Circuit switching is a telecommunications technology by which two network nodes establish a dedicated communications channel (circuit) connecting them for the duration of the communication session before the nodes may communicate. The circuit functions as if the nodes were physically connected with an electrical circuit.
The bit delay is constant during a connection, as opposed to packet switching, where packet queues may cause varying packet transfer delay. Each circuit cannot be used by other callers until the circuit is released and a new connection is set up. Even if no actual communication is taking place in a dedicated circuit that channel remains unavailable to other users. Channels that are available for new calls to be set up are said to be idle.
Virtual circuit switching is a packet switching technology that may emulate circuit switching, in the sense that the connection is established before any packets are transferred, and that packets are delivered in order.
There is a common misunderstanding that circuit switching is used only for connecting voice circuits (analog or digital). The concept of a dedicated path persisting between two communicating parties or nodes can be extended to signal content other than voice. Its advantage is that it provides for non-stop transfer without requiring packets and without most of the overhead traffic usually needed, making maximal and optimal use of available bandwidth for that communication. The disadvantage of inflexibility tends to reserve it for specialized applications, particularly with the overwhelming proliferation of internet-related technology.
For call setup and control (and other administrative purposes), it is possible to use a separate dedicated signalling channel from the end node to the network. ISDN is one such service that uses a separate signalling channel while Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) does not.
The method of establishing the connection and monitoring its progress and termination through the network may also utilize a separate control channel as in the case of links between telephone exchanges which use CCS7 packet-switched signalling protocol to communicate the call setup and control information and use TDM to transport the actual circuit data.
Early telephone exchanges are a suitable example of circuit switching. The subscriber would ask the operator to connect to another subscriber, whether on the same exchange or via an inter-exchange link and another operator. In any case, the end result was a physical electrical connection between the two subscribers' telephones for the duration of the call. The copper wire used for the connection could not be used to carry other calls at the same time, even if the subscribers were in fact not talking and the line was silent.
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