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.
Yes, my group had its share of rejected papers as well. Here are some that I specially remember:
Massive MIMO: 10 myths and one critical question. The first version was rejected by the IEEE Signal Processing Magazine. The main comment was that nobody would think that the points that we had phrased as myths were true. But in reality, each one of the myths was based on an actual misconception heard in public discussions! The paper was eventually published in the IEEE Communications Magazine instead in 2016, and has been cited more than 180 times.
Massive MIMO with 1-bit ADCs. This paper was rejected by the IEEE Transactions on Wireless Communications. By no means a perfect paper… but the review comments were mostly nonsensical. The editor stated: “The concept as such is straightforward and the conceptual novelty of the manuscript is in that sense limited.” The other authors left my group shortly after the paper was written. I did not predict the hype on 1-bit ADCs for MIMO that would ensue (and this happened despite the fact that yes, the concept as such is straightforward and its conceptual novelty is rather limited!). Hence I didn’t prioritize a rewrite and resubmission. The paper was never published, but we put the rejected manuscript on arXiv in 2014, and it has been cited 80 times.
Finally, a paper that was almost rejected upon its initial submission: Energy and Spectral Efficiency of Very Large Multiuser MIMO Systems, eventually published in the IEEE Transactions on Communications in 2013. The review comments included obvious nonsense, such as “Overall, there is not much difference in theory compared to what was studied in the area of MIMO for the last ten years.” The paper subsequently won the IEEE ComSoc Stephen O. Rice Prize, and has more than 1300 citations.
There are several lessons to learn here. First, that peer review may be the best system we know, but it isn’t perfect: disturbingly, it is often affected by incompetence and bias. Second, notwithstanding the first, that many paper rejections are probably also grounded in genuine misunderstandings: writing well takes a lot of experience, and a lot of hard, dedicated work. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, that persistence is really an essential component of success.
I’ve got an email with this question last week. There is not one but many possible answers to this question, so I figured that I write a blog post about it.
One answer is that beamforming and precoding are two words for exactly the same thing, namely to use an antenna array to transmit one or multiple spatially directive signals.
Another answer is that beamforming can be divided into two categories: analog and digital beamforming. In the former category, the same signal is fed to each antenna and then analog phase-shifters are used to steer the signal emitted by the array. This is what a phased array would do. In the latter category, different signals are designed for each antenna in the digital domain. This allows for greater flexibility since one can assign different powers and phases to different antennas and also to different parts of the frequency bands (e.g., subcarriers). This makes digital beamforming particularly desirable for spatial multiplexing, where we want to transmit a superposition of signals, each with a separate directivity. It is also beneficial when having a wide bandwidth because with fixed phases the signal will get a different directivity in different parts of the band. The second answer to the question is that precoding is equivalent to digital beamforming. Some people only mean analog beamforming when they say beamforming, while others use the terminology for both categories.
A third answer is that beamforming refers to a single-user transmission with one data stream, such that the transmitted signal consists of one main-lobe and some undesired side-lobes. In contrast, precoding refers to the superposition of multiple beams for spatial multiplexing of several data streams.
A fourth answer is that beamforming refers to the formation of a beam in a particular angular direction, while precoding refers to any type of transmission from an antenna array. This definition essentially limits the use of beamforming to line-of-sight (LoS) communications, because when transmitting to a non-line-of-sight (NLoS) user, the transmitted signal might not have a clear angular directivity. The emitted signal is instead matched to the multipath propagation so that the multipath components that reach the user add constructively.
A fifth answer is that precoding consists of two parts: choosing the directivity (beamforming) and choosing the transmit power (power allocation).
I used to use the word beamforming in its widest meaning (i.e., the first answer), as can be seen in my first book on the topic. However, I have since noticed that some people have a more narrow or specific interpretation of beamforming. Therefore, I nowadays prefer only talking about precoding. In Massive MIMO, I think that precoding is the right word to use since what I advocate is a fully digital implementation, where the phases and powers can be jointly designed to achieve high capacity through spatial multiplexing of many users, in both NLoS and LOS scenarios.
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.
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.
Many researchers have analyzed pilot contamination over the six years that have passed since Marzetta uncovered its importance in Massive MIMO systems. We now have a quite good understanding of how to mitigate pilot contamination. There is a plethora of different approaches, whereof many have complementary benefits. If pilot contamination is not mitigated, it will both reduce the array gain and create coherent interference. Some approaches mitigate the pilot interference in the channel estimation phase, while some approaches combat the coherent interference caused by pilot contamination. In this post, I will try to categorize the approaches and point to some key references.
Interference-rejecting precoding and combining
Pilot contamination makes the estimate of a desired channel correlated with the channel from pilot-sharing users in other cells. When these channel estimates are used for receive combining or transmit precoding, coherent interference typically arise. This is particularly the case if maximum ratio processing is used, because it ignores the interference. If multi-cell MMSE processing is used instead, the coherent interference is rejected in the spatial domain. In particular, recent work from Björnson et al. (see also this related paper) have shown that there is no asymptotic rate limit when using this approach, if there is just a tiny amount of spatial correlation in the channels.
Data-aided channel estimation
Another approach is to “decontaminate” the channel estimates from pilot contamination, by using the pilot sequence and the uplink data for joint channel estimation. This have the potential of both improving the estimation quality (leading to a stronger desired signal) and reducing the coherent interference. Ideally, if the data is known, data-aided channel estimation increase the length of the pilot sequences to the length of the uplink transmission block. Since the data is unknown to the receiver, semi-blind estimation techniques are needed to obtain the channel estimates. Ngo et al. and Müller et al. did early works on pilot decontamination for Massive MIMO. Recent work has proved that one can fully decontaminate the estimates, as the length of the uplink block grows large, but it remains to find the most efficient semi-blind decontamination approach for practical block lengths.
Alternatively, pilot sequences can be superimposed on the data sequences, which gives as many orthogonal pilot sequences as the length of the uplink block and thereby reduces the pilot contamination. This approach also removes the pilot overhead, but it comes at the cost of causing interference between pilot and data transmissions. It is therefore important to assign the right fraction of power to pilots and data. A hybrid pilot solution, where some users have superimposed pilots and some have conventional pilots, may bring the best of both worlds.
If two cells use the same subset of pilots, the exact pilot-user assignment can make a large difference. Cell-center users are generally less sensitive to pilot contamination than cell-edge users, but finding the best assignment is a hard combinatorial problem. There are heuristic algorithms that can be used and also an optimization framework that can be used to evaluate such algorithms.
A combination of network MIMO and macro diversity can be utilized to turn the coherent interference into desired signals. This approach is called pilot contamination precoding by Ashikhmin et al. and can be applied in both uplink and downlink. In the uplink, the base stations receive different linear combinations of the user signals. After maximum ratio combining, the coefficients in the linear combinations approach deterministic numbers as the number of antennas grow large. These numbers are only non-zero for the pilot-sharing users. Since the macro diversity naturally creates different linear combinations, the base stations can jointly solve a linear system of equations to obtain the transmitted signals. In the downlink, all signals are sent from all base stations and are precoded in such a way that the coherent interference sent from different base stations cancel out. While this is a beautiful approach for mitigating the coherent interference, it relies heavily on channel hardening, favorable propagation, and i.i.d. Rayleigh fading. It remains to be shown if the approach can provide performance gains under more practical conditions.