The evolution of cellular network architectures toward 5G has followed a long, winding path with occasional detours that met immediate needs and later were incorporated into the evolving big picture. The move from D-RAN to C-RAN architectures is a good example. C-RAN architectures made perfect sense for 4G LTE, and now those sites are being appropriated to support today’s early 5G networks.
We wrote about this in 2018, so I won’t go into great detail here, but C-RAN moved computing resources away from individual cell towers to separate computing hubs supporting multiple towers. This was smart; it consolidated IT resources to make them more efficient, more secure, and easier to service. It also was sufficient for the applications 4G LTE enables: heavy on mobile video, with latency an important but not critical factor. (Note: To read the 2018 article, “C-RAN . . . But to Where?”, by Jim Wiemer, ISE magazine, March 2018, please visit https://www.isemag.com/2018/03/c-ran-but-to-where/.)
5G is a different animal altogether, a dramatic upgrade to the network specifically designed to support and enable advanced, ultra-low-latency applications related to the Internet of Things (IoT). 5G eventually will enable significant advances and innovations in everything from telemedicine to autonomous automobiles, but it requires powerful computing at every cell site and network densification far beyond what we see today. It’s not exactly the C-RAN model, but providers are finding those C-RAN hubs are acting as a nice intermediate step in the move toward fully-formed 5G networks.
Originally published on isemag.com August 1, 2020