When Will Hybrid Beamforming Disappear?

There has been a lot of fuss about hybrid analog-digital beamforming in the development of 5G. Strangely, it is not because of this technology’s merits but rather due to general disbelief in the telecom industry’s ability to build fully digital transceivers in frequency bands above 6 GHz. I find this rather odd; we are living in a society that becomes increasingly digitalized, with everything changing from being analog to digital. Why would the wireless technology suddenly move in the opposite direction?

When Marzetta published his seminal Massive MIMO paper in 2010, the idea of having an array with a hundred or more fully digital antennas was considered science fiction, or at least prohibitively costly and power consuming. Today, we know that Massive MIMO is actually a pre-5G technology, with 64-antenna systems already deployed in LTE systems operating below 6 GHz. These antenna panels are very commercially competitive; 95% of the base stations that Huawei are currently selling have at least 32 antennas. The fast technological development demonstrates that the initial skepticism against Massive MIMO was based on misconceptions rather than fundamental facts.

In the same way, there is nothing fundamental that prevents the development of fully digital transceivers in mmWave bands, but it is only a matter of time before such transceivers are developed and will dominate the market. With digital beamforming, we can get rid of the complicated beam-searching and beam-tracking algorithms that have been developed over the past five years and achieve a simpler and more reliable system operation, particularly, using TDD operation and reciprocity-based beamforming.

Figure 1: Photo of the experimental equipment with 24 digital transceivers that was used by NEC. It uses 300 MHz of bandwidth in the 28 GHz band.

I didn’t jump onto the hybrid beamforming research train since it already had many passengers and I thought that this research topic would become irrelevant after 5-10 years. But I was wrong – it now seems that the digital solutions will be released much earlier than I thought. At the 2018 European Microwave Conference, NEC Cooperation presented an experimental verification of an active antenna system (AAS) for the 28 GHz band with 24 fully digital transceiver chains. The design is modular and consists of 24 horizontally stacked antennas, which means that the same design could be used for even larger arrays.

Tomoya Kaneko, Chief Advanced Technologist for RF Technologies Development at NEC, told me that they target to release a fully digital AAS in just a few years. So maybe hybrid analog-digital beamforming will be replaced by digital beamforming already in the beginning of the 5G mmWave deployments?

Figure 2: Illustration of what is found inside the AAS box in Figure 1. There are 12 horizontal cards, with two antennas and transceivers each. The dimensions are 308 mm x 199 mm.

That said, I think that the hybrid beamforming algorithms will have new roles to play in the future. The first generations of new communication systems might reach faster to the market by using a hybrid analog-digital architecture, which require hybrid beamforming, than waiting for the fully digital implementation to be finalized. This could, for example, be the case for holographic beamforming or MIMO systems operating in the sub-THz bands. There will also remain to exist non-mobile point-to-point communication systems with line-of-sight channels (e.g., satellite communications) where analog solutions are quite enough to achieve all the necessary performance gains that MIMO can provide.

9 thoughts on “When Will Hybrid Beamforming Disappear?”

  1. What about the energy efficiency part? It seems to me that hybrid precoding is good candidate for energy-efficient transmission.

    1. That is possible, but I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Hybrid architectures require more complicated analog circuitry and this is often the most power consuming part.

  2. On the other side, I guess there is a misunderstanding about the costs of analog components and ADC/DACs. They presume that wide-band ADC/DACs would be very expensive, and analog phase shifters could be cheaper. I am not sure but, considering the architectures of these devices, high precision analog phase shifters operating at microwave frequencies could be much more expensive due to the high complexity analog circuitry and high-frequency switching elements.

  3. But hybrid systems have practical advantages not included in this discussion.
    * With hybrid systems you can make spatial filtering before the signal hits the ADC. It could be useful, e.g. when we have strong interferers in spatial directions (or with a spatial signature that can be filtered out), thereby reducing dynamic range problems.
    * With hybrid system less amounts of digital data will need to be sent from the remote radio heads (RRH:s), The huge amounts of digital data is as yet a quite unsolved problem as I understand it from companies.

    Thus, to me it is unclear where the coin will flip: maybe the advantages with hybrid systems outweighs the disadvantages (?)

    1. I agree with the first point. But I’m not sure how much of a problem this will be. If the same ADC resolution is used as in current systems, both the fully digital and hybrid system will be less sensitive to strong interferers – but the hybrid system will benefit even more.

      Regarding the second point, a RRH with fully digital transceivers can preprocess the signals before sending it to another point. It can reduce the dimensionality to match that of a hybrid system, but using a better processing than achieved by the hybrid system.

    2. “With hybrid systems you can make spatial filtering before the signal hits the ADC”

      This assumes that all analogue components prior to the ADC is perfect, which is not the case. Phase-shifters, LNA’s and other active components can be distorted just as an ADC can. I’m not sure how much of the robustness remains once these are introduced. Also, in a hybrid system you can’t post-process these effects in the same way as in a fully digital system as you throw away degrees of freedom in the analogue domain.

      “With hybrid system less amounts of digital data will need to be sent from the remote radio heads (RRH:s)”

      I agree with Emil here. Research on compression and decentralized processing can aid in solving this problem. Some work is already done, see for example the publications of C. Studer et al.

      https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=8114173

  4. While mmWave base stations cover much smaller areas with lower service reliability and much higher power consumption as far as I understand, why does the telecom industry attempt to develop fully digital transceivers in such high frequency ranges? What is the point in mmWave that I’m missing?
    Thank you.

    1. The main point with mmWave is to utilize huge bandwidths that are available in such bands. But support for mobility and spatial multiplexing of users become more complicated with hybrid beamforming. And analog components are usually more power consuming that digital components.

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