What’s symbol rate?

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Symbol rate measures the speed of data transmission in digital communications. It is expressed in baud or symbols per second. Knowing the symbol rate helps estimate transmission time and troubleshoot network issues. The size of symbols affects the probability of errors and transmission time.

Symbol rate is a term used in digital communications to describe the speed of transmission of signals over a particular connection. Measuring the symbol rate lets the end user of the system know how fast computers or other electronic devices are exchanging data. The most typical method of writing symbol rate is to list it in terms of baud (Bd), also known as symbols, per second. Another commonly used method of discussing the line code is monitoring the number of pulses transmitted along the wire per second.

Understand that a “symbol” is nothing more than a set of bits, specifically defined as X number of bits, where X is an integer. Information traveling along digital networks is not sent in huge amounts of data, but rather in smaller, “smaller” packets of information. When the receiving computer collects the transmitted data, it reassembles the big picture from the smaller data packets.

The main benefit of knowing the symbol rate of a broadcast is as a crude measure of speed. It is like measuring the number of miles per hour a car travels, allowing the driver and passengers to get a rough estimate of how long it will take to reach their final destination. Without knowing the symbol rate for a particular transmission, both the sending and receiving computers would exist in a vacuum—neither would have any real idea how long their network hardware would be bound by the transmission.

Another significant benefit of measuring symbol rate is for error checking and troubleshooting. If the symbol rate of a line drops dramatically in a relatively short period of time, it’s likely that something went wrong with the network connection or the connecting cables along the way. Like water moving through a pipe, its flow will not be impeded unless the pipe becomes blocked or kinked in some way. Symbol rate provides a useful way to estimate fluctuating impedance for a particular line.

The bit size has a rough approximation of the probability of bit errors along the line. When you send larger symbols, symbols with more bits per element, it’s much more likely that something could go wrong along the way. Conversely, sending smaller symbols will reduce the probability of error, but increase the overall transmission time. Therefore, the symbol exchange rate becomes a balance between accuracy and convenience.

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