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Comparison of Analog and Digital Communication

Module by: Don Johnson. E-mail the author

Summary: Digital communication systems offer much more efficiency, better performance, and much greater flexibility.

Analog communication systems, amplitude modulation (AM) radio being a typifying example, can inexpensively communicate a bandlimited analog signal from one location to another (point-to-point communication) or from one point to many (broadcast). Although it is not shown here, the coherent receiver provides the largest possible signal-to-noise ratio for the demodulated message. An analysis of this receiver thus indicates that some residual error will always be present in an analog system's output.

Although analog systems are less expensive in many cases than digital ones for the same application, digital systems offer much more efficiency, better performance, and much greater flexibility.

  • Efficiency: The Source Coding Theorem allows quantification of just how complex a given message source is and allows us to exploit that complexity by source coding (compression). In analog communication, the only parameters of interest are message bandwidth and amplitude. We cannot exploit signal structure to achieve a more efficient communication system.
  • Performance: Because of the Noisy Channel Coding Theorem, we have a specific criterion by which to formulate error-correcting codes that can bring us as close to error-free transmission as we might want. Even though we may send information by way of a noisy channel, digital schemes are capable of error-free transmission while analog ones cannot overcome channel disturbances; see this problem for a comparison.
  • Flexibility: Digital communication systems can transmit real-valued discrete-time signals, which could be analog ones obtained by analog-to-digital conversion, and symbolic-valued ones (computer data, for example). Any signal that can be transmitted by analog means can be sent by digital means, with the only issue being the number of bits used in A/D conversion (how accurately do we need to represent signal amplitude). Images can be sent by analog means (commercial television), but better communication performance occurs when we use digital systems (HDTV). In addition to digital communication's ability to transmit a wider variety of signals than analog systems, point-to-point digital systems can be organized into global (and beyond as well) systems that provide efficient and flexible information transmission. Computer networks, explored in the next section, are what we call such systems today. Even analog-based networks, such as the telephone system, employ modern computer networking ideas rather than the purely analog systems of the past.
Consequently, with the increased speed of digital computers, the development of increasingly efficient algorithms, and the ability to interconnect computers to form a communications infrastructure, digital communication is now the best choice for many situations.

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