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.)