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How Cable Works

 

 

For millions of people, television brings news, entertainment and educational programs into their homes. Many people get their TV signal from cable television (CATV) because cable TV provides a clearer picture and more channels. (See How Cable TV Works for details.)

Many people who have cable TV can now get a high-speed connection to the Internet from their cable provider. Cable modems compete with technologies like asymmetrical digital subscriber lines (ADSL). If you have ever wondered what the differences between DSL and cable modems are, or if you have ever wondered how a computer network can share a cable with dozens of television channels, then read on. In this article, we’ll look at how a cable modem works and see how 100 cable television channels and any Web site out there can flow over a single coaxial cable into your home.

Extra Space

You might think that a television channel would take up quite a bit of electrical “space,” or bandwidth, on a cable. In reality, each television signal is given a 6-megahertz (MHz, millions of cycles per second) channel on the cable. The coaxial cable used to carry cable television can carry hundreds of megahertz of signals — all the channels you could want to watch and more.

In a cable TV system, signals from the various channels are each given a 6-MHz slice of the cable’s available bandwidth and then sent down the cable to your house. In some systems, coaxial cable is the only medium used for distributing signals. In other systems, fiber-optic cable goes from the cable company to different neighborhoods or areas. Then the fiber is terminated and the signals move onto coaxial cable for distribution to individual houses.

Streams

When a cable company offers Internet access over the cable, Internet information can use the same cables because the cable modem system puts downstream data — data sent from the Internet to an individual computer — into a 6-MHz channel. On the cable, the data looks just like a TV channel. So Internet downstream data takes up the same amount of cable space as any single channel of programming. Upstream data — information sent from an individual back to the Internet — requires even less of the cable’s bandwidth, just 2 MHz, since the assumption is that most people download far more information than they upload.

Putting both upstream and downstream data on the cable television system requires two types of equipment: a cable modem on the customer end and a cable modem termination system (CMTS) at the cable provider’s end. Between these two types of equipment, all the computer networking, security and management of Internet access over cable television is put into place.



Inside the Cable Modem

Cable modems can be either internal or external to the computer. In some cases, the cable modem can be part of a set-top cable box, requiring that only a keyboard and mouse be added for Internet access. In fact, if your cable system has upgraded to digital cable, the new set-top box the cable company provides will be capable of connecting to the Internet, whether or not you receive Internet access through your CATV connection. Regardless of their outward appearance, all cable modems contain certain key components:

  • A tuner
  • A demodulator
  • A modulator
  • A media access control (MAC) device
  • A microprocessor

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