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1.0 Introduction Media is the actual physical environment through which data travels as it moves from one component to another – the media connects devices. Transmission media generally fall into two categories: guided (or bounded) media and unguided (or unbounded) media. Guided media generally employ tangible physical media – such as copper or optical fiber (glass conductor). Copper systems conduct electrical energy, employing copper as the medium; fiber optic systems conduct light or optical energy using a glass conductor. The term “guided media” refers to the fact that the signal is contained within an enclosed physical path. Also, bounded media refers to the fact that some form of insulating material binds the signal within the core medium, thereby improving signal strength over distance and enhancing the performance of the transmission system in the process. Unguided media, on the other hand, do not make use of a physical conductor to guide the signal. Rather than relying on electrical energy, such systems generally make use of radio waves; that is, the systems employ electromagnetic energy in the form of radio waves that are transmitted and received across space. These media include satellite systems, microwave, infrared, etc. Each specific transmission system is distinguished by unique factors and limitations, and each has appropriate applications. Therefore, the selection of the most effective transmission system for a given application must be made in the context of a number of key design considerations, such as:

      

Bandwidth; error performance; propagation delay; security; mechanical strength; physical dimensions; cost.

The attractiveness of any given transmission system increases to the extent that you receive greater available bandwidth, fewer errors and greater maximum distance between various network elements. Bandwidth is a measure of the amount of information that can flow from one place to another in a given amount of time, often quoted in millions of bits per second (Mbps). Error performance refers to the number or percentage of errors introduced in the process of transmission. Distance refers to the minimum and maximum spatial separation between any two devices over a link. Radio systems, for example, are highly susceptible to the quality of the atmosphere (air) between the transmitter and the receiver. Dust, smoke, etc., have decidedly negative effects on signal performance; precipitation in the form of rain or snow can cause substantial degradation in performance, a phenomenon known as rain fade. Propagation delay refers to the length of time required for a signal to travel from transmitter to receiver across a transmission system. Satellite systems suffer considerable propagation delay, with the delay between signal origination and receipt of response approximately 0.64 seconds. This arises due to the considerable amount of time required for signal processing onboard the satellite, as well as at the earth stations. Thus, highly interactive voice, data and video applications are not effectively supported via twoway satellite communications. Security, in the context of transmission systems, addresses the protection of data from interception as it traverses the network. Airwave systems (microwave and satellite) are inherently insecure, as unauthorized entities can gain access to that data through the use of properly tuned and placed antennae, without the necessity of physically tapping a wire-line circuit. Mechanical strength applies to wired systems: copper and fiber optic cables are physically manipulated while deployed; each media type has certain physical limits to the amount of bending and twisting it can tolerate. The issue of mechanical strength also applies to airwave systems, as the reflective dishes, antennae, and other devices used in microwave and satellite systems must be mounted securely to deal with the stresses of wind and other forces of nature. Additionally, the towers, walls and roofs on which they


typically are mounted must be constructed properly in order to withstand such forces, and must bend and twist (or flex) as appropriate. The physical dimensions of a transmission system must be considered as well. The sheer weight of a cable and its diameter are important considerations in deployment. There are also the physical dimensions of airwave systems, and the size and weight of the reflective dish and mounting system (such as the tower, etc). And, finally, cost issues abound in the selection of an appropriate transmission system. These include the cost of acquisition, deployment, operations and maintenance, etc. Wired systems require that legal right-ofway be secured, trenches dug, and other activities associated – activities that entail associated costs. On the other hand, wireless systems require antennae placement, securing of spectrum licenses, etc. Generally, deployment of wired systems involve a set of cost issues that can be problematic. Also, wired systems tend to be more susceptible to the forces of man and nature. The particular transmission media are discussed in the next section. 1.1 Copper Twisted-pair cable (copper) is the most common media type for network connectivity. Twisted copper pair consists of two separately insulated conductors, twisted at regular intervals. Twisting serves to reduce the effects of electromagnetic interference. A measure of the thickness of the copper conductor used is often known as the gauge. The effective bandwidth of twisted-pair cable depends on several factors, including the gauge of the conductor, the length of the circuit. Three categories of copper-cable exist: unshielded twisted pair (UTP), shielded twisted pair (STP) and coaxial cable. Note: Twisted pairs can run several kilometers without amplification, but for longer distances, repeaters are needed. When many twisted pairs run in parallel for a substantial distance – such as all the wires coming from an apartment building to the telephone company office – they are bundled together and encased in a protective sheath. The pairs in these bundles could interfere with one another if it were not for the twisting. Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) This is the most common form of copper wire used in communications; it has no outer shield over the twisted pair (the shield would serve to protect the signals from outside sources of electromagnetic interference). The Category 5 (Cat 5 copper) used in local area network (LAN) environments, provides a bandwidth of 100 Mbps over twisted pair cable at distances of up to 100 meters. UTP is particularly susceptible to the impacts of outside interference, because the lightly insulated wires pick up errant signals from the outside – from sources such as radio transmissions, electric motors and fluorescent light boxes. This affects the error performance of the cable. UTP also contains some distance limitations. As the distance between network elements increases, the attenuation (or signal loss) increases, and error performance degrades. Even low-speed (voice grade) analog voice transmissions require amplifiers after some distance interval. UTP is an inherently insecure transmission medium. It is relatively simple to place physical taps on UTP. However, the acquisition, deployment and rearrangement costs of UTP are very low, especially in applications involving only a few pairs (such as between a workstation and a switch or hub). Several categories of UTP exist, as shown below: Category Category 1 Category 2 Category 3 Category 4 Category 5 Category 5e Category 6 Comments Used for telephone communications; not suitable for transmitting data Capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 4 Mbps Used in Ethernet networks (10Base-T); can transmit data at speeds to 10 Mbps Used in Token Ring networks; can transmit up to 16 Mbps Capable of transmitting data up to 100 Mbps Used in networks running up to 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps) Consists of 4 pairs of 24-gauge copper wires that can transmit data at speeds up to 1000 Mbps.


Shielded Twisted Pair (STP) STP differs from UTP in that a metallic sheath or screen surrounds the pairs. The metallic sheath is electrically grounded. Shielded copper offers the advantage of enhanced performance, for reasons of reduced electromagnetic interference The primary advantage of STP is in the protection it offers from outside sources of electromagnetic interference such as electric motors, radio systems, etc. The shield absorbs that energy and conducts it to ground. However, the cost of acquisition is greater because the medium costs more to produce. Also, the cost of deployment is greater because the additional bulk and weight of the shield makes it more difficult to deploy. The application of STP is thus limited to high-noise environments, and where high frequency signals are transmitted and where interference with adjacent pairs presents a concern. Coaxial Cable In this type of copper cable, a single inner wire located in the center of the cable is a copper conductor, surrounded by a layer of flexible insulation. Over this insulating material is woven a metallic foil that acts as the second wire in the circuit and as a shield for the inner conductor. This second layer, or shield, can help reduce the amount of outside interference. An outer jacket covers the shield. Coaxial cable supports 10 to 100 Mbps and is relatively inexpensive, though more costly than UTP. Coaxial cable can also be laid over long distances than twisted-pair cable. For example, Ethernet can run approximately 100 meters using twisted-pair cable, but 500 meters using coaxial cable. Coaxial cable offers many advantages for use in LANs. It can be run with fewer boosts from repeaters, which regenerate the signal in a network so that they can cover greater distances between network nodes than either STP or UTP cable. Coaxial cable is less expensive than the fiber-optic cable, and the technology is well known. It has been used for many years for all types of data communication. However, coaxial cable is more expensive to install than twisted-pair cable. Coaxial cable offers excellent error performance due to the outer shielding; it does not have the same distance limitations as UTP, because the thicker central conductor offers less resistance to the signal. Further, coaxial cable is inherently quite secure, since it is relatively difficult to place physical taps on coax. On the other hand, the acquisition and deployment costs of coax are quite high (compared with UTP) due to increased bulk and weight. Coax is most commonly found in Cable TV networks – supporting as many as 40 to 116 channels, using multiplexing. Note: The thicker the copper in Coax, the farther a signal can travel, and with this comes higher costs and a less flexible cable. Thus, Coax comes in two categories: Thicknet (also called 10Base5) and Thinnet (also called 10Base2); that is, 10 Mbps Baseband at 500 meters or 300 meters respectively. 1.2. Fiber-Optic Cable An optical transmission system has three key components: the light source, the transmission medium, and the detector. Conventionally, a pulse of light indicates a 1 bit and the absence of light indicates a 0 bit. The transmission medium is an ultra-thin fiber of glass, while the detector generates an electrical pulse when light falls on it. By attaching a light source to one end of an optical fiber and a detector to the other, we have a unidirectional data transmission system that accepts an electrical signal, converts it and transmits it by light pulses, and then reconverts the output to an electrical signal at the other end. Optical fibers are made of glass, which – in turn – is made from sand, an inexpensive raw material. Fiber optic cables are essentially similar to Coax: at the center is the glass core through which light propagates; the core is surrounded by glass material of lower refractive index that the glass core, so that all the light can be kept in the core. Next comes a thin plastic jacket to give outer protection. Because fiber-optic cable transmits digital signals using light pulses rather than electricity, it is immune to electromagnetic and radio-frequency interference. It is also not affected by chemicals in the air, making it ideal for harsh factory environments. Further, due to the low attenuation (signal loss), repeaters are needed only about 50 km on long lines, versus about every 5 km for copper – a substantial cost saving. Yet another advantage is that fiber can handle much higher bandwidths than copper. Even more compelling also is that


fibers do not leak light and are quite difficult to tap, properties that give fiber excellent security against potential wiretappers. On the other hand, fiber is a less familiar technology requiring skills not all engineers have, and fibers can be damaged easily by being bent too much. Also, fiber interfaces cost more than electrical interfaces. Further, because optical transmission is inherently unidirectional, two-way communication requires two fibers, or two frequency bands on one fiber. 1.3. Wireless Transmission The electromagnetic spectrum is shown below.

f (H z)

10 0

10 2

10 4

10 6

10 8

10 10

10 12

10 14

10 16 U V

10 18

10 20

10 22

10 24


m icrow e av



G m ray am a

V isible light 10 6 Tw isted pair C oax
A M radio

f (H z) 10 4

10 8

10 10
Satellite T errestrial m icrow ave TV

10 12

10 14 F iber optics

10 16

F M radio








F requency B ands

The radio, microwave, infrared and visible light portions of the electromagnetic spectrum – as shown – can be used for transmitting information. Ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays would be even better, due to their higher frequencies, but – among other negative issues associated with them – they do not propagate through buildings and are dangerous to living things. The bands are also listed in the diagram based on the official ITU names: LF, MF, etc – for low frequency, medium frequency, etc. Radio Transmission In addition to its use for the public broadcast of radio and TV programs and for private communication with devices like portable phones, electromagnetic radiation can be used to transmit computer data. Informally, a network that uses electromagnetic radio waves is said to operate at radio frequency, and the transmissions are referred to as RF transmissions. Networks using RF transmissions are characterized by the fact that each participating computer attaches to an antenna, which can both transmit and receive RF. Physically, the antennas used with RF can be large or small, depending on the range desired. An antenna designed to propagate signals several miles across town may consist of a metal pole approximately two meters long that is vertically on top of a building; on the other hand, an antenna designed to permit communication within a building may be small enough to fit inside a portable computer (say, less than twenty centimeters). Generally, radio waves are easy to generate, can travel long distances, and can penetrate buildings easily, so they are widely used for communication, both indoors and outdoors. Radio waves are also omni-directional, meaning that they travel in all directions from the source, so the transmitter and receiver do not have to be carefully aligned physically. Microwave Transmission Above 100 MHz (i.e., above 108 Hz), the waves travel in straight lines and can therefore be narrowly focused. Concentrating all the energy into a small beam by means of a parabolic antenna – like the familiar satellite TV dish – gives a much higher signal-to-noise ratio, but the transmitting and receiving antennas must be accurately aligned with each other. In addition, this directionality allows multiple transmitters aligned in a row to communicate with multiple receivers in a row without interference, provided some minimum spacing rules are observed. Since microwaves travel in straight lines, if the towers are too far apart, the earth will get in the way.


Consequently, repeaters are needed periodically. The higher the towers are, the farther apart they can be (for example, for 100-meter high towers, repeaters can be placed 80 km apart). Unlike radio waves (which are at lower frequencies), microwaves do not pass through buildings well. In summary, microwave communication is so widely used for long-distance telephone communication, mobile phones, television distribution, etc., and has several significant advantages over fiber: the main one is that no right-of-way is needed – and by buying a small plot of ground every 50 km and putting a microwave tower on it, one can by-pass the telephone system and communicate directly. Microwave is also relatively inexpensive: putting up two simple towers and putting antennas on each one may be cheaper than burying 50 km of fiber through a congested urban area or up over a mountain, and it may also be cheaper than leasing the telephone company’s fiber. Note: Electromagnetic radiation beyond the frequency range used for radio and television can also be used to transport information. Although microwaves are merely a higher frequency version of radio waves, they behave differently: instead of broadcasting in all directions, a microwave transmission can be aimed in a single direction, preventing others from intercepting the signal. In addition, microwave transmission can carry more information than lower frequency RF transmissions. However, because microwaves cannot penetrate metal structures, microwave transmission works best when a clear path exists between the transmitter and receiver. As a result, most microwave installations consist of two towers that are taller than the surrounds buildings and vegetation, each with a microwave transmitter aimed directly at a microwave receiver on the other. Infrared Waves Unguided infrared waves are widely used for short-range communication. The remote controls used in TVs, VCRs, and stereos all use infrared communication. They are directional, relatively cheap (do not even require an antenna) and easy to build – but have a major drawback: they do not pass through solid objects. The fact that infrared waves do not pass through solid walls is also a plus, because it means that an infrared system in one room will not interfere with an infrared system in adjacent rooms or buildings (you can not control your neighbour’s TV with your remote control). Also, security of infrared systems is better than that of radio systems – hence no government license is needed to operate an infrared system. Infrared communication has limited use on the desktop: connecting notebook computers and printers, but it is not a major player in communications. Satellite Communications Satellite radio is – put simply – a microwave transmission system utilizing a non-terrestrial (non-landbased) relay station positioned in space; that is, a communications satellite can be thought of as a big microwave repeater in the sky. The figure below illustrates how a communication satellite in orbit around the earth can provide a network connection across an ocean. The satellite contains a transponder that consists of a radio-wave receiver and transmitter. The transponder accepts an incoming signal, amplifies it, and transmits the amplified signal back toward the ground at a slightly different angle than it received it. A ground station on one side of the ocean transmits a signal to the satellite, which then sends the signal to a ground station on the other side.

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Because placing a communication satellite in orbit is expensive, a single satellite usually contains multiple transponders that operate independently (typically six to twelve); each transponder uses a different radio frequency (i.e., channel), making it possible for multiple communications to proceed simultaneously. Communication satellites can be grouped into categories according to the height (above the earth) at which they orbit. A Geo-stationary Earth Orbit (GEO) is an orbit such that, when viewed from the ground, a satellite in the orbit appears to be at the same point in the sky at all times. It has been determined that such an orbit is about 35,785 kilometers from the earth. A satellite orbiting in such an orbit is sometimes known as a Geo-synchronous Satellite. A second category of communication satellites operate in what is called Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which means that they orbit a few hundred miles above the earth (typically 200 to 400 miles). Very Small Aperture Terminals (and Satellite Communications): A new development in the communication satellite world is the development of low-cost micro-stations – known as Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT). These tiny terminals have 1-meter or small antennas (versus 10 meters for a standard geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellite antenna). These terminals can put out about 1 watt of power; the uplink speed is 19.2 kbps while the downlink speed is 512 kbps or more. In many VSAT systems, the micro-stations do not have enough power to communicate directly with one another (via the satellite). Instead, a special ground station (called the Hub) with a large, high-gain antenna is needed to relay traffic between VSATs as shown below:

1 VA S T


2 4 HB U VA S T

VSATs have great potential in rural areas: stringing telephone wires to thousands of small villages is far beyond the budgets of most Third World Countries – but installing 1-meter VSAT dishes powered by solar cells is often feasible. VSATs provide the technology that will wire the world. Satellites versus Fiber: Some of the issues between satellite and fiber optic transmission systems are mentioned below, as a comparison: (i). The fibers that are now being installed are used within the telephone system to handle many longdistance calls at once, not to provide individual users with high bandwidth. With satellites, it is practical for a user to erect an antenna on the roof of the building and completely bypass the telephone system to get high bandwidth. (ii). A message sent by a satellite can be received by thousands of ground stations at once. (iii). Satellite is good for areas with hostile terrain, or poorly developed terrestrial infrastructure. (iv). Another market niche for satellites is to cover areas where the right of way – the land rights – for laying fiber is difficult or unduly expensive. (v). Satellite is good when rapid development is critical – as in military communication systems in time of war. Review Questions:


Discuss briefly each of the data transmission media used in the world today.