I gave an IEEE ComSoc Webinar entitled Massive MIMO for 5G: How Big Can it Get earlier this month. If you missed it, you can view IEEE’s recording of the webinar. Alternatively, you check out the following video where I give the same talk:
MAMMOET (Massive MIMO for Efficient Transmission) was the first major research project on Massive MIMO that was funded by the European Union. The project took place 2014-2016 and you might have heard about its outcomes in terms of the first demonstrations of real-time Massive MIMO that was carried out by the LuMaMi testbed at Lund University. The other partners in the project were Ericsson, Imec, Infineon, KU Leuven, Linköping University, Technikon, and Telefonica. MAMMOET was an excellent example of a collaborative project, where the telecom industry defined the system requirements and the other partners designed and evaluated new algorithms and hardware implementations to reach the requirements.
In 2012, when you began to draft the project proposal, Massive MIMO was not a popular topic. Why did you initiate the work?
– Theoretically and conceptually it seemed so interesting that it would be a pity not to work on it. The main goal of the MAMMOET project was to make conceptual progress towards a spectrally and energy efficient system and to raise the confidence level by demonstrating a practical hardware implementation. We also wanted to make channel measurements to see if they would confirm what has been seen in theory.
It seems the project partners had a clear vision from the beginning?
– It was actually very easy to write this proposal because everyone was on the same wavelength and knew what we wanted to achieve. We were all eager to start the project and learn from each other. This is quite unique and explains why the project delivered much more than promised. The fact that the team got along very well has also laid the fundament for further research collaborations.
What were the main outcomes of the project?
– We learned a lot on how things change when going from small to large arrays. New channel models are required to capture the new behaviors. We are used to that high-precision hardware is needed, but all the sudden this is not true when drastically increasing the number of antennas. You can then use low-resolution hardware and simple processing, which is very different from conventional MIMO implementation.
Some of the big conceptual differences in massive MIMO turned out to be easier to solve than expected, while some things were more problematic than foreseen. For example, it is difficult to connect all the signals together. You need to do part of the processing distributive to avoid this problem. Synchronization also turned out to be a bottleneck. If we would have known that from the start, we could have designed the testbed differently, but we thought that the channel estimation and MIMO processing would be the challenging part.
What was the most rewarding aspect of leading this project?
– The cross-fertilization of people was unique. We brought people with different background and expertise together in a room to identify the crucial problems in massive MIMO and find new solutions. For example, we realized early that interference will be a main problem and that zero-forcing processing is needed, although matched filtering was popular at the time. By carefully analyzing the zero-forcing complexity, we could show that it was almost negligible compared to other necessary processing and we later demonstrated zero-forcing in real-time at the testbed. This was surprising for many people who thought that massive MIMO would be impossible to implement since 8×8 MIMO systems are terribly complex, but many things can be simplified in massive MIMO. Looking back, it might seem that the outcomes were obvious, but these are things you don’t know until you have gone through the process.
What are the big challenges that remains?
– An important challenge is how to integrate massive MIMO into a network. We assumed that there are many users and we can all give them the same time-frequency resources, but the channels and traffic are not always suitable for that. How should we decide which users to put together? We used an LTE-like frame structure, but it is important to design a frame structure that is well-suited for massive MIMO and real traffic.
There are many tradeoffs and degrees-of-freedom when designing massive MIMO systems. Would you use the technology to provide very good cell coverage or to boost small-cell capacity? Instead of delivering fiber to homes, we could use massive MIMO with very many antennas for spatial multiplexing of fixed wireless connections. Alternatively, in a mobile situation, we might not multiplex so many users. Optimizing massive MIMO for different scenarios is something that remains.
We made a lot of progress on the digital processing side in MAMMOET, while on the analog side we mainly came up with the specifications. We also did not work on the antenna design since, theoretically, it does not matter which antennas you use, but in practice it does.
The deliverables contain a lot information related to use cases, requirements, channel modeling, signal processing algorithms, algorithmic implementation, and hardware implementation. Some of the results can found in the research literature, but far from everything.
Note: The author of this article worked in the MAMMOET project, but did not take part in the drafting of the proposal.
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.)
Multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) is not a new technology, but the basic concept of using multi-antenna base stations (BSs) to serve a multitude of users has been around since the late 1980s.
I sometimes get the question “Isn’t Massive MIMO just MU-MIMO with more antennas?” My answer is no, because the key benefit of Massive MIMO over conventional MU-MIMO is not only about the number of antennas. Marzetta’s Massive MIMO concept is the way to deliver the theoretical gains of MU-MIMO under practical circumstances. To achieve this goal, we need to acquire accurate channel state information, which in general can only be done by exploiting uplink pilots and channel reciprocity in TDD mode. Thanks to the channel hardening and favorable propagation phenomena, one can also simplify the system operation in Massive MIMO.
Six key differences between conventional MU-MIMO and Massive MIMO are provided below.
Relation between number of BS antennas (M) and users (K)
M ≈ K and both are small (e.g., below 10)
M ≫ K and both can be large (e.g., M=100 and K=20).
Designed to work with both TDD and FDD operation
Designed for TDD operation to exploit channel reciprocity
Mainly based on codebooks with set of predefined angular beams
Based on sending uplink pilots and exploiting channel reciprocity
Link quality after precoding/combining
Varies over time and frequency, due to frequency-selective and small-scale fading
Almost no variations over time and frequency, thanks to channel hardening
The allocation must change rapidly to account for channel quality variations
The allocation can be planned in advance since the channel quality varies slowly
Only good if the BSs cooperate
Cell-edge SNR increases proportionally to the number of antennas, without causing more inter-cell interference
Footnote: TDD stands for time-division duplex and FDD stands for frequency-division duplex.
The “Massive MIMO” name is currently being used for both sub-6 GHz and mmWave applications. This can be very confusing because the multi-antenna technology has rather different characteristics in these two applications.
The sub-6 GHz spectrum is particularly useful to provide network coverage, since the pathloss and channel coherence time are relatively favorable at such frequencies (recall that the coherence time is inversely proportional to the carrier frequency). Massive MIMO at sub-6 GHz spectrum can increase the efficiency of highly loaded cells, by upgrading the technology at existing base stations. In contrast, the huge available bandwidths in mmWave bands can be utilized for high-capacity services, but only over short distances due to the severe pathloss and high noise power (which is proportional to the bandwidth). Massive MIMO in mmWave bands can thus be used to improve the link budget.
Six key differences between sub-6 GHz and mmWave operation are provided below:
Macro cells with support for high user mobility
Small cells with low user mobility
Number of simultaneous users per cell
Up to tens of users, due to the large coverage area
One or a few users, due to the small coverage area
Main benefit from having many antennas
Spatial multiplexing of tens of users, since the array gain and ability to separate users spatially lead to great spectral efficiency
Beamforming to a single user, which greatly improves the link budget and thereby extends coverage
Rich multipath propagation
Only a few propagation paths
Spectral efficiency and bandwidth
High spectral efficiency due to the spatial multiplexing, but small bandwidth
Low spectral efficiency due to few users, large pathloss, and large noise power, but large bandwidth
Fully digital transceiver implementations are feasible and have been prototyped
Hybrid analog-digital transceiver implementations are needed, at least in the first products
Since Massive MIMO was initially proposed by Tom Marzetta for sub-6 GHz applications, I personally recommend to use the “Massive MIMO” name only for that use case. One can instead say “mmWave Massive MIMO” or just “mmWave” when referring to multi-antenna technologies for mmWave bands.
Prof. Erik. G. Larsson gave a 2.5 hour tutorial on the fundamentals of Massive MIMO, which is highly recommended for anyone learning this topic. You can then follow up by reading his book with the same topic.
When you have viewed Erik’s introduction, you can learn more about the state-of-the-art signal processing schemes for Massive MIMO from another talk at the summer school. Dr. Emil Björnson gave a 3 hour tutorial on this topic:
The received signal power is proportional to the number of antennas in Massive MIMO systems. This property is known as the array gain and it can basically be utilized in two different ways.
One option is to let the signal power become times larger than in a single-antenna reference scenario. The increase in SNR will then lead to higher data rates for the users. The gain can be anything from bit/s/Hz to almost negligible, depending on how interference-limited the system is. Another option is to utilize the array gain to reduce the transmit power, to maintain the same SNR as in the reference scenario. The corresponding power saving can be very helpful to improve the energy efficiency of the system.
In the uplink, with single-antenna user terminals, we can choose between these options. However, in the downlink, we might not have a choice. There are strict regulations on the permitted level of out-of-band radiation in practical systems. Since Massive MIMO uses downlink precoding, the transmitted signals from the base station have a stronger directivity than in the single-antenna reference scenario. The signal components that leak into the bands adjacent to the intended frequency band will then also be more directive.
For example, consider a line-of-sight scenario where the precoding creates an angular beam towards the intended user (as illustrated in the figure below). The out-of-band radiation will then get a similar angular directivity and lead to larger interference to systems operating in adjacent bands, if their receivers are close to the user (as the victim in the figure below). To counteract this effect, our only choice might be to reduce the downlink transmit power to keep the worst-case out-of-band radiation constant.
Another alternative is that the regulations are made more flexible with respect to precoded transmissions. The probability that a receiver in an adjacent band is hit by an interfering out-of-band beam, such that the interference becomes times larger than in the reference scenario, reduces with an increasing number of antennas since the beams are narrower. Hence, if one can allow for beamformed out-of-band interference if it occurs with sufficiently low probability, the array gain in Massive MIMO can still be utilized to increase the SNRs. A third option will then be to (partially) reduce the transmit power to also allow for relaxed linearity requirements of the hardware.