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Cellular Handover and handoff

- a summary or tutorial about the basics of cellular handover or handoff occurs with mobile phone networks, including hard, soft and softer handover or handoff.

The concept of a cellular phone system is that it has a large number base stations covering a small area (cells), and as a result frequencies are able to be re-used. Cell phone systems also provide mobility. As a result it is a very basic requirement of the system that as the mobile handset moves out of one cell to the next, it must be possible to hand the call over from the base station of the first cell, to that of the next with no discernable disruption to the call. There are two terms for this process: cellular handover is used within Europe, whereas cellular handoff is the term used in North America.

The handover or handoff process is of major importance within any cellular telecommunications network. It is necessary to ensure it can be performed reliably and without disruption to any calls. Failure for it to perform reliably can result in dropped calls, and this is one of the key factors that can lead to customer dissatisfaction, which in turn may lead to them changing to another cellular network provider. Accordingly handover or handoff is one of the key performance indicators monitored so that a robust cellular handover / handoff regime is maintained on the cellular network.


Handover basics

Although the concept of cellular handover or cellular handoff is relatively straightforward, it is not an easy process to implement in reality. The cellular network needs to decide when handover or handoff is necessary, and to which cell. Also when the handover occurs it is necessary to re-route the call to the relevant base station along with changing the communication between the mobile and the base station to a new channel. All of this needs to be undertaken without any noticeable interruption to the call. The process is quite complicated, and in early systems calls were often lost if the process did not work correctly.

Different cellular standards handle hand over / handoff in slightly different ways. Therefore for the sake of an explanation the example of the way that GSM handles handover is given.

There are a number of parameters that need to be known to determine whether a handover is required. The signal strength of the base station with which communication is being made, along with the signal strengths of the surrounding stations. Additionally the availability of channels also needs to be known. The mobile is obviously best suited to monitor the strength of the base stations, but only the cellular network knows the status of channel availability and the network makes the decision about when the handover is to take place and to which channel of which cell.

Accordingly the mobile continually monitors the signal strengths of the base stations it can hear, including the one it is currently using, and it feeds this information back. When the strength of the signal from the base station that the mobile is using starts to fall to a level where action needs to be taken the cellular network looks at the reported strength of the signals from other cells reported by the mobile. It then checks for channel availability, and if one is available it informs this new cell to reserve a channel for the incoming mobile. When ready, the current base station passes the information for the new channel to the mobile, which then makes the change. Once there the mobile sends a message on the new channel to inform the network it has arrived. If this message is successfully sent and received then the network shuts down communication with the mobile on the old channel, freeing it up for other users, and all communication takes place on the new channel.

Under some circumstances such as when one base transceiver station is nearing its capacity, the network may decide to hand some mobiles over to another base transceiver station they are receiving that has more capacity, and in this way reduce the load on the base transceiver station that is nearly running to capacity. In this way access can be opened to the maximum number of users. In fact channel usage and capacity are very important factors in the design of a cellular network.


Types of handover / handoff

With the advent of CDMA systems where the same channels can be used by several mobiles, and where it is possible to adjacent cells or cell sectors to use the same frequency channel there are a number of different types of handover that can be performed:

  • Hard handover (hard handoff)
  • Soft handover (soft handoff)
  • Softer handover (softer handoff)

Although all of these forms of handover or handoff enable the cellular phone to be connected to a different cell or different cell sector, they are performed in slightly different ways and are available under different conditions.


Hard handover

The definition of a hard handover or handoff is one where an existing connection must be broken before the new one is established. One example of hard handover is when frequencies are changed. As the mobile will normally only be able to transmit on one frequency at a time, the connection must be broken before it can move to the new channel where the connection is re-established. This is often termed and inter-frequency hard handover. While this is the most common form of hard handoff, it is not the only one. It is also possible to have intra-frequency hard handovers where the frequency channel remains the same.

Although there is generally a short break in transmission, this is normally short enough not to be noticed by the user.


Soft handover

The new 3G technologies use CDMA where it is possible to have neighbouring cells on the same frequency and this opens the possibility of having a form of handover or handoff where it is not necessary to break the connection. This is called soft handover or soft handoff, and it is defined as a handover where a new connection is established before the old one is released. In UMTS most of the handovers that are performed are intra-frequency soft handovers.


Softer handover

The third type of hand over is termed a softer handover, or handoff. In this instance a new signal is either added to or deleted from the active set of signals. It may also occur when a signal is replaced by a stronger signal from a different sector under the same base station. This type of handover or handoff is available within UMTS as well as CDMA2000.

Cellular handover or cellular handoff are performed by all cellular telecommunications networks, and they are a core element of the whole concept of cellular telecommunications. There are a number of requirements for the process. The first is that it occurs reliably and if it does not, users soon become dissatisfied and choose another network provider in a process known as "churn". However it needs to be accomplished in the most efficient manner. Although softer handoff is the most reliable, it also uses more network capacity. The reason for this is that it is communicating with more than one sector or base station at any given instance. Soft handover is also less efficient than hard handover, but again more reliable as the connection is never lost.

It is therefore necessary for the cellular telecommunications network provider to arrange the network to operate in the most efficient manner, while still providing the most reliable service.

By Ian Poole


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