All posts by Erik G. Larsson

Massive MIMO Hardware Distortion Measured in the Lab

I wrote this paper to make a single point: the hardware distortion (especially out-band radiation) stemming from transmitter nonlinearities in massive MIMO is a deterministic function of the transmitted signals. One consequence of this is that in most cases of practical relevance, the distortion is correlated among the antennas. Specifically, under line-of-sight propagation conditions this distortion is radiated in specific directions: in the single-user case the distortion is radiated into the same direction as the signal of interest, and in the two-user case the distortion is radiated into two other directions.

The derivation was based on a very simple third-order polynomial model. Questioning that model, or contesting the conclusions? Let’s run WebLab. WebLab is a web-server-based interface to a real power amplifier operating in the lab, developed and run by colleagues at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. Anyone can access the equipment in real time (though there might be a queue) by submitting a waveform and retrieving the amplified waveform using a special Matlab function, “weblab.m”, obtainable from their webpages. Since accurate characterization and modeling of amplifiers is a hard nonlinear identification problem, WebLab is a great tool to researchers who want to go beyond polynomial and truncated Volterra-type toy models.

A $\lambda/2$-spaced uniform linear array with 50 elements beamforms in free space line-of-sight to two terminals at (arbitrarily chosen) angles -9 respectively +34 degrees. A sinusoid with frequency $f_1=\pi/10$ is sent to the first terminal, and a sinusoid with frequency $f_2=2\pi/10$ is transmitted to the other terminal. (Frequencies are in discrete time, see the Weblab documentation for details.) The actual radiation diagram is computed numerically: line-of-sight in free space is fairly uncontroversial: superposition for wave propagation applies. However, importantly, the actual amplification all signals is run on actual hardware in the lab.

The computed radiation diagram is shown below. (Some lines overlap.) There are two large peaks at -9 and +34 degrees angle, corresponding to the two signals of interest with frequencies $f_1$ and $f_2$. There are also secondary peaks, at angles approximately -44 and -64 degrees, at frequencies different from $f_1$ respectively $f_2$. These peaks originate from intermodulation products, and represent the out-band radiation caused by the amplifier non-linearity. (Homework: read the paper and verify that these angles are equal to those predicted by the theory.)

The Matlab code for reproduction of this experiment can be downloaded here.

Three Highlights from ICC 2018

Three massive-MIMO-related highlights from IEEE ICC in Kansas City, MO, USA, this week:

  1. J. H. Thompson from Qualcomm gave a keynote on 5G, relaying several important insights. He stressed the fundamental role of Massive MIMO, utilizing reciprocity (which in turn, of course, implies TDD). This is a message we have been preaching for years now, and it is reassuring to hear a main industry leader echo it at such an important event. He pointed to distributed Massive MIMO (that we know of as “cell-free massive MIMO“) as a forthcoming technology, not only because of the macro-diversity but also because of the improved channel rank it offers to multiple-antenna terminals. This new technology may enable AR/VR/XR, wireless connectivity in factories and much more… where conventional massive MIMO might not be sufficient.
  2. In the exhibition hall Nokia showcased a 64×2=128 Massive MIMO array, with fully digital transceiver chains, small dual-polarized path antennas, operating at 2.5 GHz and utilizing reciprocity – though it wasn’t clear exactly what algorithmic technology that went inside. (See photographs below.) Sprint already has deployed this product commercially, if I understood well, with an LTE TDD protocol. Ericsson had a similar product, but it was not opened, so difficult to tell exactly what the actual array looked like. The Nokia base station was only slightly larger, physically, than the flat-screen-base-station vision I have been talking about for many years now, and along the lines that T. Marzetta from Bell Labs had already back in 2006. Now that cellular Massive MIMO is a commercial reality… what should the research community do? Granted there are still lots of algorithmic innovation possible (and needed), but …. Cell-free massive MIMO with RF over fiber is the probably the obvious next step.
  3. T. Marzetta from NYU gave an industry distinguished talk, speculating about the future of wireless beyond Massive MIMO. What, if anything at all, could give us another 10x or 100x gain? A key point of the talk was that we have to go back to (wave propagation) physics and electromagnetics, a message that I very much subscribe to: the “y=Hx+w” models we typically use in information and communication theory are in many situations rather oversimplified. Speculations included the use of super-directivity, antenna coupling and more… It will be interesting to see where this leads, but at any rate, it is interesting fundamental physics.

There were also lots of other (non-Massive MIMO) interesting things: UAV connectivity, sparsity… and a great deal of questions and discussion on how machine learning could be leveraged, more about that at a later point in time.

I was wrong: Two incorrect speculations

Our 2014 massive MIMO tutorial paper won the IEEE ComSoc best tutorial paper award this year. The idea when writing that paper was to summarize the state of the technology, and to point out research directions that were relevant (at that time). It is of course, reassuring to see that many of those research directions evolved into entire sub-fields themselves in our community. Naturally, in the envisioning of these directions I also made some speculations.

It looks to me now that two of these speculations were wrong:

  • First, “Massive MIMO increases the robustness against both unintended man-made interference and intentional jamming.” This is only true with some qualifiers, or possibly not true at all. (Actually I don’t really know, and I don’t think it is known for sure. It seems that this question remains a rather pertinent research direction for anyone interested in physical layer security and MIMO.) Subsequent research by others showed that Massive MIMO can be extraordinarily susceptible to attacks on the pilot channels, revealing an important, fundamental vulnerability at least if standard pilot-based channel estimation is used and no excess dimensions are “wasted” on interference suppression or detection. Basically this pilot channel attack exploits the so-called pilot contamination phenomenon, “hijacking” the reciprocity-based beamforming mechanism.
  • Second, “In a way, massive MIMO relies on the law of large numbers to make sure that noise, fading, and hardware imperfections average out when signals from a large number of antennas are combined in the air.” This is not generally true, except for in-band distortion and with many simultaneously multiplexed users and frequency selective Rayleigh fading. In general the distortion that results from hardware imperfections is correlated among the antennas. In the special case of line-of-sight with a single terminal, an important basic reference case, the distortion is identical (up to a phase shift) at all antennas, hence resulting in a rank-one transmission: the distortion is beamformed in the same direction as the signal of interest and hardware imperfections do not “average out” at all.
    This is particularly serious for out-band effects. Readers interested in a thorough mathematical treatment may consult my student’s recent Ph.D. dissertation.

Have you found any more? Let me know. The knowledge in the field continues to evolve.

Are Link Simulations Needed Anymore?

One reason for why capacity lower bounds are so useful is that they are accurate proxies for link-level performance with modern coding. But this fact, well known to information and coding theorists, is often contested by practitioners. I will discuss some possible reasons for that here.

The recipe is to compute the capacity bound, and depending on the code blocklength, add a dB or a few, to the required SNR. That gives the link performance prediction. The coding literature is full of empirical results, showing how far from capacity a code of a given block length is for the AWGN channel, and this gap is usually not extremely different for other channel models – although, one should always check this.

But there are three main caveats with this:

  1. First, the capacity bound, or the “SINR” that it often contains, must be information-theoretically correct. A great deal of papers get this wrong. Emil explained in his blog post last week some common errors. The recommended approach is to map the channel onto one of the canonical cases in Figure 2.9 in Fundamentals of Massive MIMO, verify that the technical conditions are satisfied, and use the corresponding formula.
  2. When computing expressions of the type E[log(1+”SINR”)], then the average should be taken over all quantities that are random within the duration of a codeword. Typically, this means averaging over the randomness incurred by the noise, channel estimation errors, and in many cases the small-scale fading. All other parameters must be kept fixed. Typically, user positions, path losses, shadow fading, scheduling and pilot assignments, are fixed, so the expectation is conditional on those. (Yet, the interference statistics may vary substantially, if other users are dropping in and out of the system.) This in turn means that many “drops” have to be generated, where these parameters are drawn at random, and then CDF curves with respect to that second level of randomness needs be computed (numerically).Think of the expectation E[log(1+”SINR”)] as a “link simulation”. Every codeword sees many independent noise realizations, and typically small-scale fading realizations, but the same realization of the user positions. Also, often, neat (and tight) closed-form bounds on E[log(1+”SINR”)] are available.
  3. Care is advised when working with relatively short blocks (less than a few hundred bits) and at rates close to the constrained capacity with the foreseen modulation format. In this case, many of the “standard” capacity bounds become overoptimistic.As a rule of thumb, compare the capacity of an AWGN channel with the constrained capacity of the chosen modulation at the spectral efficiency of interest, and if the gap is small, the capacity bounds will be useful. If not, then reconsider the choice of modulation format! (See also homework problem 1.4.)

How far are the bounds from the actual capacity typically? Nobody knows, but there are good reasons to believe they are extremely close. Here (Figure 1) is a nice example that compares a decoder that uses the measured channel likelihood, instead of assuming a Gaussian (which is implied by the typical bounding techniques). From correspondence with one of the authors: “The dashed and solid lines are the lower bound obtained by Gaussianizing the interference, while the circles are the rate achievable by a decoder exploiting the non-Gaussianity of the interference, painfully computed through days-long Monte-Carlo. (This is not exactly the capacity, because the transmit signals here are Gaussian, so one could deviate from Gaussian signaling and possibly do slightly better — but the difference is imperceptible in all the experiments we’ve done.)”

Concerning Massive MIMO and its capacity bounds, I have met for a long time with arguments that these capacity formulas aren’t useful estimates of actual performance. But in fact, they are: In one simulation study we were less than one dB from the capacity bound by using QPSK and a standard LDPC code (albeit with fairly long blocks). This bound accounts for noise and channel estimation errors. Such examples are in Chapter 1 of Fundamentals of Massive MIMO, and also in the ten-myth paper:

(I wrote the simulation code, and can share it, in case anyone would want to reproduce the graphs.)

So in summary, while capacity bounds are sometimes done wrong; when done right they give pretty good estimates of actual link performance with modern coding.

(With thanks to Angel Lozano for discussions.)

I Never Thought It Would Happen So Fast

I never thought it would happen so fast. When I started to work on Massive MIMO in 2009, the general view was that fully digital, phase-coherent operation of so many antennas would be infeasible, and that power consumption of digital and analog circuitry would prohibit implementations for the foreseeable future. More seriously, reservations were voiced that reciprocity-based beamforming would not work, or that operation in mobile conditions would be impossible.

These arguments, it turned out, all proved to be wrong. In 2017, Massive MIMO was the main physical-layer technology under standardization for 5G, and it is unlikely that any serious future cellular wireless communications system would not have Massive MIMO as a main technology component.

But Massive MIMO is more than a groundbreaking technology for wireless communications: it is also an elegant and mathematically rigorous approach to teaching wireless communications. In the moderately-large number-of-antennas regime, our closed-form capacity bounds become convenient proxies for the link performance achievable with practical coding and modulation.

These expressions take into account the effects of all significant physical phenomena: small-scale and large-scale fading, intra- and inter-cell interference, channel estimation errors, pilot reuse (also known as pilot contamination) and power control. A comprehensive analytical understanding of these phenomena simply has not been possible before, as the corresponding information theory has too complicated for any practical use.

The intended audiences of Fundamentals of Massive MIMO are engineers and students. I anticipate that as graduate courses on the topic become commonplace, our extensive problem set (with solutions) available online will serve as a useful resource to instructors. While other books and monographs will likely appear down the road, focusing on trendier and more recent research, Fundamentals of Massive MIMO distills the theory and facts that will prevail for the foreseeable future. This, I hope, will become its most lasting impact.

To read the preface of Fundamentals of Massive MIMO, click here. You can also purchase the book here.

Superimposed Pilots?

The concept of superimposed pilots is (at least 15 years) old, but clever and intriguing. The idea is to add pilot and data samples together, instead of separating them in time and/or frequency, before modulating with waveforms. More recently, the authors of this paper argued that in massive MIMO, based on certain simulations supported by asymptotic analysis, superimposed pilots provide superior performance and that there are strong reasons for superimposed pilots to make their way to practical use.

Until recently, a more rigorous analysis was unavailable. Some weeks ago the authors of this paper argued, that all things considered, the use of superimposed pilots does not offer any appreciable gains for practically interesting use cases. The analysis was based on a capacity-bounding approach for finite numbers of antennas and finite channel coherence, but it assumed the most basic form of signal processing for detection and decoding.

There still remains some hope of seeing improvements, by implementing more advanced signal processing, like zero-forcing, multicell MMSE decoding, or iterative decoding algorithms, perhaps involving “turbo” information exchange between the demodulator, channel estimation, and detector. It will be interesting to follow future work by these two groups of authors to understand how large improvements (if any) superimposed pilots eventually can give.

There are, at least, two general lessons to learn here. First, that performance predictions based on asymptotics can be misleading in practically relevant cases. (I have discussed this issue before.) The best way to perform analysis is to use rigorous capacity lower bounds, or possibly, in isolated cases of interest, link-level simulations with channel coding (for which, as it turns out, capacity bounds are a very good proxy). Second, more concretely, that while it may be tempting, to superimpose-squeeze multiple symbols into the same time-frequency-space resource, once all sources of impairments (channel estimation errors, interference) are accurately accounted for, the gains tend to evaporate. (It is for the same reason that NOMA offers no substantial gains in MIMO systems – a topic that I may return to at a later time.)