The problem of scaling Ethernet to handle collision detection gets harder as the transmission rate increases. If we were continue to maintain the same 51.2 µsec slot time but raise the transmission rate to 1000 Mbps, the maximum network diameter would now be 20-40 meters. Instead of that, Gigabit Ethernet moved to a 4096-bit (512-byte, or 4.096 µsec) slot time, at least for the twisted-pair versions. Short frames need to be padded, but this padding is done by the hardware. Gigabit Ethernet 1000Base-T uses so-called PAM-5 encoding, below, which supports a special pad pattern (or symbol) that cannot appear in the data. The hardware pads the frame with these special patterns, and the receiver can thus infer the unpadded length as set by the host operating system.
However, the Gigabit Ethernet slot time is largely irrelevant, as full-duplex (bidirectional) operation is almost always supported. Combined with the restriction that each length of cable is a station-to-station link (that is, hubs are no longer allowed), this means that collisions simply do not occur and the network diameter is no longer a concern. (10 Gigabit Ethernet has officially abandoned any pretense of supporting collisions; everything must be full-duplex.)
There are actually multiple Gigabit Ethernet standards (as there are for Fast Ethernet). The different standards apply to different cabling situations. There are full-duplex optical-fiber formulations good for many miles (eg 1000Base-LX10), and even a version with a 25-meter maximum cable length (1000Base-CX), which would in theory make the original 512-bit slot practical.
The most common gigabit Ethernet over copper wire is 1000BASE-T (sometimes incorrectly referred to as 1000BASE-TX. While there exists a TX, it requires Category 6 cable and is thus seldom used; many devices labeled TX are in fact 1000BASE-T). For 1000BASE-T, all four twisted pairs in the cable are used. Each pair transmits at 250 Mbps, and each pair is bidirectional, thus supporting full-duplex communication. Bidirectional communication on a single wire pair takes some careful echo cancellation at each end, using a circuit known as a “hybrid” that in effect allows detection of the incoming signal by filtering out the outbound signal.
On any one cable pair, there are five signaling levels. These are used to transmit two-bit symbols at a rate of 125 symbols/µsec, for a data rate of 250 bits/µsec. Two-bit symbols in theory only require four signaling levels; the fifth symbol allows for some redundancy which is used for error detection and correction, for avoiding long runs of identical symbols, and for supporting a special pad symbol, as mentioned above. The encoding is known as 5-level pulse-amplitude modulation, or PAM-5. The target bit error rate (BER) for 1000BASE-T is 10-10, meaning that the packet error rate is less than 1 in 106.
In developing faster Ethernet speeds, economics plays at least as important a role as technology. As new speeds reach the market, the earliest adopters often must take pains to buy cards, switches and cable known to “work together”; this in effect amounts to installing a proprietary LAN. The real benefit of Ethernet, however, is arguably that it is standardized, at least eventually, and thus a site can mix and match its cards and devices. Having a given Ethernet standard support existing cable is even more important economically; the costs of replacing inter-office cable often dwarf the costs of the electronics.
As Ethernet speeds continue to climb, it has become harder and harder for host systems to keep up. As a result, it is common for quite a bit of higher-layer processing to be offloaded onto the Ethernet hardware, for example, TCP checksum calculation. See 12.5 TCP Offloading.