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
The tuner connects to the cable outlet, sometimes with the addition of a splitter that separates the Internet data channel from normal CATV programming. Since the Internet data comes through an otherwise unused cable channel, the tuner simply receives the modulated digital signal and passes it to the demodulator.
In some cases, the tuner will contain a diplexer, which allows the tuner to make use of one set of frequencies (generally between 42 and 850 MHz) for downstream traffic, and another set of frequencies (between 5 and 42 MHz) for the upstream data. Other systems, most often those with more limited capacity for channels, will use the cable modem tuner for downstream data and a dial-up telephone modem for upstream traffic. In either case, after the tuner receives a signal, it is passed to the demodulator.
The most common demodulators have four functions. A quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) demodulator takes a radio-frequency signal that has had information encoded in it by varying both the amplitude and phase of the wave, and turns it into a simple signal that can be processed by the analog-to-digital (A/D) converter. The A/D converter takes the signal, which varies in voltage, and turns it into a series of digital 1s and 0s. An error correction module then checks the received information against a known standard, so that problems in transmission can be found and fixed. In most cases, the network frames, or groups of data, are in MPEG format, so an MPEG synchronizer is used to make sure the data groups stay in line and in order.
In cable modems that use the cable system for upstream traffic, a modulator is used to convert the digital computer network data into radio-frequency signals for transmission. This component is sometimes called a burst modulator, because of the irregular nature of most traffic between a user and the Internet, and consists of three parts:
- A section to insert information used for error correction on the receiving end
- A QAM modulator
- A digital-to-analog (D/A) converter
Media Access Control (MAC)
The MAC sits between the upstream and downstream portions of the cable modem, and acts as the interface between the hardware and software portions of the various network protocols. All computer network devices have MACs, but in the case of a cable modem the tasks are more complex than those of a normal network interface card. For this reason, in most cases, some of the MAC functions will be assigned to a central processing unit (CPU) -- either the CPU in the cable modem or the CPU of the user's system.
The microprocessor's job depends somewhat on whether the cable modem is designed to be part of a larger computer system or to provide Internet access with no additional computer support. In situations calling for an attached computer, the internal microprocessor still picks up much of the MAC function from the dedicated MAC module. In systems where the cable modem is the sole unit required for Internet access, the microprocessor picks up MAC slack and much more. In either case, Motorola's PowerPC processor is one of the common choices for system designers.