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Learn more about DSL

Digital subscriber line (DSL, originally digital subscriber loop) is a family of technologies that provide internet access by transmitting digital data over the wires of a local telephone network. In telecommunications marketing, the term DSL is widely understood to mean Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), the most commonly installed DSL technology. DSL service is delivered simultaneously with wired telephone service on the same telephone line. This is possible because DSL uses higher frequency bands for data separated by filtering. On the customer premises, a DSL filter on each outlet removes the high frequency interference, to enable simultaneous use of the telephone and data.

The data bit rate of consumer DSL services typically ranges from 256 kbit/s to 40 Mbit/s in the direction to the customer (downstream), depending on DSL technology, line conditions, and service-level implementation. In ADSL, the data throughput in the upstream direction, (the direction to the service provider) is lower, hence the designation of asymmetric service. In Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line (SDSL) services, the downstream and upstream data rates are equal.


Telephones are connected to the telephone exchange via a local loop, which is a physical pair of wires. Prior to the digital age, the use of the local loop for anything other than the transmission of speech, encompassing an audio frequency range of 300 to 3400 Hertz (voiceband or commercial bandwidth) was not considered. However, as long distance trunks were gradually converted from analog to digital operation, the idea of being able to pass data through the local loop (by utilizing frequencies above the voiceband) took hold, ultimately leading to DSL.

For a long time it was thought that it was not possible to operate a conventional phone-line beyond low-speed limits (typically under 9600 bit/s). In the 1950s, ordinary twisted-pair telephone-cable often carried four megahertz (MHz) television signals between studios, suggesting that such lines would allow transmitting many megabits per second. One such circuit in the UK ran some ten miles (16 km) between Pontop Pike transmitter and Newcastle upon Tyne BBC Studios. It was able to give the studios a low quality cue feed but not one suitable for transmission. However, these cables had other impairments besides Gaussian noise, preventing such rates from becoming practical in the field. The 1980s saw the development of techniques for broadband communications that allowed the limit to be greatly extended.

The local loop connecting the telephone exchange to most subscribers has the capability 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 benefited 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 the delivered data must be error free but latency incurred by the retransmission of errored packets is acceptable.

Because DSL operates above the 3.4 kHz voice limit, it cannot pass 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, while voice service cannot be maintained past a certain distance without such coils. Therefore, some areas that are within range for DSL service are disqualified from eligibility because of load coil placement. Because of this, phone companies endeavor to remove load coils on copper loops that can operate without them, and conditioning lines to avoid 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 over the decades that have increased performance and reduced costs even while digging trenches in the ground for new cables (copper or fiber optic) remains expensive. Several factors contributed to the popularity 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 uses a router that establishes a connection between the DSL modem and a local Ethernet, Powerline, or Wi-Fi network on the customer's premises.

Once upstream and downstream channels are established, a subscriber can connect to a service such as an Internet service provider.

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