GSM Handover or Handoff

- tutorial or overview of the essentials of GSM handover or handoff from one cell to another and detailing types of handover and methodologies used.

One of the key elements of a mobile phone or cellular telecommunications system, is that the system is split into many small cells to provide good frequency re-use and coverage. However as the mobile moves out of one cell to another it must be possible to retain the connection. The process by which this occurs is known as handover or handoff. The term handover is more widely used within Europe, whereas handoff tends to be use more in North America. Either way, handover and handoff are the same process.

Requirements for GSM handover

The process of handover or handoff within any cellular system is of great importance. It is a critical process and if performed incorrectly handover can result in the loss of the call. Dropped calls are particularly annoying to users and if the number of dropped calls rises, customer dissatisfaction increases and they are likely to change to another network. Accordingly GSM handover was an area to which particular attention was paid when developing the standard.

Types of GSM handover

Within the GSM system there are four types of handover that can be performed for GSM only systems:

  • Intra-BTS handover:   This form of GSM handover occurs if it is required to change the frequency or slot being used by a mobile because of interference, or other reasons. In this form of GSM handover, the mobile remains attached to the same base station transceiver, but changes the channel or slot.
  • Inter-BTS Intra BSC handover:   This for of GSM handover or GSM handoff occurs when the mobile moves out of the coverage area of one BTS but into another controlled by the same BSC. In this instance the BSC is able to perform the handover and it assigns a new channel and slot to the mobile, before releasing the old BTS from communicating with the mobile.
  • Inter-BSC handover:   When the mobile moves out of the range of cells controlled by one BSC, a more involved form of handover has to be performed, handing over not only from one BTS to another but one BSC to another. For this the handover is controlled by the MSC.
  • Inter-MSC handover:   This form of handover occurs when changing between networks. The two MSCs involved negotiate to control the handover.

GSM handover process

Although there are several forms of GSM handover as detailed above, as far as the mobile is concerned, they are effectively seen as very similar. There are a number of stages involved in undertaking a GSM handover from one cell or base station to another.

In GSM which uses TDMA techniques the transmitter only transmits for one slot in eight, and similarly the receiver only receives for one slot in eight. As a result the RF section of the mobile could be idle for 6 slots out of the total eight. This is not the case because during the slots in which it is not communicating with the BTS, it scans the other radio channels looking for beacon frequencies that may be stronger or more suitable. In addition to this, when the mobile communicates with a particular BTS, one of the responses it makes is to send out a list of the radio channels of the beacon frequencies of neighbouring BTSs via the Broadcast Channel (BCCH).

The mobile scans these and reports back the quality of the link to the BTS. In this way the mobile assists in the handover decision and as a result this form of GSM handover is known as Mobile Assisted Hand Over (MAHO).

The network knows the quality of the link between the mobile and the BTS as well as the strength of local BTSs as reported back by the mobile. It also knows the availability of channels in the nearby cells. As a result it has all the information it needs to be able to make a decision about whether it needs to hand the mobile over from one BTS to another.

If the network decides that it is necessary for the mobile to hand over, it assigns a new channel and time slot to the mobile. It informs the BTS and the mobile of the change. The mobile then retunes during the period it is not transmitting or receiving, i.e. in an idle period.

A key element of the GSM handover is timing and synchronisation. There are a number of possible scenarios that may occur dependent upon the level of synchronisation.

  • Old and new BTSs synchronised:   In this case the mobile is given details of the new physical channel in the neighbouring cell and handed directly over. The mobile may optionally transmit four access bursts. These are shorter than the standard bursts and thereby any effects of poor synchronisation do not cause overlap with other bursts. However in this instance where synchronisation is already good, these bursts are only used to provide a fine adjustment.
  • Time offset between synchronised old and new BTS:   In some instances there may be a time offset between the old and new BTS. In this case, the time offset is provided so that the mobile can make the adjustment. The GSM handover then takes place as a standard synchronised handover.
  • Non-synchronised handover:   When a non-synchronised cell handover takes place, the mobile transmits 64 access bursts on the new channel. This enables the base station to determine and adjust the timing for the mobile so that it can suitably access the new BTS. This enables the mobile to re-establish the connection through the new BTS with the correct timing.

Inter-system handover

With the evolution of standards and the migration of GSM to other 2G technologies including to 3G UMTS / WCDMA as well as HSPA and then LTE, there is the need to handover from one technology to another. Often the 2G GSM coverage will be better then the others and GSM is often used as the fallback. When handovers of this nature are required, it is considerably more complicated than a straightforward only GSM handover because they require two technically very different systems to handle the handover.

These handovers may be called intersystem handovers or inter-RAT handovers as the handover occurs between different radio access technologies.

The most common form of intersystem handover is between GSM and UMTS / WCDMA. Here there are two different types:

  • UMTS / WCDMA to GSM handover:   There are two further divisions of this category of handover:
    • Blind handover:   This form of handover occurs when the base station hands off the mobile by passing it the details of the new cell to the mobile without linking to it and setting the timing, etc of the mobile for the new cell. In this mode, the network selects what it believes to be the optimum GSM based station. The mobile first locates the broadcast channel of the new cell, gains timing synchronisation and then carries out non-synchronised intercell handover.
    • Compressed mode handover:   using this form of handover the mobile uses the gaps I transmission that occur to analyse the reception of local GSM base stations using the neighbour list to select suitable candidate base stations. Having selected a suitable base station the handover takes place, again without any time synchronisation having occurred.
  • Handover from GSM to UMTS / WCDMA:   This form of handover is supported within GSM and a "neighbour list" was established to enable this occur easily. As the GSM / 2G network is normally more extensive than the 3G network, this type of handover does not normally occur when the mobile leaves a coverage area and must quickly find a new base station to maintain contact. The handover from GSM to UMTS occurs to provide an improvement in performance and can normally take place only when the conditions are right. The neighbour list will inform the mobile when this may happen.

By Ian Poole

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