Are 1-bit ADCs Meaningful?

Contemporary base stations are equipped with analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) that take samples described by 12-16 bits. Since the communication bandwidth is up to 100 MHz in LTE Advanced, a sampling rate of a 500 Msample/s is quite sufficient for the ADC. The power consumption of such an ADC is at the order of 1 W. Hence, in a Massive MIMO base station with 100 antennas, the ADCs would consume around 100 W!

ADC SymbolFortunately, the 1600 bit/sample that are effectively produced by 100 16-bit ADCs are much more than what is needed to communicate at practical SINRs. For this reason, there is plenty of research on Massive MIMO base stations equipped with lower-resolution ADCs. The use of 1-bit ADCs has received particular attention. Some good paper references are provided in a previous blog post: Are 1-bit ADCs sufficient? While many early works considered narrowband channels, recent papers (e.g., Quantized massive MU-MIMO-OFDM uplink) have demonstrated that 1-bit ADCs can also be used in practical frequency-selective wideband channels. I’m impressed by the analytical depth of these papers, but I don’t think it is practically meaningful to use 1-bit ADCs.

Do we really need 1-bit ADCs?

I think the answer is no in most situations. The reason is that ADCs with a resolution of around 6 bits strike a much better balance between communication performance and power consumption. The state-of-the-art 6-bit ADCs are already very energy-efficient. For example, the paper “A 5.5mW 6b 5GS/S 4×-lnterleaved 3b/cycle SAR ADC in 65nm CMOS” from ISSCC 2015 describes a 6-bit ADC that consumes 5.5 mW and has a huge sampling rate of 5 Gsample/s, which is sufficient even for extreme mmWave applications with 1 GHz of bandwidth. In a base station equipped with 100 of these 6-bit ADCs, less than 1 W is consumed by the ADCs. That will likely be a negligible factor in the total power consumption of any base station, so what is the point in using a lower resolution than that?

The use of 1-bit ADCs comes with a substantial loss in communication rate. In contrast, there is a consensus that Massive MIMO with 3-5 bits per ADC performs very close to the unquantized case (see Paper 1Paper 2, Paper 3, Paper 4Paper 5). The same applies for 6-bit ADCs, which provide an additional margin that protects against strong interference. Note that there is nothing magical with 6-bit ADCs; maybe 5-bit or 7-bit ADCs will be even better, but I don’t think it is meaningful to use 1-bit ADCs.

Will 1-bit ADCs ever become useful?

To select a 1-bit ADC, instead of an ADC with higher resolution, the energy consumption of the receiving device must be extremely constrained. I don’t think that will ever be the case in base stations, because the power amplifiers are dominating their energy consumption. However, the case might be different for internet-of-things devices that are supposed to run for ten years on the same battery. To make 1-bit ADCs meaningful, we need to greatly simplify all the other hardware components as well. One potential approach is to make a dedicated spatial-temporal waveform design, as described in this paper.

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