Acronym C-RAN is actually used for two related, but different concepts: cloud-based radio access network and centralized radio access network.
China Mobile started using C-RAN a few years ago, making the technology relatively new. Centralized RAN networks are however already being widely deployed internationally with the aim of operators being to increase their commitment in a maturing market.
In conventional distributed cellular networks, equipment at the bottom and top of a cell tower of what we know as a cell site is the RAN. The main component is the base band unit (BBU). This radio equipment links users to the core network and processes billions of bits of information per hour.
The BBU was traditionally placed in an enclosure or shelter situated at bottom of the tower. A network operator had to pay for the space, and cool and run power to every BBU. The operational costs of cooling and site power adds up to more than 66% of a wireless network's total cost of ownership.
C-RAN is much more efficient and elegant. Fiber's large front haul signal-carrying capacity can be leveraged by centralizing numerous BBUs at a dedicated pool location or a cell site. This reduces the quantity of equipment required at cell sites and provides many other advantages, including lower latency.
C-RAN's ultimate aim is however Cloud-based RAN, where various network functions will be virtualized in the cloud. With centralized BBUs, standard servers will be handling most routine processing. BBUs can therefore be scaled back and redesigned to concentrate on proprietary or complex processing. Network management will be simplified with cloud-based RAN and centralizing base station processing. This will allow for synchronization of radio resources and resource pooling.
Apart from hardware cost saving, C-RAN creates substantial saving in cooling, site leasing and power costs. Asia was the first region that successfully deployed C-RAN commercially, and operators have reported that operating expenses decreased by between 30 and 50%. C-RAN also enables operators to access various hidden features within LTE-Advanced. These allow them to increase capacity without increasing costs.
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