I have written earlier that the Massive MIMO base stations that have been deployed by Sprint, and other operators, are very capable from a hardware perspective. They are equipped with 64 fully digital antennas, have a rather compact form factor, and can handle wide bandwidths in the 2-3 GHz bands. These facts are supported by documentation that can be accessed in the FCC databases.
However, we can only guess what is going on under the hood – what kind of signal processing algorithms have been implemented and how they perform compared to ideal cases described in the academic literature. Erik G. Larsson recently wrote about how Nokia improved its base station equipment via a software upgrade. Are the latest base stations now as “Massive MIMO”-like as they can become?
My guess is that there is still room for substantial improvements. The following joint video from Sprint and Nokia explains how their latest base stations are running 4G and 5G simultaneously on the same 64-antenna base station and are able to multiplex 16 layers.
“This is the highest number of multiuser MIMO layers achieved in the US” according to the speaker. But if you listen carefully, they are actually sending 8 layers on 4G and 8 layers 5G. That doesn’t sum up to 16 layers! The things called layers in 3GPP are signals that are transmitted simultaneously in the same band, but with different spatial directivity. In every part of the spectrum, there are only 8 spatially multiplexed layers in the setup considered in the video.
It is indeed impressive that Sprint can simultaneously deliver around 670 Mbit/s per user to 4 users in the cell, according to the video. However, the spectral efficiency per cell is “only” 22.5 bit/s/Hz, which can be compared to the 33 bit/s/Hz that was achieved in real-world trials by Optus and Huawei in 2017.
Both numbers are far from the world record in spectral efficiency of 145.6 bit/s/Hz that was achieved in a lab environment in Bristol, in a collaboration between the universities in Bristol and Lund. Although we cannot expect to reach those numbers in real-world urban deployments, I believe we can reach higher numbers by building 64-antenna arrays with a different form factor: long linear arrays instead of compact square panels. Since most users are separable in terms of having different azimuth angles to the base station, it will be easier to separate them by sending “narrower” beams in the horizontal domain.