circuit switch


In digital telecommunications, where a single physical wire pair can be used to carry many simultaneous voice conversations, worldwide standards have been created and deployed. The European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) originally standardized the E-carrier system, which revised and improved the earlier American T-carrier technology, and this has now been adopted by the International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T). This is now widely used in almost all countries outside the USA, Canada and Japan.

The E-carrier standards form part of the Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy (PDH) where groups of E1 circuits may be bundled onto higher capacity E3 links between telephone exchanges or countries. This allows a network operator to provide a private end-to-end E1 circuit between customers in different countries that share single high capacity links in between.

In practice, only E1 (30 circuit) and E3 (480 circuit) versions are used. Physically E1 is transmitted as 32 timeslots and E3 512 timeslots, but one is used for framing and typically one allocated for signalling call setup and tear down. Unlike Internet data services, E-carrier systems permanently allocate capacity for a voice call for its entire duration. This ensures high call quality because the transmission arrives with the same short delay (Latency) and capacity at all times.

E1 circuits are very common in most telephone exchanges and are used to connect to medium and large companies, to remote exchanges and in many cases between exchanges. E3 lines are used between exchanges, operators and/or countries, and have a transmission speed of 34.368 Mbit/s.


An E1 link operates over two separate sets of wires, usually twisted pair cable. A nominal 3 Volt peak signal is encoded with pulses using a method that avoids long periods without polarity changes. The line data rate is 2.048 Mbit/s (full duplex, i.e. 2.048 Mbit/s downstream and 2.048 Mbit/s upstream) which is split into 32 timeslots, each being allocated 8 bits in turn. Thus each timeslot sends and receives an 8-bit sample 8000 times per second (8 x 8000 x 32 = 2,048,000). This is ideal for voice telephone calls where the voice is sampled into an 8 bit number at that data rate and reconstructed at the other end. The timeslots are numbered from 0 to 31.

One timeslot (TS0) is reserved for framing purposes, and alternately transmits a fixed pattern. This allows the receiver to lock onto the start of each frame and match up each channel in turn. The standards allow for a full Cyclic Redundancy Check to be performed across all bits transmitted in each frame, to detect if the circuit is losing bits (information), but this is not always used.

One timeslot (TS16) is often reserved for signalling purposes, to control call setup and teardown according to one of several standard telecommunications protocols. This includes Channel Associated Signaling (CAS) where a set of bits is used to replicate opening and closing the circuit (as if picking up the telephone receiver and pulsing digits on a rotary phone), or using tone signalling which is passed through on the voice circuits themselves. More recent systems used Common Channel Signaling (CCS) such as ISDN or Signalling System 7 (SS7) which send short encoded messages with more information about the call including caller ID, type of transmission required etc. ISDN is often used between the local telephone exchange and business premises, whilst SS7 is almost exclusively used between exchanges and operators. SS7 can handle up to 4096 circuits per signalling channel, thus allowing slightly more efficient use of the overall transmission bandwidth (for example: uses 31 voice channels on an E1).

Unlike the earlier T-carrier systems developed in North America, all 8 bits of each sample are available for each call. This allows the E1 systems to be used equally well for circuit switch data calls, without risking the loss of any information.

While the original CEPT standard G.703 specifies several options for the physical transmission, almost exclusively HDB3 format is used.

Hierarchy levels

The PDH based on the E0 signal rate is designed so that each higher level can multiplex a set of lower level signals. E1 is designed to carry 30 E0 signals, all other levels are designed to carry 4 signals from the level below. Because of the necessity for overhead bits, and justification bits to account for rate differences between sections of the network, each subsequent level has a capacity greater than would be expected from simply multiplying the lower level signal rate (so for example E2 is 8.448 Mbit/s and not 8.192 Mbit/s as one might expect when multiplying the E1 rate by 4).

Note, because bit interleaving is used, it is very difficult to demultiplex low level tributaries directly, requiring equipment to individually demultiplex every single level down to the one that is required.

Signal Rate
E0 64 kbit/s
E1 2.048 Mbit/s
E2 8.448 Mbit/s
E3 34.368 Mbit/s
E4 139.264 Mbit/s

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