What did I learn in this module?

Purpose of the Physical Layer

Before any network communications can occur, a physical connection to a local network must be established. A physical connection can be a wired connection using a cable or a wireless connection using radio waves. Network Interface Cards (NICs) connect a device to the network. Ethernet NICs are used for a wired connection, whereas WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) NICs are used for wireless. The OSI physical layer provides the means to transport the bits that make up a data link layer frame across the network media. This layer accepts a complete frame from the data link layer and encodes it as a series of signals that are transmitted onto the local media. The encoded bits that comprise a frame are received by either an end device or an intermediary device.

Physical Layer Characteristics

The physical layer consists of electronic circuitry, media, and connectors developed by engineers. The physical layer standards address three functional areas: physical components, encoding, and signaling. Bandwidth is the capacity at which a medium can carry data. Digital bandwidth measures the amount of data that can flow from one place to another in a given amount of time. Throughput is the measure of the transfer of bits across the media over a given period of time and is usually lower than bandwidth. Latency refers to the amount of time, including delays, for data to travel from one given point to another. Goodput is the measure of usable data transferred over a given period of time. The physical layer produces the representation and groupings of bits for each type of media as follows:

  • Copper cable – The signals are patterns of electrical pulses.
  • Fiber-optic cable – The signals are patterns of light.
  • Wireless – The signals are patterns of microwave transmissions.

Copper Cabling

Networks use copper media because it is inexpensive, easy to install, and has low resistance to electrical current. However, copper media is limited by distance and signal interference. The timing and voltage values of the electrical pulses are also susceptible to interference from two sources: EMI and crosstalk. Three types of copper cabling are: UTP, STP, and coaxial cable (coax). UTP has an outer jacket to protect the copper wires from physical damage, twisted pairs to protect the signal from interference, and color-coded plastic insulation that electrically isolates wires from each other and identifies each pair. The STP cable uses four pairs of wires, each wrapped in a foil shield, which are then wrapped in an overall metallic braid or foil. Coaxial cable, or coax for short, gets its name from the fact that there are two conductors that share the same axis. Coax is used to attach antennas to wireless devices. Cable internet providers use coax inside their customers’ premises.

UTP Cabling

UTP cabling consists of four pairs of color-coded copper wires that have been twisted together and then encased in a flexible plastic sheath. UTP cable does not use shielding to counter the effects of EMI and RFI. Instead, cable designers have discovered other ways that they can limit the negative effect of crosstalk: cancellation and varying the number of twists per wire pair. UTP cabling conforms to the standards established jointly by the TIA/EIA. The electrical characteristics of copper cabling are defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). UTP cable is usually terminated with an RJ-45 connector. The main cable types that are obtained by using specific wiring conventions are Ethernet Straight-through and Ethernet Crossover. Cisco has a proprietary UTP cable called a rollover that connects a workstation to a router console port.

Fiber-Optic Cabling

Optical fiber cable transmits data over longer distances and at higher bandwidths than any other networking media. Fiber-optic cable can transmit signals with less attenuation than copper wire and is completely immune to EMI and RFI. Optical fiber is a flexible, but extremely thin, transparent strand of very pure glass, not much bigger than a human hair. Bits are encoded on the fiber as light impulses. Fiber-optic cabling is now being used in four types of industry: enterprise networks, FTTH, long-haul networks, and submarine cable networks. There are four types of fiber-optic connectors: ST, SC, LC, and duplex multimode LC. Fiber-optic patch cords include SC-SC multimode, LC-LC single-mode, ST-LC multimode, and SC-ST single-mode. In most enterprise environments, optical fiber is primarily used as backbone cabling for high-traffic point-to-point connections between data distribution facilities and for the interconnection of buildings in multi-building campuses.

Wireless Media

Wireless media carry electromagnetic signals that represent the binary digits of data communications using radio or microwave frequencies. Wireless does have some limitations, including: coverage area, interference, security, and the problems that occur with any shared medium. Wireless standards include the following: Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11), Bluetooth (IEEE 802.15), WiMAX (IEEE 802.16), and Zigbee (IEEE 802.15.4). Wireless LAN (WLAN) requires a wireless AP and wireless NIC adapters.

4.7.4 Module Quiz – Physical Layer