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The Physical layer has two responsibilities: it sends bits and receives bits. Bits come only in values of 1 or 0a Morse code with numerical values. The Physical layer communicates directly with the various types of actual communication media. Different kinds of media represent these bit values in different ways. Some use audio tones, while others employ state transitionschanges in voltage from high to low and low to high. Specific protocols are needed for each type of media to describe the proper bit patterns to be used, how data is encoded into media signals, and the various qualities of the physical medias attachment interface.

The Physical layer specifications specify the electrical, mechanical, procedural, and functional requirements for activating, maintaining, and deactivating a physical link between end systems.

At the Physical layer, the interface between the Data Terminal Equipment, or DTE, and the Data Circuit-Terminating Equipment, or DCE, is identified. The DCE is usually located at the service provider, while the DTE is the attached device. The services available to the DTE are most often accessed via a modem or Channel Service Unit/Data Service Unit (CSU/DSU).

The Physical layers connectors and different physical topologies are defined by the OSI as standards, allowing disparate systems to communicate.

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