All posts by Emil Björnson

Multiple Antenna Technologies for Beyond 5G

As this decade is approaching its end, so is the development of 5G technologies. The first 5G networks are currently begin deployed and, over the next few years, we will learn which features in the 5G standards that will actually be used and provide good performance.

When it comes to Massive MIMO for sub-6 GHz and mmWave bands, many of the previously open research problems have been resolved over the past five years – at least from an academic perspective. There are still important open problems at the border between theory and practical implementation. However, I strongly believe that this is a time when we should also look further into the future to identify the next big things.

To encourage more future-looking research, I joined as one of the guest editors of an upcoming special issue on Multiple Antenna Technologies for Beyond 5G in the IEEE Journal on Selected Areas in Communications (JSAC). The call for papers is available online and the submission deadline is 1 September 2019. Hence, if you start your research on this topic right away, you will have plenty of time to write a paper!

The call for papers identifies three promising directions: Cell-free Massive MIMO, Lens arrays, and Large intelligent surfaces. However, I am sure there are many other interesting research directions that are yet to be discovered. I recommend prospective authors to think creatively and look for the next big steps in the multiple antenna technologies. Remember that Massive MIMO was generally viewed as science fiction ten years ago, and now it is a reality!

If you are looking for inspiration, I’m recommending my recent overview paper: Massive MIMO is a Reality – What is Next? Five Promising Research Directions for Antenna Arrays.

Commercial 5G Networks

Some of the first 5G phones were announced at the Mobile World Congress last week. Many of these phones are reportedly based on the Snapdragon 855 Mobile Platform from Qualcomm, which supports 5G with up to 100 MHz bandwidth in sub-6 GHz bands and up to 800 MHz bandwidth in mmWave bands.

Despite all the fuss about mmWave being the key feature of 5G, it appears that the first commercial networks will utilize conventional sub-6 GHz bands; for example, Sprint will launch 5G using the 2.5 GHz band in nine major US cities from May to June 2019. Sprint is using Massive MIMO panels from Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung. The reason to use the 2.5 GHz band is to achieve a reasonably wide network coverage with a limited number of base stations. The new Massive MIMO base stations will initially be used for both 4G and 5G. The following video details Sprint’s preparations for their 5G launch:

Another interesting piece of news from the Mobile World Congress is that 95% of the base stations that Huawei is currently shipping contain Massive MIMO with either 32 or 64 antennas.

Radio Stripes – Distributed Massive MIMO Deployment

Distributed MIMO deployments combine the best of two worlds: The beamforming gain and spatial interference suppression capability of conventional Massive MIMO with co-located arrays, and the bigger chance of being physically close to a service antenna that small cells offer. Coherent transmission and reception from a distributed MIMO array is not a new concept but has been given many names over the years, including Distributed Antenna System and Network MIMO. Most recently, in the beyond-5G era, it has been called ubiquitous Cell-free Massive MIMO communications and been refined based on insights and methodology developed through the research into conventional Massive MIMO.

One of the showstoppers for distributed MIMO has always been the high cost of deploying a large number of distributed antennas. Since the antennas need to be phase-synchronized and have access to the same data, a lot of high-capacity cables need to be deployed, particularly if a star topology is used. Ericsson is showcasing their new take on distributed MIMO at the 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC), which is taking place in Barcelona this week. It is called radio stripes and some details can be found in a recent press release. In particular, Jan Hederén, strategist at Ericsson 4G5G Development, says:

Although a large-scale installation of distributed MIMO can provide excellent performance, it can also become an impractical and costly ‘spaghetti-monster’ of cables in case dedicated cables are used to connect the antenna elements. To be easy to deploy, we need to connect and integrate the antenna elements inside a single cable. We call this solution the ‘radio stripe’ which is an easy way to create a large scale distributed, serial, and integrated antenna system.”

Ericsson is showing a mockup of radio stripes at MWC 2019, with a total length of 2 kilometer. For those who cannot attend MWC, further conceptual details can be found in a recent overview paper on Cell-free Massive MIMO. An even more detailed description of radio stripes can be found in Ericsson’s patent application from 2017.

Five Promising Research Directions for Antenna Arrays

Ever since I finished the writing of the book Massive MIMO Networks: Spectral, Energy, and Hardware Efficiency, I have felt that I’m somewhat done with my research on conventional Massive MIMO. The spectral efficiency, energy efficiency, resource allocation, and pilot contamination phenomenon are well understood by now. This is not a bad thing—as researchers, we are supposed to solve the problems we are analyzing. But it means that this is a good time to look for new research directions. It should preferably be something where we can utilize our skills as Massive MIMO researchers to do something new and exciting!

With this in mind, I gathered a team consisting of myself, Luca Sanguinetti, Henk Wymeersch, Jakob Hoydis, and Thomas L. Marzetta. Each one of us has written about one promising new direction of research related to antenna arrays and MIMO, including the background of the topic, our long-term vision, and pertinent open problem. This resulted in the paper:

Massive MIMO is a Reality – What is Next? Five Promising Research Directions for Antenna Arrays

You can find the preprint on or by clicking on the name of the paper. I hope that you will find it as interesting to read as it was for us to write!

Massive MIMO is Supporting the Super Bowl in Atlanta

When I went to high school in Sweden, some of my friends stayed up very late at night (due to the time difference) to watch the Super Bowl; the annual championship in the American football league. This game is generally not a big thing in Sweden, but it is huge in America.

This Sunday, the Super Bowl takes place in Atlanta and one million people are expected to come to downtown Atlanta, to either watch the game at the stadium or root for their teams in other ways. Hence, massive flows of images and videos will be posted on social media from people located in a fairly limited area. To prepare for the game, the telecom operators have upgraded their cellular networks and taken the opportunity to market their 5G efforts.

Massive MIMO in the sub-6 GHz band with 64 antennas (and 128 radiating elements) is a key technology to handle the given situation, where huge capacity can be achieved by spatially multiplexing a large number of users in the downtown. Massive MIMO is a “small box with a massive impact” Cyril Mazloum, Network Manager for Sprint in Atlanta, told Hypepotamus. This refers to the fact that the Massive MIMO equipment is, despite the naming, physically smaller than the legacy equipment it replaces. In the following video, Heather Campbell of the Sprint Network Team explains how a ten times higher capacity is achieved in the 2.5 GHz band by their Massive MIMO deployment, which I have also reported about before.

All the major cellular operators have upgraded their networks in preparation for the big game. AT&T has reportedly spent $43 million to deploy 1,500 new antennas. Verizon has installed 30 new macro sites, 300 new small cells, and upgraded the capacity of 150 existing sites. T-Mobile has reportedly boosted its network capacity by eight times. Massive MIMO and 5G are clearly one of the key technologies in all these cases.

Beamforming From Distributed Arrays

When an antenna array is used to focus a transmitted signal on a receiver, we call this beamforming (or precoding) and we usually illustrate it as shown to the right. This cartoonish illustration is only applicable when the antennas are gathered in a compact array and there is a line-of-sight channel to the receiver.

If we want to deploy very many antennas, as in Massive MIMO, it might be preferable to distribute the antennas over a larger area. One such deployment concept is called Cell-free Massive MIMO. The basic idea is to have many distributed antennas that are transmitting phase-coherently to the receiving user. In other words, the antennas’ signal components add constructively at the location of the user, just as when using a compact array for beamforming. It is therefore convenient to call it beamforming in both cases—algorithmically it is the same thing!

The question is: How can we illustrate the beamforming effect when using a distributed array?

The figure below shows how to do it. I consider a toy example with 80 star-marked antennas deployed along the sides of a square and these antennas are transmitting sinusoids with equal power, but different phases. The phases are selected to make the 80 sine-components phase-aligned at one particular point in space (where the receiving user is supposed to be):

Clearly, the “beamforming” from a distributed array does not give rise to a concentrated signal beam, but the signal amplification is confined to a small spatial region (where the color is blue and the values on the vertical axis are close to one). This is where the signal components from all the antennas are coherently combined. There are minor fluctuations in channel gain at other places, but the general trend is that the components are non-coherently combined everywhere except at the receiving user. (Roughly the same will happen in a rich multipath channel, even if a compact array is used for transmission.)

By looking at a two-dimensional version of the figure (see below), we can see that the coherent combination occurs in a circular region that is roughly half a wavelength in diameter. At the carrier frequencies used for cellular networks, this region will only be a few centimeters or millimeters wide. It is almost magical how this distributed array can amplify the signal at such a tiny spatial region! This spatial region is probably what the company Artemis is calling a personal cell (pCell) when marketing their distributed MIMO solution.

If you are into the details, you might wonder why I simulated a square region that is only a few wavelengths wide, and why the antenna spacing is only a quarter of a wavelength. This assumption was only made for illustrative purposes. If the physical antenna locations are fixed but we would reduce the wavelength, the size of the circular region will reduce and the ripples will be more frequent. Hence, we would need to compute the channel gain at many more spatial sample points to produce a smooth plot.

Reproduce the results: The code that was used to produce the plots can be downloaded from my GitHub.

Dataset with Channel Measurements for Distributed and Co-located Massive MIMO

Although there are nowadays many Massive MIMO testbeds around the world, there are very few open datasets with channel measurement results. This will likely change over the next few years, spurred by the need for having common datasets when applying and evaluating machine learning methods in wireless communications.

The Networked Systems group at KU Leuven has recently made the results from one of their measurement campaigns openly available. It includes 36 user positions and two base station configurations: one 64-antenna co-located array and one distributed deployment with two 32-antenna arrays.

The following video showcases the measurement setup: