Coding theory

Coding theory

Coding theory is one of the most important and direct applications of information theory. It is a branch of electrical engineering, digital communication, mathematics, and computer science designing efficient and reliable data transmission methods, so that redundancy in the data can be removed and errors induced by a noisy channel can be corrected. It also deals with the properties of codes, and thus with their fitness for a specific application.

There are three classes of codes.

  1. Source coding (Data compression)
  2. Channel coding (Forward error correction)
  3. Joint source and channel coding

The first, source encoding, attempts to compress the data from a source in order to transmit it more efficiently. We see this practice every day on the Internet where the common "Zip" data compression is used to reduce the network load and make files smaller. The second, channel encoding, adds extra data bits to make the transmission of data more robust to disturbances present on the transmission channel. The ordinary user may not be aware of many applications using channel coding. A typical music CD uses the Reed-Solomon code to correct for scratches and dust. In this application the transmission channel is the CD itself. Cell phones also use coding techniques to correct for the fading and noise of high frequency radio transmission. Data modems, telephone transmissions, and of course NASA all employ channel coding techniques to get the bits through, for example the turbo code and LDPC codes.

Source coding

The aim of source coding is to take the source data and make it smaller. An in-depth article can be found at Data compression.


Entropy of a source is the measure of information. Basically source codes try to reduce the redundancy present in the source, and represent the source with fewer bits that carry more information.

Data compression which explicitly tries to minimise the average length of messages according to a particular assumed probability model is called entropy encoding.

Various techniques used by source coding schemes try to achieve the limit of Entropy of the source. C(x) ≥ H(x), where H(x) is entropy of source (bitrate), and C(x) is the bitrate after compression. In particular, no source coding scheme can be better than the entropy of the source.


Facsimilie transmission uses a simple run length code.

Channel coding

The aim of channel coding theory is to find codes which transmit quickly, contain many valid code words and can correct or at least detect many errors. While not mutually exclusive, performance in these areas is a trade off. So, different codes are optimal for different applications. The needed properties of this code mainly depend on the probability of errors happening during transmission. In a typical CD, the impairment is mainly dust or scratches. Thus codes are used in an interleaved manner. The data is spread out over the disk. Although not a very good code, a simple repeat code can serve as an understandable example. Suppose we take a block of data bits (representing sound) and send it three times. At the receiver we will examine the three repetitions bit by bit and take a majority vote. The twist on this is that we don't merely send the bits in order. We interleave them. The block of data bits is first divided into 4 smaller blocks. Then we cycle through the block and send one bit from the first, then the second, etc. This is done three times to spread the data out over the surface of the disk. In the context of the simple repeat code, this may not appear effective. However, there are more powerful codes known which are very effective at correcting the "burst" error of a scratch or a dust spot when this interleaving technique is used.

Other codes are more appropriate for different applications. Deep space communications are limited by the thermal noise of the receiver which is more of a continuous nature than a bursty nature. Likewise, narrowband modems are limited by the noise present in the telephone network and is also modeled better as a continuous disturbance. Cell phones are subject to rapid fading. The high frequencies used can cause rapid fading of the signal even if the receiver is moved a few inches. Again there are a class of channel codes that are designed to combat fading.

The term algebraic coding theory denotes the sub-field of coding theory where the properties of codes are expressed in algebraic terms and then further researched.

Algebraic coding theory, is basically divided into two major types of codes

  1. Linear block codes
  2. Convolutional codes

It analyzes the following three properties of a code – mainly:

  • code word length
  • total number of valid code words
  • the minimum distance between two valid code words, using mainly the Hamming distance, sometimes also other distances like the Lee distance

Linear block codes

Linear block codes have the property of linearity, i.e the sum of any two codewords is also a code word, and they are applied to the source bits in blocks, hence the name linear block codes. There are block codes that are not linear, but it is difficult to prove that a code is a good one without this property.

Any linear block code is represented as (n,m,dmin) where

  1. n is the length of the codeword, in symbols,
  2. m is the number of source symbols that will be used for encoding at once,
  3. dmin is the minimum hamming distance for the code

There are many types of linear block codes, like

  1. Cyclic codes (Hamming code is a subset of cyclic codes)
  2. Repetition codes
  3. Parity codes
  4. Polynomial codes (BCH codes are a subset of the polynomial codes)
  5. Reed Solomon codes
  6. Algebraic Geometric Codes
  7. Reed Muller codes
  8. Perfect codes

Block codes are tied to the sphere packing problem, which has received some attention over the years. In two dimensions, it is easy to visualize. Take a bunch of pennies flat on the table and push them together. The result is a hexagon pattern like a bee's nest. But block codes rely on more dimensions which cannot easily be visualized. The powerful Golay code used in deep space communications uses 24 dimensions. If used as a binary code (which it usually is) the dimensions refer to the length of the codeword as defined above.

The theory of coding uses the N-dimensional sphere model. For example, how many pennies can be packed into a circle on a tabletop, or in 3 dimensions, how many marbles can be packed into a globe. Other considerations enter the choice of a code. For example, hexagon packing into the constraint of a rectangular box will leave empty space at the corners. As the dimensions get larger, the percentage of empty space grows smaller. But at certain dimensions, the packing uses all the space and these codes are the so called perfect codes. There are very few of these codes (Hamming [n,k,3], Golay [24,12,8],[23,12,7],[12,6,6]).

Another item which is often overlooked is the number of neighbors a single codeword may have. Again, let's use pennies as an example. First we pack the pennies in a rectangular grid. Each penny will have 4 near neighbors (and 4 at the corners which are farther away). In a hexagon, each penny will have 6 near neighbors. When we increase the dimensions, the number of near neighbors increases very rapidly.

The result is the number of ways for noise to make the receiver choose a neighbor (hence an error) grows as well. This is a fundamental limitation of block codes, and indeed all codes. It may be harder to cause an error to a single neighbor, but the number of neighbors can be large enough so the total error probability actually suffers.

Convolution codes

Convolutional codes are used in voiceband modems (V.32, V.17, V.34) and in GSM mobile phones, as well as satellite and military communication devices.

Here the idea is to make every codeword symbol be the weighted sum of the various input message symbols. This is like convolution used in LTI systems to find the output of a system, when you know the input and impulse response.

So we generally find the output of the system convolutional encoder, which is the convolution of the input bit, against the states of the convolution encoder, registers.

Fundamentally, convolutional codes do not offer more protection against noise than an equivalent block code. In many cases, they generally offer greater simplicity of implementation over a block code of equal power. The encoder is usually a simple circuit which has state memory and some feedback logic, normally XOR gates. The decoder can be implemented in software or firmware.

The Viterbi algorithm is the optimum algorithm used to decode convolutional codes. There are simplifications to reduce the computational load. They rely on searching only the most likely paths. Although not optimum, they have generally found to give good results in the lower noise environments. Modern microprocessors are capable of implementing these reduced search algorithms at rate greater than 4000 codewords per second.

Other applications of coding theory

Another concern of coding theory is designing codes that help synchronization. A code may be designed so that a phase shift can be easily detected and corrected and that multiple signals can be sent on the same channel.

Another application of codes, used in some mobile phone systems, is code-division multiple access (CDMA). Each phone is assigned a code sequence that is approximately uncorrelated with the codes of other phones. When transmitting, the code word is used to modulate the data bits representing the voice message. At the receiver, a demodulation process is performed to recover the data. The properties of this class of codes allow many users (with different codes) to use the same radio channel at the same time. To the receiver, the signals of other users will appear to the demodulator only as a low-level noise.

Another general class of codes are the automatic repeat-request (ARQ) codes. In these codes the sender adds redundancy to each message for error checking, usually by adding check bits. If the check bits are not consistent with the rest of the message when it arrives, the receiver will ask the sender to retransmit the message. All but the simplest wide area network protocols use ARQ. Common protocols include SDLC (IBM), TCP (Internet), X.25 (International) and many others. There is an extensive field of research on this topic because of the problem of matching a rejected packet against a new packet. Is it a new one or is it a retransmission? Typically numbering schemes are used, as in TCP.

See also


  • Vera Pless, Introduction to the Theory of Error-Correcting Codes, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (1982) ISBN 0-471-08684-3
  • Elwyn R. Berlekamp, Algebraic Coding Theory, Aegean Park Press; Revised edition (June 1984) ISBN 0894120638, ISBN-13 978-0894120633

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