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Recent trends witness the shift of the 3GPP Long Term Evolution - Advanced (LTE-A) radio access network (RAN) architecture from a traditional macro-cellular layout towards smaller base stations moving closer to end users. The evolved LTE-A RAN offers rich environment for multi-point and multi-hop cooperation and coordination resulting in increased capacity and more predictable channel conditions between heterogeneous base stations and end users. While these opportunities are recently well investigated at the physical layer through various cooperative multi-point (CoMP) schemes, upper layer protocols preserve the design proposed for macro-cellular single-hop data delivery. In this paper, we address this issue by proposing and investigating in detail a cooperative RAN-wide MAC layer protocol based on random network coding (RNC) that is designed specifically for reliable and flexible data delivery over the evolved LTE-A RAN. The proposed RNC-based MAC protocol (MAC-RNC) is evaluated and compared with the existing HARQ-based (MAC-HARQ) protocol in various LTE-A RAN layouts using a customized packet-based link-level simulator based on Finite-State Markov Chain (FSMC) channel models. Our results show that the MAC-RNC protocol introduces simplicity and flexibility required for future LTE-A RANs, while preserving or improving the performance of the MAC-HARQ protocol in traditional single-point single-hop macro-cellular scenarios.