An E1 link operates over two separate sets of wires, usually twisted pair cable. A nominal 3 Volt peak signal is encoded with pulses using a method that avoids long periods without polarity changes. The line data rate is 2.048 Mbit/s (full duplex, i.e. 2.048 Mbit/s downstream and 2.048 Mbit/s upstream) which is split into 32 timeslots, each being allocated 8 bits in turn. Thus each timeslot sends and receives an 8-bit sample 8000 times per second (8 x 8000 x 32 = 2,048,000). This is ideal for voice telephone calls where the voice is sampled into an 8 bit number at that data rate and reconstructed at the other end. The timeslots are numbered from 0 to 31.
One timeslot (TS0) is reserved for framing purposes, and alternately transmits a fixed pattern. This allows the receiver to lock onto the start of each frame and match up each channel in turn. The standards allow for a full Cyclic Redundancy Check to be performed across all bits transmitted in each frame, to detect if the circuit is losing bits (information), but this is not always used.
One timeslot (TS16) is often reserved for signalling purposes, to control call setup and teardown according to one of several standard telecommunications protocols. This includes Channel Associated Signaling (CAS) where a set of bits is used to replicate opening and closing the circuit (as if picking up the telephone receiver and pulsing digits on a rotary phone), or using tone signalling which is passed through on the voice circuits themselves. More recent systems used Common Channel Signaling (CCS) such as ISDN or Signalling System 7 (SS7) which send short encoded messages with more information about the call including caller ID, type of transmission required etc. ISDN is often used between the local telephone exchange and business premises, whilst SS7 is almost exclusively used between exchanges and operators. SS7 can handle up to 4096 circuits per signalling channel, thus allowing slightly more efficient use of the overall transmission bandwidth (for example: uses 31 voice channels on an E1).
Unlike the earlier T-carrier systems developed in North America, all 8 bits of each sample are available for each call. This allows the E1 systems to be used equally well for circuit switch data calls, without risking the loss of any information.
While the original CEPT standard G.703 specifies several options for the physical transmission, almost exclusively HDB3 format is used.