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Tech Stuff - Telecom and Network Speeds

We see network speed terms (e.g. T1, DS0, OC-192) all over the place and we always get confused (with our modest brain sizes) over what they all mean. So we set out to try and pull all the pieces into one place and this is what we came up with:

Some Background

First some basic stuff. You will see references to 64K (bits) 'channels' all over the place. This is the basic digital voice signal - called Digital Signal 0 or the infamous DS0 for short. The digital voice signal is encoded using PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) and TDM (Time Division Multiplexing). All other classic copper signal hierarchies, known as PDH - the Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy, such as T3, are defined as multiples of DS0. Why 64K. Well... to digitize narrowband speech (voice) you take a 4 KHz spectrum (actually 3.1K - see notes below). Normal sampling techniques only give reasonable resolution if sampled at twice the frequency (Nyquist rate) - which gives 2 x 4K(ish) = 8K samples per second. Each sample is 8 bits which gives 8K x 8 = 64K bits per second.


  1. K in this context is 1,000 not 1,024.
  2. Narrowband speech is from 0.3 to 3.4 KHz. Wideband speech (a.k.a. 'hi-fi speech') covers 0.15 to 6.8 KHz.


  1. Tx North American Signal Hierarchy e.g. T1, T3 etc.
  2. Ex European Signal Hierarchy e.g. E1, E3 etc.
  3. Summary Summary of North American (T-x), Euro (E-x) and Japanese signal hierarchy.
  4. OCx Optical Carrier Hierarchy for SONET and SDH e.g. OC-1, OC-192 etc. Includes STS-x and STM-x definitions.
  5. Containers & Tributaries The terms used to map T-1, E-3 onto optical (SDH/SONET) carriers.
  6. Errors Bit Error Rates or Ratio (BER) definition.

North American Digital Signal Hierarchy

The North American signal hierarchy was created by the old US 'Bell system' (AT&T) in the early 1960's and was the world's first digital voice system. It is based on multiples of the DS0 signal with a little bit of overhead to show its age. The fiendishly cunning Europeans who waited longer to define a digital hierarchy were able to live without the small overhead largely due to improved electronics.

The signal hierarchy defines the levels of multiplexing, that is, the first level of the hierarchy multiplexes (combines) a number of DS0s into a single digital signal (with a DSx designator) which is then placed on a carrier (with a T-x designator). The DSx defines an abstract signal or speed and the T-x defines a physical 'pipe' or format. The DSx and T-x series specs and most other telecom related specifications are standardized by the ANSI accredited Committee T1 (T1E1), now part of Alliance for Telecommunications Industry solutions - ATIS, which in turn represents, via the US State Department, the US at ITU standard sessions.

Remember: a DS0 is 64K or 64,000 bits per second.

Hierarchy Speed Digital
Carrier DS0's Notes
First Level 1.544 Mbit/s DS1 T-1 24 In ISDN PRI = 23B (user) + 1D (signaling) channels
3.152 Mbit/s DS1C - 48 -
Second Level 6.312 Mbit/s DS2 T-2 96 4 x DS1
Third Level 44.736 Mbit/s DS3 T-3 672 28 x DS1
Intermediate Level 139.264 Mbit/s DS4NA ? 2016 3 x DS3 Highest designed in ANSI T1.107
Fourth Level 274.176 Mbit/s DS4 T-4 4032 Replaced with OCx
Fifth Level 400.352 Mbit/s DS5 T-5 5760 Replaced with OCx


BITDROPPING: Now if you have not been sleeping you will have figured out that for a T1 if you multiply 24 x DS0 (64,000) you do NOT get 1.544 Mbit/s instead you get 24 * 64,000 = 1.536 Mbit/s. The extra bits are lost between 'frames' where a frame consists of one 8 bit sample for each of the 24 channels (remember the DS0 basics). So every 192 bits (24 x 8 = 192) we add a 'frame separator' bit to give 193 bits per frame. The final arithmetic is 193 bits x 8K samples = 1.544 Mbit/s. Easy really.

If you do the same arithmetic for DS1C, T2 etc. the above will not give the right answer. In short, above T1 things get really nasty with M-Frames and M-subframes. It's mind numbing stuff and if you really need this information get hold of ANSI T1.107-2002 and lots of coffee or other mind-altering substances.

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European Digital Signal Hierarchy

The fiendish Europeans left the US to blaze the digital voice trail, so when they came standardize things they could forget all this 'frame separator' stuff. Euro Telecom standards are defined by CEPT (a Euro Telecom 'club'). Here in all its glory is the super simple European hierarchy. Again all based on our good friend, the ever popular, 64,000 bit DS0.

Hierarchy Speed Carrier DS0's Notes
First Level 2.048 Mbit/s E-1 32 In ISDN PRI = 30B (user) + 2D (signaling) channels
Second Level 8.448 Mbit/s E-2 128 -
Third Level 34.368 Mbit/s E-3 512 -
Fourth Level 139.264 Mbit/s E-4 2048 -
Fifth Level 565.148 Mbit/s E-5 8192 -


While the table above shows the European carriers as E-1, E-3 etc. in similar format to the American T-1 etc. this terminology is of relatively recent vintage. The original carrier names were CEPT-1, CEPT-3 etc.

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Summary Table

The following table summarizes a number of digital signal hierarchies currently in operation. We have used the terms J-1 etc. to define the Japanese signal designations for convenience without actually knowing if they are used in practice. Maybe you know...

Speed DS0's North
Europe Japan
64 Kbps 1 - - -
1.544 Mbit/s 24 T-1 - J-1
2.048 Mbit/s 32 - E-1 -
6.312 Mbit/s 96 T-2 - J-2
7.786 Mbit/s 120 - - J-2 (alt)
8.448 Mbit/s 128 - E-2 -
32.064 Mbit/s 480 - - J-3
34.368 Mbit/s 512 - E-3 -
44.736 Mbit/s 672 T-3 - -
97.728 Mbit/s 1440 - - J-4
139.264 Mbit/s 2016 DS4NA - -
139.264 Mbit/s 2048 - E4 -
274.176 Mbit/s 4032 T-4 - -
400.352 Mbit/s 5760 T-5 - -
565.148 Mbit/s 8192 - E-5 J-5


The rates above T-3, E-3 etc are normally now optical (see below) and ANSI T1.107-2002 makes no reference to anything above DS4NA. Errata: We previously, and incorrectly, defined E-4 in this table to be 139.268 whereas in the European Hierarchy it was always correctly defined to be 139.264. While the two signal rates (E-4 and DS4NA) are the same the DS0 capacity is different. Apologies.

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Optical Carriers

Optical transmission systems are known as SONET (Synchronous Optical NETwork) in North America and SDH (Synchronous Digital Hierarchy) in the Rest of the World. Optical Carriers are typically known by their OC-x number where x is a multiple of the OC-1 rate of 51.84 Mbps (shades of DS0 but a tad faster). While there is a common world-wide standard for optical systems there are differences but they are accommodated within the standard. North America uses an STS-x (Synchronous Transport Signal) format for frames (packets) and Europe an STM-x (Synchronous Transport Module) format because .... well its obvious really, one is from Europe and the other from North America and even if they were both exactly the same, which they are not, the terms would in any case be different because one is.... One day if we ever understand the differences we will add some more information.

Optical Signal Hierarchy

Hierarchy Data Rate SONET SDH OCx
Level Zero 155.52 STS-3 STM-1 OC-3
Level One 622.08 STS-12 STM-4 OC-12
Level Two 2488.32 Mbit/s STS-48 STM-16 OC-48
Level Three 9953.28 Mbit/s STS-192 STM-64 OC-192

Optical Carrier Rates

Optical Carrier Data Rate Payload-SONET (SPE) User Data Rate SONET SDH
OC-1 51.84 Mbit/s 50.112 Mbit/s 49.536 STS-1 --
OC-3 155.52 Mbit/s 150.336 Mbit/s 148.608 STS-3 STM-1
OC-9 466.56 Mbit/s 451.044 Mbit/s 445.824 STS-9 STM-3
OC-12 622.08 Mbit/s 601.344 Mbit/s 594.824 STS-12 STM-4
OC-18 933.12 Mbit/s 902.088 Mbit/s 891.648 STS-18 STM-6
OC-24 1244.16 Mbit/s 1202.784 Mbit/s 1188.864 STS-24 STM-8
OC-36 1866.24 Mbit/s 1804.176 Mbit/s 1783.296 STS-36 STM-12
OC-48 2488.32 Mbit/s 2.4 Gbps 2377.728 STS-48 STM-16
OC-192 9953.28 Mbit/s 9.6 Gbps 9510.912 STS-192 STM-64
OC-768 40Gbit/s - - STS-768 STM-256
OC-3072 160Gbit/s - - STS-3072 STM-1024


  1. SPE (Synchronous Payload Envelope) = AU (Administrative Unit)

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Tributaries and Virtual Containers

Just when we thought it was getting simple - they go and make it more complicated. SDH/SONET defines a way or packaging capacity into Virtual Containers (VCs) which may be Higher Order Virtual Container (HVC) or Lower Order Virtual Containers (LVC). The term Tributary Unit (TU - used outside of North America) or Virtual Tributary (VT - North America) describes a method of mapping PDH (Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy, for example, T1) carriers onto SDH/SONET.

Name Speed Name Speed
VT-1.5 1.728Mbit/s VC-11 1.728Mbit/s
VT-2 2.304Mbit/s VC-12 2.304Mbit/s
VT-3 3.456Mbit/s - -
VT-6 6.912Mbit/s VC-2 6.912Mbit/s
STS-1 50.112Mbit/s VC-3 48.960Mbit/s
STS-3 150.336Mbit/s VC-4 150.336Mbit/s

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Error Rates

The term BER (Bit Error Rate or Ratio both terms are widely used) defines the number of bit errors that can occur during transmission. It is expressed as a negative power, so that 10-10 indicates that there could be one bit error in 10,000,000,000 bits of transmission - which is a lot of bits in anyone's language. Typical error rates for copper and optical transmissions are in the range 10-10 to 10-14 whereas for wireless networks BER lies in the range 10-3 to 10-6.

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