Category Archives: Technical insights

Upcoming Massive MIMO Webinars

IEEE ComSoc is continuing to deliver webinars on 5G topics and Massive MIMO is a key part of several of them. The format is a 40 minute presentation followed by a 20 minuter Q/A session. Hence, if you attend the webinars “live”, you have the opportunity to ask questions to the presenters. Otherwise, you can also watch each webinar afterwards. For example, 5G Massive MIMO: Achieving Spectrum Efficiency, which was given in August by Liesbet Van der Perre (KU Leuven), can still be watched.

In November, the upcoming Massive MIMO webinars are:

Massive MIMO for 5G: How Big Can it Get? by Emil Björnson (Linköping University), Thursday, 9 November 2017, 3:00 PM EST, 12:00 PM PST, 20:00 GMT.

Real-time Prototyping of Massive MIMO: From Theory to Reality by Douglas Kim (NI) and Fredrik Tufvesson (Lund University), Wednesday, 15 November 2017, 12:00 PM EST, 9:00 AM PST, 17:00 GMT.

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.)

Six Differences Between MU-MIMO and Massive MIMO

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.

An example of how MU-MIMO was illustrated prior to Massive MIMO.

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.

This is how Massive MIMO is often illustrated for line-of-sight operation.

Six key differences between conventional MU-MIMO and Massive MIMO are provided below.

Conventional MU-MIMO Massive MIMO
Relation between number of BS antennas (M) and users (K) MK and both are small (e.g., below 10) K and both can be large (e.g., M=100 and K=20).
Duplexing mode Designed to work with both TDD and FDD operation Designed for TDD operation to exploit channel reciprocity
Channel acquisition 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
Resource allocation The allocation must change rapidly to account for channel quality variations The allocation can be planned in advance since the channel quality varies slowly
Cell-edge performance 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.

What is the Difference Between Beamforming and Precoding?

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.

Analog beamforming uses phase-shifters to send the same signal from multiple antennas but with different phases. Digital beamforming designs different signals for each antennas in the digital baseband. Precoding is sometimes said to be equivalent to digital beamforming.

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.

Six Differences Between Massive MIMO for Sub-6 GHz and mmWave

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:

Sub-6 GHz mmWave
Deployment scenario 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
Channel characteristics 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
Transceiver hardware 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.

5.5 Hours of Massive MIMO Tutorials

Video recordings from the 2017 Joint IEEE SPS and EURASIP Summer School on Signal Processing for 5G Wireless Access are available for IEEE members, as we wrote about in a previous post. Now two of the Massive MIMO tutorial talks are openly available on Youtube.

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: