BER Bit Error Rate Tutorial and Definition

- bit error rate, BER is used to quantify a channel carrying data by counting the rate of errors in a data string. It is used in telecommunications, networks and radio systems.

Bit error rate, BER is a key parameter that is used in assessing systems that transmit digital data from one location to another.

Systems for which bit error rate, BER is applicable include radio data links as well as fibre optic data systems, Ethernet, or any system that transmits data over a network of some form where noise, interference, and phase jitter may cause degradation of the digital signal.

Although there are some differences in the way these systems work and the way in which bit error rate is affected, the basics of bit error rate itself are still the same.

When data is transmitted over a data link, there is a possibility of errors being introduced into the system. If errors are introduced into the data, then the integrity of the system may be compromised. As a result, it is necessary to assess the performance of the system, and bit error rate, BER, provides an ideal way in which this can be achieved.

Unlike many other forms of assessment, bit error rate, BER assesses the full end to end performance of a system including the transmitter, receiver and the medium between the two. In this way, bit error rate, BER enables the actual performance of a system in operation to be tested, rather than testing the component parts and hoping that they will operate satisfactorily when in place.


Bit error rate BER definition and basics

As the name implies, a bit error rate is defined as the rate at which errors occur in a transmission system. This can be directly translated into the number of errors that occur in a string of a stated number of bits. The definition of bit error rate can be translated into a simple formula:

Bit error rate is equal to the number of bit errors divided by the total number of bits sent

If the medium between the transmitter and receiver is good and the signal to noise ratio is high, then the bit error rate will be very small - possibly insignificant and having no noticeable effect on the overall system However if noise can be detected, then there is chance that the bit error rate will need to be considered.

The main reasons for the degradation of a data channel and the corresponding bit error rate, BER is noise and changes to the propagation path (where radio signal paths are used). Both effects have a random element to them, the noise following a Gaussian probability function while the propagation model follows a Rayleigh model. This means that analysis of the channel characteristics are normally undertaken using statistical analysis techniques.

For fibre optic systems, bit errors mainly result from imperfections in the components used to make the link. These include the optical driver, receiver, connectors and the fibre itself. Bit errors may also be introduced as a result of optical dispersion and attenuation that may be present. Also noise may be introduced in the optical receiver itself. Typically these may be photodiodes and amplifiers which need to respond to very small changes and as a result there may be high noise levels present.

Another contributory factor for bit errors is any phase jitter that may be present in the system as this can alter the sampling of the data.


BER and Eb/No

Signal to noise ratios and Eb/No figures are parameters that are more associated with radio links and radio communications systems. In terms of this, the bit error rate, BER, can also be defined in terms of the probability of error or POE. The determine this, three other variables are used. They are the error function, erf, the energy in one bit, Eb, and the noise power spectral density (which is the noise power in a 1 Hz bandwidth), No.

It should be noted that each different type of modulation has its own value for the error function. This is because each type of modulation performs differently in the presence of noise. In particular, higher order modulation schemes (e.g. 64QAM, etc) that are able to carry higher data rates are not as robust in the presence of noise. Lower order modulation formats (e.g. BPSK, QPSK, etc.) offer lower data rates but are more robust.

The energy per bit, Eb, can be determined by dividing the carrier power by the bit rate and is a measure of energy with the dimensions of Joules. No is a power per Hertz and therefore this has the dimensions of power (joules per second) divided by seconds). Looking at the dimensions of the ratio Eb/No all the dimensions cancel out to give a dimensionless ratio. It is important to note that POE is proportional to Eb/No and is a form of signal to noise ratio.


Factors affecting bit error rate, BER

It can be seen from using Eb/No, that the bit error rate, BER can be affected by a number of factors. By manipulating the variables that can be controlled it is possible to optimise a system to provide the performance levels that are required. This is normally undertaken in the design stages of a data transmission system so that the performance parameters can be adjusted at the initial design concept stages.

  • Interference:   The interference levels present in a system are generally set by external factors and cannot be changed by the system design. However it is possible to set the bandwidth of the system. By reducing the bandwidth the level of interference can be reduced. However reducing the bandwidth limits the data throughput that can be achieved.
  • Increase transmitter power:   It is also possible to increase the power level of the system so that the power per bit is increased. This has to be balanced against factors including the interference levels to other users and the impact of increasing the power output on the size of the power amplifier and overall power consumption and battery life, etc.
  • Lower order modulation:   Lower order modulation schemes can be used, but this is at the expense of data throughput.
  • Reduce bandwidth:   Another approach that can be adopted to reduce the bit error rate is to reduce the bandwidth. Lower levels of noise will be received and therefore the signal to noise ratio will improve. Again this results in a reduction of the data throughput attainable.

It is necessary to balance all the available factors to achieve a satisfactory bit error rate. Normally it is not possible to achieve all the requirements and some trade-offs are required. However, even with a bit error rate below what is ideally required, further trade-offs can be made in terms of the levels of error correction that are introduced into the data being transmitted. Although more redundant data has to be sent with higher levels of error correction, this can help mask the effects of any bit errors that occur, thereby improving the overall bit error rate.


Bit error rate BER is a parameter which gives an excellent indication of the performance of a data link such as radio or fibre optic system. As one of the main parameters of interest in any data link is the number of errors that occur, the bit error rate is a key parameter. A knowledge of the BER also enables other features of the link such as the power and bandwidth, etc to be tailored to enable the required performance to be obtained. ..........

By Ian Poole


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