C-RAN – all still up in the air?

C-RAN seems to have been a long time coming. I first started exploring the potential of C-RAN back in 2007. Since then there’s been a great deal of industry talk and thousands of pages of standards describing dozens of C-RAN architectures. And I’m still waiting.

Cloud RAN was meant to be all about simplifying things, but the architectural changes described in the standards are becoming feature heavy and extremely complex. In addition, one of the main tasks of standards is to ensure the security and reliability of the systems. The standards are meant to be the gold standard. This is important to the business case for cellular – especially in the enterprise. End-to-end security is one of the main advantages cellular has over Wi-Fi and the move to cloud-based systems threatens to compromise that advantage – for example, IEEE points to C-RAN vulnerabilities that include eavesdropping, denial of service and issues around authentication.

All this and more is tackled as part of the standards development process, but it comes at a price. Security adds still more complexity in the interfaces of the system.

What’s really slowing everything down are too many iterations of the standards, too many options, and a process that’s building in too much complexity to the C-RAN concept. This is the inevitable outcome of too much group think that needs to be honed down through exposure to real world deployments.

In the immediate future, there’s going to be a fair deal of trial and error via early deployments where we’ll get to understand what’s really important in the delivery of stable and efficient architectures and which of the nice to haves are best stripped out. This is a well-worn but sometimes painful process, but the outcome will be simpler than the current standards might imply and, eventually, able to deliver the gold standard in terms of reliability and security that are the hallmark of cellular solutions.

The main role for Real Wireless in this context is to help enterprises, neutral host and the industry at large understand how robust or otherwise C-RAN solutions are and whether they are worth investing in. Some architectures might not last for long. Decisions will be informed not just by network considerations, but by the current and prospective state of the device ecosystem.

Ultimately, bells and whistles features can always appear exciting but are generally less important than the core functionality a firm or sector needs to meet its connectivity requirements. And businesses need to be able to reach decisions without absorbing thousands of pages of technology standards or evaluating dozens of marketing pitches.

And while experts like Real Wireless can help support such decisions, the heavy lifting really needs to be done by the wireless industry itself in forging and committing to robust, practical and cost-effective C-RAN architectures that deliver end-to-end security, core and future-proofed functionality that meets business requirements and an attractive ecosystem of handsets and devices. Regulators can also play a part – maybe by recognising through a reduced annual licence fee mechanism, the positive environmental impact a C-RAN solution could have on city centre deployments of 5G systems.