in the CO. You have no choice on which CO is yours -- it is wherever your loop terminates. If your CO has a DSLAM, and the necessary other components, then DSL may be available to you. This is often known as "pre-qualifying", and is Step One in getting service.
Before ordering service, check to see what providers there are in your area. Look for options on both the telco/DSL side and the ISP side. You may have several options, including the large phone companies, as well as smaller, local ISPs. Once an order is placed, you must wait for the qualification process before a provider will agree to provide service.
Once local availability is established, the next step is "qualifying" your loop. The provider will run various tests to make sure that your loop can handle the DSL signal. This is to determine how suitable your line is for DSL, and maybe what level of service will be available to you. You probably will have to order service just to find out this much. It can be a fairly involved process, with a variety of different tests being run. There are a number of things that may "disqualify" a line. The most common limitation is distance.
All DSLs have distance limitations. ADSL is limited to a loop length of roughly 18,000 ft (5.5 km), but the actual cut off point will vary from provider to provider. The further away you are, the weaker the signal, and the potential for poor connections is greater. With ADSL, if you are within approximately 12,000 ft (3.7 km), you should be able to get at least 1.5 Mbps -- all other things being equal. IDSL has even greater reach, mainly because the maximum speed for IDSL is considerably lower at 144 Kbps/144 Kbps.
Still even if you're close enough, there are a number of potential impediments that may disqualify a line. Two such common impediments are load coils and bridge taps. These are aspects of the old telco infrastructure that once were deemed beneficial, but now are getting in the way of the newer, digital technologies. Whether you hit a snag like this or not, is pretty much hit or miss. Fiber anywhere in the loop is also a disqualifier. The provider may take steps to "clean" the line. Just how far they are willing to go will vary from provider to provider, and this will likely add additional time to the installation process.
Once the line is "qualified", the next step is deciding on which plan is suitable for your situation. The provider may have differing plans available depending on how strong a signal they think your line can handle. If you are marginal, you will not be qualified for the higher speed plans. And if price is a factor, having a tiered pricing structure is good also since the lower end plans are obviously less expensive. How this is structured also varies wildly from provider to provider. Since, DSL is a new service, and providers are trying to find the right price/feature combinations that will attract the most users and thus gain a competitive edge.
Some common data rates:
and a near infinite number of other possibilities. The cost of different plans generally goes up with their speed.
Should you be disqualified, and have other options, get a second opinion. Calculating the effective loop length is by no means an exact science. There is plenty of room for errors. Also, some providers may go to greater lengths to "clean" the loop than others. And, if you have more than one phone line, and are disqualified, then try the other line. Just because they both terminate at your location, does not necessarily mean they are the same length! The telco network is full of surprises.
Should you have more than one choice, here are some things to keep in mind when comparing services from different providers. If you are in a populous area, chances are you do have a number of choices. There is a dizzying array of possibilities at this time. Remember too, that it is a two step connection: DSL provider and ISP. You may have choices for each.
There are a number of other options and features that might be worth looking at too: multiple IPs, domain hosting (DNS), free web space, number of email accounts, web mail, etc. All things considered, the better plans are probably going to cost more for a reason.