What is GPRS in GSM networks?

The terms GPRS and GSM belong to the second generation (2G) of mobile networks where GSM is a cellular network technology, and GPRS is an enhancement added to GSM. GPRS stands for General Packet Radio Service, and GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications. GPRS was introduced in the GSM networks to enable efficient mobile data services. The word “efficient” is crucial here because GSM networks already had the capability to offer limited data services by using the circuit-switched part of the mobile network before GPRS. We have a dedicated post on circuit-switched vs packet-switched, which you can check out for details, but generally speaking, the circuit-switched technique is not the most efficient way of transferring data. So, a different solution was required for mobile data, which GPRS delivered through the packet-switched technique. Therefore, GPRS is a crucial part of the evolution of the GSM networks, which later led to EDGE (Enhanced Data for Global Evolution) and 3G UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System).

GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) in GSM is a packet-switched network enhancement that allows 2G GSM networks to enable efficient mobile internet services. GPRS can offer maximum data rates of up to 171.2 kbps and average data rates of around 30 to 50 kbps.

GSM is a cellular technology

GSM or Global System for Mobile Communications is one of the most widely deployed network technologies that enabled the second generation of mobile networks in the early 1990s. GSM started its journey in Europe around the same time when D-AMPS (Digital Advanced Mobile Phone System) was introduced in the US. Like D-AMPS, GSM employed a combination of FDMA (Frequency Division Multiple Access) and TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) for the air interface to enable wireless connectivity. Another second-generation technology, IS-95 (cdmaOne), was later introduced in the mid-1990s as a counterpart of GSM and D-AMPS. When GSM networks started their journey, they relied solely on the circuit-switched technology to mainly enable voice calls and text messages (SMS). GSM networks did not support data services as part of the first phase of their launch. The mobile data (internet) capability was initially introduced in the GSM networks through circuit-switched data, which was an easier option for mobile operators. The enhancement that enabled circuit-switched data was HSCSD – High-Speed Circuit-Switched Data. HSCSD used the same network architecture that GSM originally had and could support a maximum data rate of up to 64 kbps.

Why does my phone say GPRS?


If you have your mobile subscription from a mobile operator that uses GSM networks, then your phone may go on GPRS if you travel to areas with 2G-only coverage. On the other hand, if your mobile operator is CDMA-based (e.g. CDMA2000 or EVDO), your phone will not show GPRS, but you will instead be served by IS-95 A/B in 2G-only coverage areas.

GPRS is a part of GSM

GPRS stands for General Packet Radio Service, and it is a technology that connects your mobile phone to the internet. GPRS is an enhancement introduced in the GSM cellular networks to offer mobile data services through packet-switched technology. GPRS is a successor of the circuit-switched data service HSCSD. GPRS was superior to HSCSD because it used the network more efficiently without needing to engage network resources for the entire duration of the data sessions. GPRS follows a bursty approach with a short access time and uses a shared pool of network resources. The GSM core network architecture saw an update by introducing two new network nodes, SGSN (Serving GPRS Support Node) and GGSN (Gateway GPRS Support Node), to enable the GPRS enhancement. GPRS can utilise 1 to 8 timeslots or channels to connect a mobile user to the public data network through standard protocol address, i.e. IP or X.25. Network resource allocation in GPRS is dynamic depending on the demand, and it can support a maximum data rate of up to 171.2 kbps in the downlink for downloads. For completeness, GPRS does not replace the circuit-switched part of the GSM network. It just means that the voice calls continue to use circuit-switched to ensure good quality of service (QoS), and the data sessions use the packet-switched part of the mobile network to offer mobile internet.

GPRS is a second-generation (2G) technology

GPRS is a second-generation (2G) technology that was introduced as part of the GSM mobile network evolution.GPRS was followed by another enhancement called EDGE or Enhanced Data for Global Evolution which improved the speeds a bit further. The network nodes that GPRS(and EDGE) introduced in the 2G GSM network architecture (GGSN and SGSN) remained unchanged in the third generation (3G) UMTS networks. GPRS and EDGE are therefore referred to as 2.5G and 2.75G and can enable peak download data rates of up to 171.2 kbps and 384 kbps, respectively. The other track of mobile network evolution that followed the CDMA path utilised Interim Standard 95 (IS-95) for circuit-switched and packet-switched capabilities. The IS-95 standard also has two variants. The first variant, IS-95 A, can provide data rates of up to 14.4 kbps, while the second variant, IS-95 B can offer data rates of up to 115 kbps.

Peak and average speeds with GPRS

The peak download speed of GPRS is 171.2 kbps which is the maximum you can get on GPRS. The average speeds are lower than the peak speeds and roughly around 30 kbps to 50 kbps. The other enhancement EDGE can offer peak downlink speeds of up to 384 kbps for downloads, which is more than double the speed that GPRS can offer. Even though 384 kbps can theoretically support basic mobile internet tasks, we don’t get peak speeds in real life. Generally, depending on how many people are on the network and how far you are from the base station, you may only get to enjoy a small portion of this 384 kbps, i.e. 130-200 kbps. Like GPRS, EDGE also uses the packet-switched methodology to send and receive mobile data. Below is a quick table that summarises this information. You may also check out our dedicated post that provides a detailed comparison of the data rates that can be achieved through various mobile technologies, including 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G technologies.

TechnologyNetwork GenerationMeaningMaximum download speedAverage download speed
GPRS2G (or 2.5 G)General Packet Radio Service171.2 kbps30-50 kbps
EDGE2G (or 2.75 G)Enhanced Data for Global Evolution384 kbps130-200 kbps

Conclusion

GSM and GPRS are two inter-related technologies where GSM is a cellular technology and GPRS is an enhancement added to the GSM networks. GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications and is a second-generation cellular technology introduced in the early 1990s. GPRS stands for General Packet Radio Service, and it is an enhancement added to the GSM networks to enable highly efficient mobile data services. GPRS can offer peak data rates of up to 171.2 kbps and average data rates of around 30 to 50 kbps.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need some extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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