Integrated Services Digital Network

Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) is a set of communications standards for simultaneous digital transmission of voice, video, data, and other network services over the traditional circuits of the public switched telephone network. It was first defined in 1988 in the CCITT red book.[1] Prior to ISDN, the phone system was viewed as a way to transport voice, with some special services available for data. The key feature of ISDN is that it integrates speech and data on the same lines, adding features that were not available in the classic telephone system. There are several kinds of access interfaces to ISDN defined as Basic Rate Interface (BRI), Primary Rate Interface (PRI) and Broadband ISDN (B-ISDN).

ISDN is a circuit-switched telephone network system, which also provides access to packet switched networks, designed to allow digital transmission of voice and data over ordinary telephone copper wires, resulting in potentially better voice quality than an analog phone can provide. It offers circuit-switched connections (for either voice or data), and packet-switched connections (for data), in increments of 64 kilobit/s. A major market application for ISDN in some countries is Internet access, where ISDN typically provides a maximum of 128 kbit/s in both upstream and downstream directions. Channel bonding can achieve a greater data rate; typically the ISDN B-channels of 3 or 4 BRIs (6 to 8 64 kbit/s channels) are bonded.

ISDN should not be mistaken for its use with a specific protocol, such as Q.931 whereby ISDN is employed as the network, data-link and physical layers in the context of the OSI model. In a broad sense ISDN can be considered a suite of digital services existing on layers 1, 2, and 3 of the OSI model. ISDN is designed to provide access to voice and data services simultaneously.

However, common use has reduced ISDN to be limited to Q.931 and related protocols, which are a set of protocols for establishing and breaking circuit switched connections, and for advanced call features for the user. They were introduced in 1986.[2]

In a videoconference, ISDN provides simultaneous voice, video, and text transmission between individual desktop videoconferencing systems and group (room) videoconferencing systems.

ARCNET, Token Ring and other technology standards have been used in the past, but Ethernet over twisted pair cabling, and Wi-Fi are the two most common technologies currently in use.

ISDN elements

Integrated services refers to ISDN's ability to deliver at minimum two simultaneous connections, in any combination of data, voice, video, and fax, over a single line. Multiple devices can be attached to the line, and used as needed. That means an ISDN line can take care of most people's complete communications needs (apart from broadband Internet access and entertainment television) at a much higher transmission rate, without forcing the purchase of multiple analog phone lines. It also refers to Integrated Switching and Transmission[3] in that telephone switching and carrier wave transmission are integrated rather than separate as in earlier technology.

Data channel

The bearer channel (B) is a standard 64 kbit/s voice channel of 8 bits sampled at 8 kHz with G.711 encoding. B-Channels can also be used to carry data, since they are nothing more than digital channels.

Each one of these channels is known as a DS0.

Most B channels can carry a 64 kbit/s signal, but some were limited to 56K because they traveled over RBS lines. This was commonplace in the 20th century, but has since become less so.

Signaling channel

The signaling channel (D) uses Q.931 for signaling with the other side of the link.


X.25 can be carried over the B or D channels of a BRI line, and over the B channels of a PRI line. X.25 over the D channel is used at many point-of-sale (credit card) terminals because it eliminates the modem setup, and because it connects to the central system over a B channel, thereby eliminating the need for modems and making much better use of the central system's telephone lines.

X.25 was also part of an ISDN protocol called "Always On/Dynamic ISDN", or AO/DI. This allowed a user to have a constant multi-link PPP connection to the internet over X.25 on the D channel, and brought up one or two B channels as needed.

Frame Relay

In theory, Frame Relay can operate over the D channel of BRIs and PRIs, but it is seldom, if ever, used.

Consumer and industry perspectives

There are two points of view into the ISDN world. The most common viewpoint is that of the end user, who wants to get a digital connection into the telephone network from home, whose performance would be better than a 20th century analog 56K modem connection. Discussion on the merits of various ISDN modems, carriers' offerings and tariffs (features, pricing) are from this perspective. Since the principal consumer application is for Internet access, ISDN was mostly superseded by DSL in the early 21st century. Inexpensive ADSL service offers speeds up to 384 kbps, while more expensive versions are improving in speed all the time. As of fall 2005, standard ADSL speeds are in millions of bits per second.

There is a second viewpoint: that of the telephone industry, where ISDN is a core technology. A telephone network can be thought of as a collection of wires strung between switching systems. The common electrical specification for the signals on these wires is T1 or E1. Between telephone company switches, the signaling is performed via SS7. Normally, a PBX is connected via a T1 with robbed bit signaling to indicate on-hook or off-hook conditions and MF and DTMF tones to encode the destination number. ISDN is much better because messages can be sent much more quickly than by trying to encode numbers as long (100 ms per digit) tone sequences. This results in faster call setup times. Also, a greater number of features are available and fraud is reduced.

ISDN is also used as a smart-network technology intended to add new services to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) by giving users direct access to end-to-end circuit-switched digital services and as a backup or failsafe circuit solution for critical use data circuits.

ISDN and broadcast industry

ISDN is used heavily by the broadcast industry as a reliable way of switching low latency, high quality, long distance audio circuits. In conjunction with an appropriate codec using MPEG or various manufacturers proprietary algorithms, an ISDN BRI can be used to send stereo bi-directional audio coded at 128kbps with 20 Hz-20 kHz audio bandwidth, although commonly the G.722 algorithm is used with a single 64 kbps B channel to send much lower latency audio at the expense of audio quality. Where very high quality audio is required multiple ISDN BRIs can be used in parallel to provide a higher bandwidth circuit switched connection. BBC Radio 3 commonly makes use of three ISDN BRIs to carry 320 kbps audio stream for live outside broadcasts. ISDN BRI services are used to link remote studios, sports grounds and outside broadcasts into the main broadcast studio. ISDN via satellite is used by field reporters around the world. It's also common to use ISDN for the return audio links to remote satellite broadcast vehicles.

In many countries, such as the UK and Australia, ISDN has displaced the older technology of equalised analogue landlines, with these circuits being phased out by telecommunications providers. IP based streaming codecs are starting to gain a foothold in the broadcast sector, using broadband internet to connect remote studios. However reliability and latency is crucially important for broadcasters and the quality of service offered by ISDN has not yet been matched by packet switched alternatives.


In ISDN, there are two types of channels, B (for "bearer") and D (for "data"). B channels are used for data (which may include voice), and D channels are intended for signaling and control (but can also be used for data).

There are two ISDN implementations. Basic Rate Interface (BRI), also called basic rate access (BRA) — consists of two B channels, each with bandwidth of 64 kbit/s, and one D channel with a bandwidth of 16 kbit/s. Together these three channels can be designated as 2B+D. Primary Rate Interface (PRI), also called primary rate access (PRA) in Europe — contains a greater number of B channels and a D channel with a bandwidth of 64 kbit/s. The number of B channels for PRI varies according to the nation: in North America and Japan it is 23B+1D, with an aggregate bit rate of 1.544Mbit/s (T1); in Europe, India and Australia it is 30B+1D, with an aggregate bit rate of 2.048 Mbit/s (E1). Broadband Integrated Services Digital Network (BISDN) is another ISDN implementation and it is able to manage different types of services at the same time. It is primarily used within network backbones and employs ATM.

Another alternative ISDN configuration can be used in which the B channels of an ISDN BRI line are bonded to provide a total duplex bandwidth of 128 kbit/s. This precludes use of the line for voice calls while the internet connection is in use. The B channels of several BRIs can be BONDED, a typical use is a 384K videoconferencing channel.

Using bipolar with eight-zero substitution encoding technique, call data is transmitted over the data (B) channels, with the signaling (D) channels used for call setup and management. Once a call is set up, there is a simple 64 kbit/s synchronous bidirectional data channel (actually implemented as two simplex channels, one in each direction) between the end parties, lasting until the call is terminated. There can be as many calls as there are bearer channels, to the same or different end-points. Bearer channels may also be multiplexed into what may be considered single, higher-bandwidth channels via a process called B channel BONDING, or via use of Multi-Link PPP "bundling" or by using an H0, H11, or H12 channel on a PRI.

The D channel can also be used for sending and receiving X.25 data packets, and connection to X.25 packet network, this is specified in X.31. In practice, X.31 was only commercially implemented in UK, France and Japan.

Reference points

A set of reference points are defined in the ISDN standard to refer to certain points between the telco and the end user ISDN equipment.

§  R - defines the point between a non-ISDN device and a terminal adapter (TA) which provides translation to and from such a device

§  S - defines the point between the ISDN equipment (or TA) and a Network Termination Type 2 (NT-2) device

§  T - defines the point between the NT-2 and NT-1 devices

Types of communications

Among the kinds of data that can be moved over the 64 kbit/s channels are pulse-code modulated voice calls, providing access to the traditional voice PSTN. This information can be passed between the network and the user end-point at call set-up time. In North America, ISDN is now used mostly as an alternative to analog connections, most commonly for Internet access. Some of the services envisioned as being delivered over ISDN are now delivered over the Internet instead. In Europe, and in Germany in particular, ISDN has been successfully marketed as a phone with features, as opposed to a POTS phone with few or no features. Meanwhile, features that were first available with ISDN (such as Three-Way Call, Call Forwarding, Caller ID, etc.) are now commonly available for ordinary analog phones as well, eliminating this advantage of ISDN. Another advantage of ISDN was the possibility of multiple simultaneous calls (one call per B channel), e.g. for big families, but with the increased popularity and reduced prices of mobile telephony this has become less interesting as well, making ISDN unappealing to the private customer. However, ISDN is typically more reliable than POTS, and has a significantly faster call setup time compared with POTS, and IP connections over ISDN typically have some 30–35ms round trip time, as opposed to 120–180ms (both measured with otherwise unused lines) over 56k or V.34/V.92 modems, making ISDN more reliable and more efficient for telecommuters.

Where an analog connection requires a modem, an ISDN connection requires a terminal adapter (TA). The function of an ISDN terminal adapter is often delivered in the form of a PC card with an S/T interface, and single-chip solutions seem to exist, considering the plethora of combined ISDN- and ADSL-routers.

ISDN is commonly used in radio broadcasting. Since ISDN provides a high quality connection this assists in delivering good quality audio for transmission in radio. Most radio studios are equipped with ISDN lines as their main form of communication with other studios or standard phone lines. Equipment made by companies such as Telos/Omnia (the popular Zephyr codec), Comrex, Tieline and others are used regularly by radio broadcasters. Almost all live sports broadcasts on radio are backhauled to their main studios via ISDN connections.

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