Bit stuffing

In data transmission and telecommunication, bit stuffing (also known—uncommonly—as positive justification) is the insertion of non information bits into data. Stuffed bits should not be confused with overhead bits.

Bit stuffing is used for various purposes, such as for bringing bit streams that do not necessarily have the same or rationally related bit rates up to a common rate, or to fill buffers or frames. The location of the stuffing bits is communicated to the receiving end of the data link, where these extra bits are removed to return the bit streams to their original bit rates or form. Bit stuffing may be used to synchronize several channels before multiplexing or to rate-match two single channels to each other.

Applications include Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy and Synchronous Digital Hierarchy.

Another use of bit stuffing is for run length limited coding: to limit the number of consecutive bits of the same value in the data to be transmitted. A bit of the opposite value is inserted after the maximum allowed number of consecutive bits. Since this is a general rule the receiver doesn't need extra information about the location of the stuffing bits in order to do the de-stuffing.

This is done to create additional signal transitions to ensure reliable reception or to escape special reserved code words such as frame sync sequences when the data happens to contain them.

Bit stuffing in CAN after five equal bits.

Applications include CAN, HDLC, and USB.

Bit stuffing does not ensure that the payload is intact (i.e. not corrupted by transmission errors); it is merely a way of attempting to ensure that the transmission starts and ends at the correct places. Error detection and correction techniques are used to check the frame for corruption after its delivery and, if necessary, the frame will be re-sent.

Zero-bit insertion

Zero-bit insertion is a particular type of bit stuffing used in some data transmission protocols to aid clock recovery from the data stream. It was popularized by IBM's SDLC (later renamed HDLC).

The name relates to the insertion of only 0 bits. No 1 bits are inserted to limit sequences of 0 bits.

SDLC and Low- and full-speed USB data are sent NRZI encoded: a 0 bit causes a signal transition, whereas a 1 bit causes no change. After a long sequence of 1 bits there could be no transitions in the transmitted data, and it would be possible for the transmitter and receiver clocks to lose synchronisation. By inserting a 0 after five (SDLC) or six (USB) sequential 1s the transmitter guarantees a maximum time between transitions. The receiver can synchronise its clock against the transitions to ensure proper data recovery.

In SDLC the transmitted bit sequence "01111110" containing six adjacent 1 bits is the Flag byte. Bit stuffing ensures that this pattern can never occur in normal data, so it can be used as a marker for the beginning and end of frame without any possibility of being confused with normal data.[1]

The main disadvantage of this form of bit-stuffing is that the code rate is unpredictable; it depends on the data being transmitted.

Source: from Federal Standard 1037C in support of MIL-STD-188


  1. Kevin R. Fall and W. Richard Stevens, TCP/IP Illustrated Volume 1: The Protocols, Second Edition, Addison-Wesley, 2012, Kindle Edition loc 3505
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