All posts by Emil Björnson

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:

Can Every Company Be First With 5G?

If you are following the 5G news, you might have noticed the many claims from various operators and telecom manufactures of being first with 5G. How can more than one company be first?

One telling example from this week is that on Thursday, Sprint/Nokia/Qualcomm reported about the “First 5G Data Call Using 2.5 GHz” and on Friday, Ericsson/Qualcomm reported about a “5G data call on 2.6 GHz band (…) adding a new frequency band to those successfully tested for commercial deployment.” The difference in carrier frequency is so small that I suppose the same hardware could have been used in both bands; for example, the LTE Massive MIMO product that I wrote about last August is designed for the frequency range 2496-2690 MHz. Yet, there is no contradiction between the two press releases; there are many different frequency bands and 5G features that one can be the first to demonstrate the use of, so we will likely see many more reports like these ones.


The multitude of press releases of this kind is an indicator of: 1) The many tests of soon-to-be-released hardware that are ongoing; 2) The importance for the companies to push out a steady stream of 5G related news.

When it comes to Massive MIMO, Sprint has previously showcased their use of fully digital 64-antenna panels at sub-6 GHz frequencies. In the new press release, they mention that hundreds of such panels were deployed in their network in 2018. Dr. Wen Tong, Head of Wireless Research at Huawei, made a similar claim about China in his keynote at GLOBECOM 2018. These are of course very small numbers compared to the millions of LTE base stations that exist in the world, but it indicates how important Massive MIMO will be in 5G. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that some kind of Massive MIMO technology will be used in almost every 5G base station.

Massive MIMO Deployments in the UK

2018 was the year when the deployment of Massive MIMO capable base stations began in many countries, such as Russia and USA. Nevertheless, I still see people claiming that Massive MIMO is “too expensive to implement“. In fact, this particular quote is from a review of one of my papers that I received in November 2018. It might have been an accurate (but pessimistic) claim a few years ago, but nowadays it is plainly wrong.

This photo is from the Bristol Temple Meads railway station. The Massive MIMO panel is at the bottom. (Photo: Vodafone UK Media Centre.)

I recently came across a website about telecommunication infrastructure by Peter Clarke. He has gathered photos of Massive MIMO antenna panels that have been deployed by Vodafone and by O2 in the United Kingdom. These deployments are using hardware from Huawei and Nokia, respectively. Their panels have similar form factors and are rather easy to recognize in the pictures since they are almost square-shaped, as compared to conventional rectangular antenna panels. You can see the difference in the image to the right. The technology used in these panels are probably similar to the Ericsson panel that I have previously written about. I hope that as many wireless communication researchers as possible will see these images and understand that Massive MIMO is not too expensive to implement but has in fact already been deployed in commercial networks.

Is Plagiarism An Increasing Problem?

I was asked to review my own papers three times during 2018. Or more precisely, I was asked to review papers by other people that contain the same content as some of my most well-cited papers. The review requests didn’t come from IEEE journals but less reputed journals. However, the papers were still written in such a way that they would likely pass through the automatic plagiarism detection systems that IEEE, EDAS, and others are using. How is that possible? Here is an example of how it could look like.


Plagiarized version:

As you can see, the authors are using the same equations and images, but the sentences are slightly paraphrased and the inline math is messed up. The meanings of the sentences are the same, but the different wording might be enough to pass through a plagiarism detection system that compares the words in different documents without being able of understanding the context. (I have better examples of this than the one shown above, but I didn’t want to reveal myself as a reviewer of those papers.)

This approach to plagiarism is known as rogeting and basically means that you replace words in the original text with synonyms from a thesaurus with the purpose of fooling plagiarism detection systems. There are already online tools that can do this, often resulting unnatural sentence structures, but the advances in deep learning and natural language processing will probably help to refine these tools in the near future.

Is this an increasing problem?

This is hard to tell, but there are definitely indications in that direction. The reason might be that digital technology has made it easier to plagiarize. If you want to plagiarize a scientific paper, you don’t need to retype every word by hand. You can simply download the LaTeX code of the paper from (everything that an author uploads can be downloaded by others) and simply change the author names and then hide your misconduct by rogeting.

On the other hand, plagiarism detection systems are also becoming more sophisticated over time. My point is that we should never trust these systems as being reliable because people will always find ways to fool them. The three plagiarized papers that I detected in 2018 were all submitted to less reputed journals, but they apparently had a functioning peer-review system where researchers like me could spot the similarities despite the rogeting. Unfortunately, there are plenty of predatory journals and conferences that might not have any peer-review whatsoever and will publish anything if you just pay them to do so.

Does anyone benefit from plagiarism?

I am certainly annoyed by the fact that some people have the dishonesty to steal other people’s research and pretend that it is their research. At the same time, I’m wondering if anyone really benefits from doing that? The predatory journals make money from it, but what is in it for the authors? Whenever I review the CV of someone that applies for a position in my group, I have a close look at their list of publications. If it only contains papers published in unknown journals and conferences, I treat it as if the person has no real publications. I might even regard it as more negative to have such publications in the CV than to have no publications at all! I suppose that many other professors do the same thing, and I truly hope that recruiters at companies also have the skills of evaluating publication lists. Having published in a predatory journal must be viewed as a big red flag!

“Computers Weren’t Powerful Enough to Operate It”

Image from Wikipedia

I found an interesting news article by  where he is interviewing Martin Cooper, who is considered the father of the handheld cell phone. Cooper is talking about spatial division multiple access, the early name of the multi-user MIMO technology, and how “computers weren’t powerful enough to operate it” at the time it was invented at his startup-company ArrayComm.

Cooper points out that “Today we spray energy in all directions. Why not aim it directly?” He then provides three examples of why multi-user MIMO solves important practical problems:

First, deploying cellular and derivative technologies is costly. Second, the quality of wireless communicating must be comparable or better than that of wireline in order to compete with wireline, said Cooper. And as spectrum is finite, technology must work toward greater efficiency.

Furthermore, he says that ArrayComm’s multi-user MIMO solution “requires fewer base stations, which cuts costs. The technology also is adaptive, which simplifies network design and reduces site acquisition and installation costs.”

By the way, did I forgot to say that this interview is from 1996…?

I explained in a previous blog post why the efforts to commercialize multi-user MIMO in the nineties were not as successful as Cooper and others might have hoped for. Now, more than 20 years later, we are about to witness a large-scale deployment of 5G technology, in which MIMO is a key component. The industry has hopefully learned from the negative past experiences when Massive MIMO is now being deployed in commercial networks. One thing we know for sure is that computational complexity is not a problem anymore.

Adaptive Beamforming and Antenna Arrays

Adaptive beamforming for wireless communications has a long history, with the modern research dating back to the 70s and 80s. There is even a paper from 1919 that describes the development of directive transatlantic communication practices that were developed during the First World War. Many of the beamforming methods that are considered today can be found already in the magazine paper Beamforming: A Versatile Approach to Spatial Filtering from 1988. Plenty of further work was carried out in the 90s and 00s, before the Massive MIMO paradigm.

I think it is fair to say that no fundamentally new beamforming methods have been developed in the Massive MIMO literature, but we have rather taken known methods and generalized them to take imperfect channel state information and other practical aspects into account. And then we have developed rigorous ways to quantify the achievable rates that these beamforming methods achieve and studied the asymptotic behaviors when having many antennas. Closed-form expressions are available in some special cases, while Monte Carlo simulations can be used to compute these expressions in other cases.

As beamforming has evolved from an analog phased-array concept, where angular beams are studied, to a digital concept where the beamforming is represented in multi-dimensional vector spaces, it easy to forget the basic properties of array processing. That is why we dedicated Section 7.4 in Massive MIMO Networks to describe how the physical beam width and spatial resolution depend on the array geometry.

In particular, I’ve observed a lot of confusion about the dimensionality of MIMO arrays, which are probably rooted in the confusion around the difference between an antenna (which is something connected to an RF chain) and a radiating element. I explained this in detail in a previous blog post and then exemplified it based on a recent press release. I have also recorded the following video to visually explain these basic properties:

A recent white paper from Ericsson is also providing a good description of these concepts, particularly focused on how an array with a given geometry can be implemented with different numbers of RF chains (i.e., different numbers of antennas) depending on the deployment scenario. While having as many antennas as radiating element is preferable from a performance perspective, but the Ericsson researchers are arguing that one can get away with fewer antennas in the vertical direction in deployments where it is anyway very hard to resolve users in the elevation dimension.