GPRS Channels: physical, logical, control

To organise data being sent over the radio interface, data is organised into channels: physical, logical and control channels.

GPRS General Packet Radio Service Tutorial Includes:
GPRS basics     Network architecture     Mobile / multislot classes     Radio interface     Coding     Channels: physical, logical, control     GPRS protocol stack     Operational states    

To enable the GPRS system to handle the data being carried over the radio interface in the required manner, the data is organised into channels.

These channels have different functions and different types of channel can be viewed. Physical, logical and control channels each have different functions as described below.

GPRS physical channel

GPRS builds on the basic GSM structure. GPRS uses the same modulation and frame structure that is employed by GSM, and in this way it is an evolution of the GSM standard. Slots can be assigned dynamically by the BSC to GPRS calls dependent upon the demand, the remaining ones being used for GSM traffic.

There is a new data channel that is used for GPRS and it is called the Packet Data Channel (PDCH). The overall slot structure for this channel is the same as that used within GSM, having the same power profile, and timing advance attributes to overcome the different signal travel times to the base station dependent upon the distance the mobile is from the base station. This enables the burst to fit in seamlessly with the existing GSM structure.

Each burst of information for GPRS is 0.577 mS in length and is the same as that used in GSM. It also carries two blocks of 57 bits of information, giving a total of 114 bits per burst. It therefore requires four bursts to carry each 20 mS block of data, i.e. 456 bits of encoded data.

The BSC assigns PDCHs to particular time slots, and there will be times when the PDCH is inactive, allowing the mobile to check for other base stations and monitor their signal strengths to enable the network to judge when handover is required. The GPRS slot may also be used by the base station to judge the time delay using a logical channel known as the Packet Timing Advance Control Channel (PTCCT).

GPRS channel allocation

Although GPRS uses only one physical channel (PDCH) for the sending of data, it employs several logical channels that are mapped into this to enable the GPRS data and facilities to be managed. As the data in GPRS is handled as packet data, rather than circuit switched data the way in which this is organised is very different to that on a standard GSM link. Packets of data are assigned a space within the system according to the current needs, and routed accordingly.

The MAC layer is central to this and there are three MAC modes that are used to control the transmissions. These are named fixed allocation, dynamic allocation, and extended dynamic allocation.

The fixed allocation mode is required when a mobile requires a data to be sent at a consistent data rate. To achieve this, a set of PDCHs are allocated for a given amount of time. When this mode is used there is no requirement to monitor for availability, and the mobile can send and receive data freely. This mode is used for applications such as video conferencing.

When using the dynamic allocation mode, the network allocates time slots as they are required. A mobile is allowed to transmit in the uplink when it sees an identifier flag known as the Uplink Status Flag (USF) that matches its own. The mobile then transmits its data in the allocated slot. This is required because up to eight mobiles can have potential access to a slot, but obviously only one can transmit at any given time.

A further form of allocation known as extended dynamic allocation is also available. Use of this mode allows much higher data rates to be achieved because it enables mobiles to transmit in more than one slot. When the USF indicates that a mobile can use this mode, it can transmit in the number allowed, thereby increasing the rate at which it can send data.

Logical channels

There is a variety of channels used within GPRS, and they can be set into groups dependent upon whether they are for common or dedicated use. Naturally the system does use the GSM control and broadcast channels for initial set up, but all the GPRS actions are carried out within the GPRS logical channels carried within the PDCH.

Broadcast channels:

  • Packet Broadcast Central Channel (PBCCH):   This is a downlink only channel that is used to broadcast information to mobiles and informs them of incoming calls etc. It is very similar in operation to the BCCH used for GSM. In fact the BCCH is still required in the initial to provide a time slot number for the PBCCH. In operation the PBCCH broadcasts general information such as power control parameters, access methods and operational modes, network parameters, etc, required to set up calls.

Common control channels:

  • Packet Paging Channel (PPCH):   This is a downlink only channel and is used to alert the mobile to an incoming call and to alert it to be ready to receive data. It is used for control signalling prior to the call set up. Once the call is in progress a dedicated channel referred to as the PACCH takes over.
  • Packet Access Grant Channel (PAGCH):   This is also a downlink channel and it sends information telling the mobile which traffic channel has been assigned to it. It occurs after the PPCH has informed the mobile that there is an incoming call.
  • Packet Notification Channel (PNCH):   This is another downlink only channel that is used to alert mobiles that there is broadcast traffic intended for a large number of mobiles. It is typically used in what is termed point-to-point multicasting.
  • Packet Random Access Channel (PRACH):   This is an uplink channel that enables the mobile to initiate a burst of data in the uplink. There are two types of PRACH burst, one is an 8 bit standard burst, and a second one using an 11 bit burst has added data to allow for priority setting. Both types of burst allow for timing advance setting.

Dedicated control channels:

  • Packet Associated Control Channel (PACCH):   : This channel is present in both uplink and downlink directions and it is used for control signalling while a call is in progress. It takes over from the PPCH once the call is set up and it carries information such as channel assignments, power control messages and acknowledgements of received data.
  • Packet Timing Advance Common Control Channel (PTCCH):   This channel, which is present in both the uplink and downlink directions is used to adjust the timing advance. This is required to ensure that messages arrive at the correct time at the base station regardless of the distance of the mobile from the base station. As timing is critical in a TDMA system and signals take a small but finite time to travel this aspect is very important if long guard bands are not to be left.

Dedicated traffic channel:

  • Packet Data Traffic Channel (PDTCH):   This channel is used to send the traffic and it is present in both the uplink and downlink directions. Up to eight PDTCHs can be allocated to a mobile to provide high speed data.

By organising the data to be sent into different channels, the data can be handled accordingly across the radio interface, and also, knowing the type of channel, the system is able to manipulate the data in the correct manner.

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