Bits, Baud and Symbols

Baud is a measurement of transmission speed in asynchronous communication. Because of advances in modem communication technology, this term is frequently misused when describing the data rates in newer devices.

Traditionally, a Baud Rate represents the number of bits that are actually being sent over the media, not the amount of data that is actually moved from one DTE device to the other. The Baud count includes the overhead bits Start, Stop and Parity that are generated by the sending UART and removed by the receiving UART. This means that seven-bit words of data actually take 10 bits to be completely transmitted. Therefore, a transmitter capable of moving 300 bits per second from one place to another can normally only move 30 7-bit words if Parity is used and one Start and Stop bit are present.

If 8-bit data words are used and Parity bits are also used, the data rate falls to 27.27 words per second, because it now takes 11 bits to send the eight-bit words, and the modem still only sends 300 bits per second.

The formula for converting bytes per second into a baud rate and vice versa was simple until error-correcting modems came along. These modems receive the serial stream of bits from the UART in the host computer (even when internal modems are used the data is still frequently serialized) and converts the bits back into bytes. These bytes are then combined into packets and sent over the phone line using a Synchronous transmission method. This means that the Stop, Start, and Parity bits added by the UART in the DTE (the computer) were removed by the DCE (modem) before transmission by the sending modem. When these bytes are received by the remote modem, the remote modem adds Start, Stop and Parity bits to the words, converts them to a serial format and then sends them to the receiving UART in the remote computer, who then strips the Start, Stop and Parity bits.

The reason all these extra conversions are done is so that the two modems can perform error correction, which means that the receiving modem is able to ask the sending modem to resend a block of data that was not received with the correct checksum. This checking is handled by the modems, and the DTE devices are usually unaware that the process is occurring.

By striping the Start the Stop and the Parity bits, the additional bits of data that the two modems must share between themselves to perform error-correction are mostly concealed from the effective transmission rate seen by the sending and receiving DTE equipment. For example, if a modem sends ten 7-bit words to another modem without including the Start, Stop and Parity bits, the sending modem will be able to add 30 bits of its own information that the receiving modem can use to do error-correction without impacting the transmission speed of the real data.

The use of the term Baud is further confused by modems that perform compression. A single 8-bit word passed over the telephone line might represent a dozen words that were transmitted to the sending modem. The receiving modem will expand the data back to its original content and pass that data to the receiving DTE.

Modern modems also include buffers that allow the rate that bits move across the phone line (DCE to DCE) to be a different speed than the speed that the bits move between the DTE and DCE on both ends of the conversation. Normally the speed between the DTE and DCE is higher than the DCE to DCE speed because of the use of compression by the modems.

Because the number of bits needed to describe a byte varied during the trip between the two machines plus the differing bits-per-seconds speeds that are used present on the DTE-DCE and DCE-DCE links, the usage of the term Baud to describe the overall communication speed causes problems and can misrepresent the true transmission speed. So Bits Per Second (bps) is the correct term to use to describe the transmission rate seen at the DCE to DCE interface and Baud or Bits Per Second are acceptable terms to use when a connection is made between two systems with a wired connection, or if a modem is in use that is not performing error-correction or compression.

Modern high speed modems (2400, 9600, 14,400, 19,200, 28,800, 38,400, 57,600bps, etc..) still operate at or below 2400 baud, or more accurately, 2400 Symbols per second. High speed modem are able to encode more bits of data into each Symbol using a technique called Constellation Stuffing, which is why the effective bits per second rate of the modem is higher, but the modem continues to operate within the limited audio bandwidth that the telephone system provides. Modems operating at 28,800 and higher speeds have variable Symbol rates, but the technique is the same.



(to be continued…)

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