digital communication

 digital transmission or digital communications is the physical transfer of data (a digitalbit stream) over a point-to-point or point-to-multipoint transmission medium. Examples of such media are copper wires, optical fibers, wireless communication media, and storage media. The data is often represented as an electro-magneticsignal, such as an electrical voltage signal, a radiowave or microwave signal or an infra-red signal.

While analog communications represents a continuously varying signal by a continuously varying signal, a digital transmission can be broken down into discrete messages. The messages are either represented by a sequence of pulses by means of a line code (baseband transmission), or by a limited set of analogue wave forms (passband transmission), using a digital modulation method. According to the most common definition of digital signal, both baseband and passband signals representing bit-streams are considered as digital transmission, while an alternative definition only considers the baseband signal as digital, and the passband transmission as a form of digital-to-analog conversion.

Data transmitted may be digital messages originating from a data source, for example a computer or a keyboard. It may also be an analog signal such as a phone call or a video signal, digitized into a bit-stream for example using pulse-code modulation (PCM) or more advanced source coding (data compression) schemes. This source coding and decoding is carried out by codec equipment.

Distinction between related subjects

Courses and textbooks in the field of data transmission as well as digital transmission and digital communications  have similar content.

Digital transmission or data transmission belongs to telecommunications and electrical engineering. Data transmission may also be covered within the subject of data communications, which also includes computer networking or computer communication applications and networking protocols, for example routing, switching and process-to-process communication. Although the Transmission control protocol (TCP) involves the term "transmission", TCP and other transport layer protocols are typically not discussed in a textbook or course about data transmission.

The term tele transmission involves analog as well as digital transmission. In most textbooks, the term analog transmission only refers to the transmission of an analog message signal (without digitization) by means of an analog signal, either as a non-modulated baseband signal, as a passband signal using an analog modulation method such as AM or FM, or as an analog-over-analog pulse modulatated baseband signal. In a few books, analog transmission also refers to passband transmission of bit-streams using digital modulation methods such as PSK and ASK. Note that the latter is covered in textbooks named digital transmission or data transmission, for example


Applications and history

Data (mainly but not exclusively informational) has been sent via non-electronic (e.g. optical, acoustic, mechanical) means since the advent of communication. Analog signal data has been sent electronically since the advent of the telephone. However, the first data electromagnetic transmission applications in modern time were telegraphy (1809) and teletypewriters (1906), which are both digital signals. The fundamental theoretical work in data transmission and information theory by Harry Nyquist, Ralph Hartley, Claude Shannon and others during the early 20th century, was done with these applications in mind.

Data transmission is utilized in computers in computer buses and for communication with peripheral equipment via parallel ports and serial ports such us RS-232 (1969), fireware (1995) and USB (1996). The principles of data transmission is also utilized in storage media for Error detection and correction since 1951.

Data transmission is utilized in computer networking equipment such as modems (1940), local area networks (LAN) adapters (1964), repeaters, hubs, microwave links, wireless network access points (1997), etc.

In telephone networks, digital communication is utilized for transferring many phone calls over the same copper cable or fiber cable by means of Pulse code modulation (PCM), i.e. sampling and digitization, in combination with Time division multiplexing (TDM) (1962). Telephone exchanges have become digital and software controlled, facilitating many value added services. For example the first AXE telephone exchange was presented in 1976. Since late 1980th, digital communication to the end user has been possible using Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) services. Since the end of 1990th, broadband access techniques such as ADSL, Cable modems, fiber-to-the-building (FTTB) and fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) have become wide spread to small offices and homes. The current tendency is to replace traditional telecommunication services by packet mode communication such as IP telephony and IPTV.

Transmitting analog signals digitally allows for greater signal processing capability. The ability to process a communications signal means that errors caused by random processes can be detected and corrected. Digital signals can also be sampled instead of continuously monitored. The multiplexing of multiple digital signals is much simpler to the multiplexing of analog signals.

Because of all these advantages, and because recent advances in wideband communication channels and solid-state electronics have allowed scientists to fully realize these advantages, digital communications has grown quickly. Digital communications is quickly edging out analog communication because of the vast demand to transmit computer data and the ability of digital communications to do so.

The digital revolution has also resulted in many digital telecommunication applications where the principles of data transmission are applied. Examples are second-generation (1991) and later cellular telephony, video conferencing, digital TV (1998), digital radio (1999), telemetry, etc.

Baseband or passband transmission

The physically transmitted signal may be one of the following:

  1. A baseband signal ("digital-over-digital" transmission): A sequence of electrical pulses or light pulses produced by means of a line coding scheme such as Manchester coding. This is typically used in serial cables, wired local area networks such as Ethernet, and in optical fiber communication. It results in a pulse amplitude modulated signal, also known as a pulse train.
  2. A passband signal ("digital-over-analog" transmission): A modulated sine wave signal representing a digital bit-stream. Note that this is in some textbooks considered as analog transmission, but in most books as digital transmission. The signal is produced by means of a digital modulation method such as PSK, QAM or FSK. The modulation and demodulation is carried out by modem equipment. This is used in wireless communication, and over telephone network local-loop and cable-TV networks.
Serial and parallel transmission

In telecommunications, serial transmission is the sequential transmission of signal elements of a group representing a character or other entity of data. Digital serial transmissions are bits sent over a single wire, frequency or optical path sequentially. Because it requires less signal processing and less chances for error than parallel transmission, the transfer rate of each individual path may be faster. This can be used over longer distances as a check digit or parity bit can be sent along it easily.

In telecommunications, parallel transmission is the simultaneous transmission of the signal elements of a character or other entity of data. In digital communications, parallel transmission is the simultaneous transmission of related signal elements over two or more separate paths. Multiple electrical wires are used which can transmit multiple bits simultaneously, which allows for higher data transfer rates than can be achieved with serial transmission. This method is used internally within the computer, for example the internal buses, and sometimes externally for such things as printers, The major issue with this is "skewing" because the wires in parallel data transmission have slightly different properties (not intentionally) so some bits may arrive before others, which may corrupt the message. A parity bit can help to reduce this. However, electrical wire parallel data transmission is therefore less reliable for long distances because corrupt transmissions are far more likely.

Asynchronous and synchronous data transmission

Main article: comparison of synchronous and asynchronous signalling

Asynchronous transmission uses start and stop bits to signify the beginning bit ASCII character would actually be transmitted using 10 bits e.g.: A "0100 0001" would become "1 0100 0001 0". The extra one (or zero depending on parity bit) at the start and end of the transmission tells the receiver first that a character is coming and secondly that the character has ended. This method of transmission is used when data are sent intermittently as opposed to in a solid stream. In the previous example the start and stop bits are in bold. The start and stop bits must be of opposite polarity. This allows the receiver to recognize when the second packet of information is being sent.

Synchronous transmission uses no start and stop bits but instead synchronizes transmission speeds at both the receiving and sending end of the transmission using clock signals built into each component. A continual stream of data is then sent between the two nodes. Due to there being no start and stop bits the data transfer rate is quicker although more errors will occur, as the clocks will eventually get out of sync, and the receiving device would have the wrong time that had been agreed in protocol (computing) for sending/receiving data, so some bytes could become corrupted (by losing bits). Ways to get around this problem include re-synchronization of the clocks and use of check digits to ensure the byte is correctly interpreted and received.