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Here's an analogy:
Say you're in a filled room having a conversation with someone. The volume they are speaking at will be the signal level. The volume of the people around you is the noise level.
Now, if the person speaking to you is at a low volume, you're going to have a hard time making out what they're saying because of all the noise.
HOWEVER, remove that noise from around you, and you can hear that guy just fine. If you have very little noise, you can operate at lower signal levels reliably.
I've had a modem running at -32db before, because it was running through a 300MHz splitter.
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