Is It Time to Forget About Antenna Selection?

Channel fading has always been a limiting factor in wireless communications, which is why various diversity schemes have been developed to combat fading (and other channel impairments). The basic idea is to obtain many “independent” observations of the channel and exploit that it is unlikely that all of these observations are subject to deep fade in parallel. These observations can be obtained over time, frequency, space, polarization, etc.

Only one antenna is used at a time when using antenna selection.

Antenna selection is the basic form of space diversity. Suppose a base station (BS) equipped with multiple antennas applies antenna selection. In the uplink, the BS only uses the antenna that currently gives the highest signal-to-interference-and-noise ratio (SINR). In the downlink, the BS only transmits from the antenna that currently has the highest SINR. As the user moves around, the fading changes and we, therefore, need to reselect which antenna to use.

The term antenna selection diversity can be traced back to the 1980s, but this diversity scheme was analyzed already in the 1950s. One well-cited paper from that time is Linear Diversity Combining Techniques by D. G. Brennan. This paper demonstrates mathematically and numerically that selection diversity is suboptimal, while the scheme called maximum-ratio combining (MRC) always provides higher SINR. Hence, instead of only selecting one antenna, it is preferable for the BS to coherently combine the signals from/to all the antennas to maximize the SINR. When the MRC scheme is applied in Massive MIMO with a very large number of antennas, we often talk about channel hardening but this is nothing but an extreme form of space diversity that almost entirely removes the fading effect.

Even if the suboptimality of selection diversity has been known for 60 years, the antenna selection concept has continued to be analyzed in the MIMO literature and recently also in the context of Massive MIMO. Many recent papers are considering a generalization of the scheme that is known as antenna subset selection, where a subset of the antennas is selected and then MRC is applied using only these ones.

Why use antenna selection?

A common motivation for using antenna selection is that it would be too expensive to equip every antenna with a dedicated transceiver chain in Massive MIMO, therefore we need to sacrifice some of the performance to achieve a feasible implementation. This is a misleading motivation since Massive MIMO capable base stations have already been developed and commercially deployed. I think a better motivation would be that we can save power by only using a subset of the antennas at a time, particularly, when the traffic load is below the maximum system capacity so we don’t need to compromise with the users’ throughput.

The recent papers [1], [2], [3] on the topic consider narrowband MIMO channels. In contrast, Massive MIMO will in practice be used in wideband systems where the channel fading is different between subcarriers. That means that one antenna will give the highest SINR on one subcarrier, while another antenna will give the highest SINR on another subcarrier. If we apply the antenna selection principle on a per-subcarrier basis in a wideband OFDM system with thousands of subcarriers, we will probably use all the antennas on at least one of the subcarrier. Consequently, we cannot turn off any of the antennas and the power saving benefits are lost.

We can instead apply the antenna selection scheme based on the average received power over all the subcarriers, but most channel models assume that this average power is the same for every base station antenna (this applies to both i.i.d. fading and correlated fading models, such as the one-ring model). That means that if we want to turn off antennas, we can select them randomly since all random selections will be (almost) equally good, and there are no selection diversity gains to be harvested.

This is why we can forget about antenna selection diversity in Massive MIMO!

It is only when the average channel gain is different among the antennas that antenna subset selection diversity might have a role to play. In that case, the antenna selection is governed by variations in the large-scale fading instead of variations in the small-scale fading, as conventionally assumed. This paper takes a step in that direction. I think this is the only case of antenna (subset) selection that might deserve further attention, while in general, it is a concept that can be forgotten.

Multiple Antenna Technologies for Beyond 5G

As this decade is approaching its end, so is the development of 5G technologies. The first 5G networks are currently begin deployed and, over the next few years, we will learn which features in the 5G standards that will actually be used and provide good performance.

When it comes to Massive MIMO for sub-6 GHz and mmWave bands, many of the previously open research problems have been resolved over the past five years – at least from an academic perspective. There are still important open problems at the border between theory and practical implementation. However, I strongly believe that this is a time when we should also look further into the future to identify the next big things.

To encourage more future-looking research, I joined as one of the guest editors of an upcoming special issue on Multiple Antenna Technologies for Beyond 5G in the IEEE Journal on Selected Areas in Communications (JSAC). The call for papers is available online and the submission deadline is 1 September 2019. Hence, if you start your research on this topic right away, you will have plenty of time to write a paper!

The call for papers identifies three promising directions: Cell-free Massive MIMO, Lens arrays, and Large intelligent surfaces. However, I am sure there are many other interesting research directions that are yet to be discovered. I recommend prospective authors to think creatively and look for the next big steps in the multiple antenna technologies. Remember that Massive MIMO was generally viewed as science fiction ten years ago, and now it is a reality!

If you are looking for inspiration, I’m recommending my recent overview paper: Massive MIMO is a Reality – What is Next? Five Promising Research Directions for Antenna Arrays.

Commercial 5G Networks

Some of the first 5G phones were announced at the Mobile World Congress last week. Many of these phones are reportedly based on the Snapdragon 855 Mobile Platform from Qualcomm, which supports 5G with up to 100 MHz bandwidth in sub-6 GHz bands and up to 800 MHz bandwidth in mmWave bands.

Despite all the fuss about mmWave being the key feature of 5G, it appears that the first commercial networks will utilize conventional sub-6 GHz bands; for example, Sprint will launch 5G using the 2.5 GHz band in nine major US cities from May to June 2019. Sprint is using Massive MIMO panels from Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung. The reason to use the 2.5 GHz band is to achieve a reasonably wide network coverage with a limited number of base stations. The new Massive MIMO base stations will initially be used for both 4G and 5G. The following video details Sprint’s preparations for their 5G launch:

Another interesting piece of news from the Mobile World Congress is that 95% of the base stations that Huawei is currently shipping contain Massive MIMO with either 32 or 64 antennas.

Radio Stripes – Distributed Massive MIMO Deployment

Distributed MIMO deployments combine the best of two worlds: The beamforming gain and spatial interference suppression capability of conventional Massive MIMO with co-located arrays, and the bigger chance of being physically close to a service antenna that small cells offer. Coherent transmission and reception from a distributed MIMO array is not a new concept but has been given many names over the years, including Distributed Antenna System and Network MIMO. Most recently, in the beyond-5G era, it has been called ubiquitous Cell-free Massive MIMO communications and been refined based on insights and methodology developed through the research into conventional Massive MIMO.

One of the showstoppers for distributed MIMO has always been the high cost of deploying a large number of distributed antennas. Since the antennas need to be phase-synchronized and have access to the same data, a lot of high-capacity cables need to be deployed, particularly if a star topology is used. Ericsson is showcasing their new take on distributed MIMO at the 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC), which is taking place in Barcelona this week. It is called radio stripes and some details can be found in a recent press release. In particular, Jan Hederén, strategist at Ericsson 4G5G Development, says:

Although a large-scale installation of distributed MIMO can provide excellent performance, it can also become an impractical and costly ‘spaghetti-monster’ of cables in case dedicated cables are used to connect the antenna elements. To be easy to deploy, we need to connect and integrate the antenna elements inside a single cable. We call this solution the ‘radio stripe’ which is an easy way to create a large scale distributed, serial, and integrated antenna system.”

Ericsson is showing a mockup of radio stripes at MWC 2019, with a total length of 2 kilometer. For those who cannot attend MWC, further conceptual details can be found in a recent overview paper on Cell-free Massive MIMO. An even more detailed description of radio stripes can be found in Ericsson’s patent application from 2017.

Molecular MIMO at IEEE CTW-2019

One more reason to attend the IEEE CTW 2019: Participate in the Molecular MIMO competition! There is a USD 500 award to the winning team.

The task is to design a molecular MIMO communication detection method using datasets that contain real measurements. Possible solutions may include classic approaches (e.g., thresholding-based detection) as well as deep learning-based approaches.

More detail: here.

Five Promising Research Directions for Antenna Arrays

Ever since I finished the writing of the book Massive MIMO Networks: Spectral, Energy, and Hardware Efficiency, I have felt that I’m somewhat done with my research on conventional Massive MIMO. The spectral efficiency, energy efficiency, resource allocation, and pilot contamination phenomenon are well understood by now. This is not a bad thing—as researchers, we are supposed to solve the problems we are analyzing. But it means that this is a good time to look for new research directions. It should preferably be something where we can utilize our skills as Massive MIMO researchers to do something new and exciting!

With this in mind, I gathered a team consisting of myself, Luca Sanguinetti, Henk Wymeersch, Jakob Hoydis, and Thomas L. Marzetta. Each one of us has written about one promising new direction of research related to antenna arrays and MIMO, including the background of the topic, our long-term vision, and pertinent open problem. This resulted in the paper:

Massive MIMO is a Reality – What is Next? Five Promising Research Directions for Antenna Arrays

You can find the preprint on or by clicking on the name of the paper. I hope that you will find it as interesting to read as it was for us to write!

MIMO Positioning Competition at IEEE CTW 2019

Come to the IEEE Communication Theory Workshop (CTW) 2019 and participate in the MIMO positioning competition!

The object of the competition is to design and train an algorithm that can determine the position of a user, based on estimated channel frequency responses between the user and an antenna array. Possible solutions may build on classic algorithms (fingerprinting, interpolation) or machine-learning approaches. Channel vectors from a dataset created with a MIMO channel sounder will be used.

Competing teams should present a poster at the conference, describing their algorithms and experiments.

A $500 USD prize will be awarded to the winning team.

More detail in this flyer.

News – commentary – mythbusting