radio access network (RAN)

A radio access network (RAN) is the part of a telecommunications system that connects individual devices to other parts of a network through radio connections. A RAN resides between user equipment, such as a mobile phone, a computer or any remotely controlled machine, and provides the connection with its core network. The RAN is a major component of wireless telecommunications and has evolved through the generations of mobile networking leading up to 5G.

An RAN provides access and coordinates the management of resources across the radio sites. A handset or other device is wirelessly connected to a backbone, or core network, and the RAN sends its signal to various wireless end points, so it can travel with other networks’ traffic. A single handset/phone could be connected at the same time to multiple RANs, sometimes called dual-mode handsets.

RAN components include a base station and antennas that cover a specific region depending on their capacity. Silicon chips in both the core network as well as the user equipment provide RAN functionality.

The RAN controller is in control of the nodes connected to it. The network controller – which performs radio resource management, mobility management and data encryption – connects to the circuit-switched core network and the packet-switched core network, depending on the type of RAN.

The most recent evolution of RAN architecture divides the user plane from the control plane into separate elements. User data messages can then be exchanged by the RAN controller through one software-defined networking (SDN) switch and a second set through a control-based interface. This separation allows the RAN to be more flexible, accommodating for network functions virtualization (NFV) techniques such as network slicing and high MIMO that are necessary for 5G.

Radio access network types

Types of RAN include:

  • GRAN, or GSM radio access network
  • GERAN, similar to the GRAN but specifies the inclusion of EDGE packet radio services
  • UTRAN, or UMTS (Universal Mobile Telephone System) RAN
  • E-UTRAN, or the Evolved Universal Terrestrial RAN
This was last updated in October 2018

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