3G UMTS / WCDMA Network Architecture

- the 3G UMTS / WCDMA network architecture including the User Equipment - UE -, the Radio Network Subsystem, and the Core Network.

The UMTS 3G architecture is required to provide a greater level of performance to that of the original GSM network. However as many networks had migrated through the use of GPRS and EDGE, they already had the ability to carry data. Accordingly many of the elements required for the WCDMA / UMTS network architecture were seen as a migration. This considerably reduced the cost of implementing the UMTS network as many elements were in place or needed upgrading.

With one of the major aims of UMTS being to be able to carry data, the UMTS network architecture was designed to enable a considerable improvement in data performance over that provided for GSM.

3G UMTS network constituents

The UMTS network architecture can be divided into three main elements:

  1. User Equipment (UE):   The User Equipment or UE is the name given to what was previous termed the mobile, or cellphone. The new name was chosen because the considerably greater functionality that the UE could have. It could also be anything between a mobile phone used for talking to a data terminal attached to a computer with no voice capability.
  2. Radio Network Subsystem (RNS):   The RNS also known as the UMTS Radio Access Network, UTRAN, is the equivalent of the previous Base Station Subsystem or BSS in GSM. It provides and manages the air interface fort he overall network.
  3. Core Network:   The core network provides all the central processing and management for the system. It is the equivalent of the GSM Network Switching Subsystem or NSS.

The core network is then the overall entity that interfaces to external networks including the public phone network and other cellular telecommunications networks.


Diagram showing an overview of the 3G UMTS network architecture and its constituent components
UMTS Network Architecture Overview

User Equipment, UE

The USER Equipment or UE is a major element of the overall 3G UMTS network architecture. It forms the final interface with the user. In view of the far greater number of applications and facilities that it can perform, the decision was made to call it a user equipment rather than a mobile. However it is essentially the handset (in the broadest terminology), although having access to much higher speed data communications, it can be much more versatile, containing many more applications. It consists of a variety of different elements including RF circuitry, processing, antenna, battery, etc.

There are a number of elements within the UE that can be described separately:

  • UE RF circuitry:   The RF areas handle all elements of the signal, both for the receiver and for the transmitter. One of the major challenges for the RF power amplifier was to reduce the power consumption. The form of modulation used for W-CDMA requires the use of a linear amplifier. These inherently take more current than non linear amplifiers which can be used for the form of modulation used on GSM. Accordingly to maintain battery life, measures were introduced into many of the designs to ensure the optimum efficiency.
  • Baseband processing:   The base-band signal processing consists mainly of digital circuitry. This is considerably more complicated than that used in phones for previous generations. Again this has been optimised to reduce the current consumption as far as possible.
  • Battery:   While current consumption has been minimised as far as possible within the circuitry of the phone, there has been an increase in current drain on the battery. With users expecting the same lifetime between charging batteries as experienced on the previous generation phones, this has necessitated the use of new and improved battery technology. Now Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries are used. These phones to remain small and relatively light while still retaining or even improving the overall life between charges.
  • Universal Subscriber Identity Module, USIM:   The UE also contains a SIM card, although in the case of UMTS it is termed a USIM (Universal Subscriber Identity Module). This is a more advanced version of the SIM card used in GSM and other systems, but embodies the same types of information. It contains the International Mobile Subscriber Identity number (IMSI) as well as the Mobile Station International ISDN Number (MSISDN). Other information that the USIM holds includes the preferred language to enable the correct language information to be displayed, especially when roaming, and a list of preferred and prohibited Public Land Mobile Networks (PLMN).

    The USIM also contains a short message storage area that allows messages to stay with the user even when the phone is changed. Similarly "phone book" numbers and call information of the numbers of incoming and outgoing calls are stored.

The UE can take a variety of forms, although the most common format is still a version of a "mobile phone" although having many data capabilities. Other broadband dongles are also being widely used.

3G UMTS Radio Network Subsystem

This is the section of the 3G UMTS / WCDMA network that interfaces to both the UE and the core network. The overall radio access network, i.e. collectively all the Radio Network Subsystem is known as the UTRAN UMTS Radio Access Network.

The radio network subsystem is also known as the UMTS Radio Access Network or UTRAN.

Read more about the UMTS Radio Access Network.

3G UMTS Core Network

The 3G UMTS core network architecture is a migration of that used for GSM with further elements overlaid to enable the additional functionality demanded by UMTS.

In view of the different ways in which data may be carried, the UMTS core network may be split into two different areas:

  • Circuit switched elements:   These elements are primarily based on the GSM network entities and carry data in a circuit switched manner, i.e. a permanent channel for the duration of the call.
  • Packet switched elements:   These network entities are designed to carry packet data. This enables much higher network usage as the capacity can be shared and data is carried as packets which are routed according to their destination.

Some network elements, particularly those that are associated with registration are shared by both domains and operate in the same way that they did with GSM.

Diagram showing the 3G UMTS core network architecture including the GGSN, GMSC, MSC, SGSN, EIR, HLR and the AUC
UMTS Core Network

Circuit switched elements
The circuit switched elements of the UMTS core network architecture include the following network entities:

  • Mobile switching centre (MSC):   This is essentially the same as that within GSM, and it manages the circuit switched calls under way.
  • Gateway MSC (GMSC):   This is effectively the interface to the external networks.

Packet switched elements
The packet switched elements of the 3G UMTS core network architecture include the following network entities:

  • Serving GPRS Support Node (SGSN):   As the name implies, this entity was first developed when GPRS was introduced, and its use has been carried over into the UMTS network architecture. The SGSN provides a number of functions within the UMTS network architecture.

    • Mobility management   When a UE attaches to the Packet Switched domain of the UMTS Core Network, the SGSN generates MM information based on the mobile's current location.
    • Session management:   The SGSN manages the data sessions providing the required quality of service and also managing what are termed the PDP (Packet data Protocol) contexts, i.e. the pipes over which the data is sent.
    • Interaction with other areas of the network:   The SGSN is able to manage its elements within the network only by communicating with other areas of the network, e.g. MSC and other circuit switched areas.
    • Billing:   The SGSN is also responsible billing. It achieves this by monitoring the flow of user data across the GPRS network. CDRs (Call Detail Records) are generated by the SGSN before being transferred to the charging entities (Charging Gateway Function, CGF).
  • Gateway GPRS Support Node (GGSN):   Like the SGSN, this entity was also first introduced into the GPRS network. The Gateway GPRS Support Node (GGSN) is the central element within the UMTS packet switched network. It handles inter-working between the UMTS packet switched network and external packet switched networks, and can be considered as a very sophisticated router. In operation, when the GGSN receives data addressed to a specific user, it checks if the user is active and then forwards the data to the SGSN serving the particular UE.

Shared elements
The shared elements of the 3G UMTS core network architecture include the following network entities:

  • Home location register (HLR):   This database contains all the administrative information about each subscriber along with their last known location. In this way, the UMTS network is able to route calls to the relevant RNC / Node B. When a user switches on their UE, it registers with the network and from this it is possible to determine which Node B it communicates with so that incoming calls can be routed appropriately. Even when the UE is not active (but switched on) it re-registers periodically to ensure that the network (HLR) is aware of its latest position with their current or last known location on the network.
  • Equipment identity register (EIR):   The EIR is the entity that decides whether a given UE equipment may be allowed onto the network. Each UE equipment has a number known as the International Mobile Equipment Identity. This number, as mentioned above, is installed in the equipment and is checked by the network during registration.
  • Authentication centre (AuC) :   The AuC is a protected database that contains the secret key also contained in the user's USIM card.

By Ian Poole


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