Circuit Switching
Existing phone systems are driven by a very reliable but somewhat inefficient method for connecting calls called circuit switching. Circuit switching is a very basic concept that has been used by telephone networks for more than 100 years. When a call is made between two parties, the connection is maintained for the duration of the call. Because you are connecting two points in both directions, the connection is called a circuit. This is the foundation of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

Click "Play" to see how circuit switching works.
Here's how a typical telephone call works:
  1. You pick up the receiver and listen for a dial tone. This lets you know that you have a connection to the local office of your telephone carrier.
  2. You dial the number of the party you wish to talk to.
  3. The call is routed through the switch at your local carrier to the party you are calling.
  4. A connection is made between your telephone and the other party's line using several interconnected switches along the way.
  5. The phone at the other end rings, and someone answers the call.
  6. The connection opens the circuit.
  7. You talk for a period of time and then hang up the receiver.
  8. When you hang up, the circuit is closed, freeing your line and all the lines in between.
Let's say that you talk for 10 minutes. During this time, the circuit is continuously open between the two phones. In the early phone system, up until 1960 or so, every call had to have a dedicated wire stretching from one end of the call to the other for the duration of the call. So if you were in New York and you wanted to call Los Angeles, the switches between New York and Los Angeles would connect pieces of copper wire all the way across the United States. You would use all those pieces of wire just for your call for the full 10 minutes. You paid a lot for the call, because you actually owned a 3,000-mile-long copper wire for 10 minutes.
Telephone conversations over today's traditional phone network are somewhat more efficient and they cost a lot less. Your voice is digitized, and your voice along with thousands of others can be combined onto a single fiber optic cable for much of the journey (there's still a dedicated piece of copper wire going into your house, though). These calls are transmitted at a fixed rate of 64 kilobits per second (Kbps) in each direction, for a total transmission rate of 128 Kbps. Since there are 8 kilobits (Kb) in a kilobyte (KB), this translates to a transmission of 16 KB each second the circuit is open, and 960 KB every minute it's open. So in a 10-minute conversation, the total transmission is 9,600 KB, which is roughly equal to 10 megabytes (check out How Bits and Bytes Work to learn about these conversions). If you look at a typical phone conversation, much of this transmitted data is wasted.
While you are talking, the other party is listening, which means that only half of the connection is in use at any given time. Based on that, we can surmise that we could cut the file in half, down to about 4.7 MB, for efficiency. Plus, a significant amount of the time in most conversations is dead air -- for seconds at a time, neither party is talking. If we could remove these silent intervals, the file would be even smaller. Then, instead of sending a continuous stream of bytes (both silent and noisy), what if we sent just the packets of noisy bytes when you created them? That is the basis of a packet-switched phone network, the alternative to circuit switching.
Packet Switching
Data networks do not use circuit switching. Your Internet connection would be a lot slower if it maintained a constant connection to the Web page you were viewing at any given time. Instead, data networks simply send and retrieve data as you need it. And, instead of routing the data over a dedicated line, the data packets flow through a chaotic network along thousands of possible paths. This is called packet switching.
While circuit switching keeps the connection open and constant, packet switching opens a brief connection -- just long enough to send a small chunk of data, called a packet, from one system to another. It works like this:
  • The sending computer chops data into small packets, with an address on each one telling the network devices where to send them.
  • Inside of each packet is a payload. The payload is a piece of the e-mail, a music file or whatever type of file is being transmitted inside the packet.
  • The sending computer sends the packet to a nearby router and forgets about it. The nearby router send the packet to another router that is closer to the recipient computer. That router sends the packet along to another, even closer router, and so on.
  • When the receiving computer finally gets the packets (which may have all taken completely different paths to get there), it uses instructions contained within the packets to reassemble the data into its original state.
Packet switching is very efficient. It lets the network route the packets along the least congested and cheapest lines. It also frees up the two computers communicating with each other so that they can accept information from other computers, as well.