I'm a newbie to networking and I wonder what are the reasons for ADSL to use ATM instead of Ethernet ?

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    – Ron Maupin
    Dec 25, 2018 at 9:21

2 Answers 2


According to the German Wikipedia the bit rates used in the time when ADSL was invented was the reason:

At that time the backbones of the telephone and internet providers operated at 1-40 MBit/s while today rates above 10 GBit/s are used.

At 2 MBit/s a packet of 1000 bytes length would take 4ms time for transmission; at 1 MBit/s a packet of 1500 bytes would take 12ms.

Because the optical fiber is blocked during this time no other data or voice can be transmitted for this time.

For voice telephony this means that voice will be delayed up to 12ms which seems to be too long for voice telephony.

Therefore shorter "packets" had to be used to ensure that voice packets are not delayed too much. ATM uses 53 bytes.


But, it doesn't exactly explain why ADSL ... uses ATM.

It would of course be possible to send Ethernet frames via ADSL and to split these frames into ATM cells at the provider's "router" (I don't know if "router" is the correct word here).

However this would make the provider's router more complicated: If ATM is already used at the customer's home the router simply has to route cells; it does not have to convert Ethernet to ATM and vice versa.

ADSL uses ATM to transport PPP frames which carry IP packets. You could ask why ADSL does not use ATM to transport Ethernet frames instead of PPP frames.

However before ADSL was introduced analogue modems were used. Analogue modems use PPP frames, not Ethernet frames.

So PPP was the de-facto standard data format for transferring data between the customer and the internet while Ethernet was rarely used; most PCs did not even have a network card in the 1990s!

Changing the protocol later on would mean: Develop new devices and throw away the old ones. Therefore this change was not made.

  • English wikipedia also describes the 48-byte payload as a political compromise between 32- and 64-byte, proposed by different groups, and describes 5-byte header as what was considered reasonable.
    – jonathanjo
    Aug 22, 2018 at 15:54
  • 1
    This is, indeed, why ATM exists (and yes, 53byte cells were a level-the-playing-field compromise to make everyone build new hardware, vs. giving those that had already made 32/64b hardware a leg up.) But, it doesn't exactly explain why ADSL (which was exclusively data in the beginning) uses ATM. There are systems that use frame-relay, btw. (and AT&T Uverse's redheaded stepchild ADSL/PTM that nothing else does -- that's ethernet, btw)
    – Ricky
    Aug 22, 2018 at 16:20
  • @RickyBeam I updated my answer Aug 23, 2018 at 5:59
  • (more history) PPPoEoA, so ethernet was in there. PPP was there because it grew out of dialup and was an existing means of authentication.
    – Ricky
    Aug 23, 2018 at 17:37

When ADSL came up in the late 1990s, Carrier Ethernet was in the far future - Ethernet was just 100 Mbit/s back then.

Then, carrier networks were SDH and used ATM as base protocol. This has changed significantly since, with Ethernet being far cheaper, more efficient, flexible and easier to scale.

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