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.
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.
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.