Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) is a technology for shared medium (usually radio) networks. It allows several users to share the same frequency by dividing it into different time slots. The users transmit in rapid succession, one after the other, each using their own timeslot. This allows multiple users to share the same transmission medium (e.g. radio frequency) whilst using only the part of its bandwidth they require. Used in the GSM, PDC and iDEN digital cellular standards, among others. TDMA is also used extensively in satellite systems, local area networks, physical security systems, and combat-net radio systems.
- The name "TDMA" is also commonly used in America to refer to a specific second generation (2G) mobile phone standard, more properly referred to as IS-136 or D-AMPS, which uses the TDMA technique to timeshare the bandwidth of the carrier wave.
- The two different uses of this term can be confusing. TDMA (the technique) is used in the GSM standard. However, TDMA (the standard, i.e. IS-136) has been competing against GSM and systems based on CDMA modulation for adoption by the carriers, although it is now being phased out in favor of GSM technology.
TDMA frame structure showing a data stream divided into frames and those frames divided into timelots.
TDMA is a type of Time-division multiplexing, with the special point that instead of having one transmitter connected to one receiver, there are multiple transmitters. In the case of the uplink from a mobile phone to a base station this becomes particularly difficult because the mobile phone can move around and vary the timing offset required to make its transmission match the gap in transmission from its peers.
In the GSM system, the synchronisation of the mobile phones is achieved by sending timing offset commands from the base station which instructs the mobile phone to transmit earlier or later. The mobile phone is not allowed to transmit for its entire timeslot, but there is a guard period at the beginning and end of the timeslot. As the transmission moves into the guard period, the mobile network adjusts the timing offset to re-center the transmission.
Initial synchronisation of a phone requires even more care. Before a mobile transmits there is no way to actually know the offset required. For this reason, an entire timeslot has to be dedicated to mobiles attempting to contact the network (known as the RACH in GSM). The mobile attempts to broadcast at the beginning of the timeslot, as received from the network. If the mobile is located next to the base station, there will be no time delay and this will succeed. If, however, the mobile phone is at just less than 35km from the base station, the time delay will mean the mobile's broadcast arrives at the very end of the timeslot. In that case, the mobile will be instructed to broadcast its messages starting a whole timeslot earlier than would be expected otherwise. Finally, if the mobile is beyond the 35 km cell range in GSM, then the RACH will arrive in a neighbouring time slot and be ignored. It is this feature, rather than limitations of power which limits the range of a GSM cell to 35 kilometers when no special tricks are used. By changing the syncronisation between the uplink and downlink at the base station, however, this limitation can be overcome.
In radio systems, TDMA is almost always used alongside FDMA (Frequency division multiple access) and FDD (Frequency division duplex); the combination is referred to as FDMA/TDMA/FDD. This is the case in both GSM and IS-136 for example. The exceptions to this rule include WCDMA-TDD which combines FDMA/CDMA/TDMA and TDD instead.
A major advantage of TDMA is that the radio part of the mobile only needs to listen and broadcast for its own timeslot. For the rest of the time, the mobile can carry out measurements on the network, detecting surrounding transmitters on different frequencies. This allows safe inter frequency handovers, something which is difficult in CDMA systems, not supported at all in IS-95 and supported through complex system additions in UMTS. This in turn allows for co-existence of microcell layers with macrocell layers. But, CDMA supports "soft hand-off" which allows a mobile phone to be in communication with up to 6 base stations simultaneously, a type of "same-frequency handover". The incoming packets are compared for quality, and the best one is selected. This enables CDMA to perform in areas where TDMA calls would be dropped.
A disadvantage of TDMA systems is that they create interference at a frequency which is directly connected to the time slot length. This is the irritating buzz which can sometimes be heard if a GSM phone is left next to a radio. Another disadvantage is that the "dead time" between time slots limits the potential bandwidth of a TDMA channel. This is why early efforts to incorporate timeslots into UMTS failed, leaving UMTS as a purely CDMA technology. The only country to continue pursuing TD-SCDMA (time division synchronous CDMA) is mainland China, because the government does not want to pay patent royalties to Qualcomm of the USA or licensing fees to the mainly European UMTS consortium.
- FDMA (Frequency-division multiple access)
- CDMA (Code division multiple access)