Massive MIMO (mMIMO) and beamforming are key acronyms widely used in the telecom industry when referring to 5G and latest advancements of 4G LTE. We note that MIMO comes in many different variants, some of them having been in use already for years in today’s 4G LTE networks.
SU-MIMO vs. MU-MIMO
In 4G LTE, the term MIMO usually refers to Single User MIMO (SU-MIMO). In Single User MIMO, both the base station and UE have multiple antenna ports and antennas, and multiple data streams are transmitted simultaneously to the UE using same time/frequency resources, doubling (2×2 MIMO), or quadrupling (4×4 MIMO) the peak throughput of a single user.
In MU-MIMO, base station sends multiple data streams, one per UE, using the same time-frequency resources. Hence, MU-MIMO increases the total cell throughput, i.e. cell capacity. The base station has multiple antenna ports, as many as there are UEs receiving data simultaneously, and one antenna port is needed in each UE.
Beamforming: principles of operation
The terms beamforming and mMIMO are sometimes used interchangeably. One may consider that beamforming is used in mMIMO, or beamforming is a subset of mMIMO. In general, beamforming uses multiple antennas to control the direction of a wave-front by appropriately weighting the magnitude and phase of individual antenna signals in an array of multiple antennas. That is, the same signal is sent from multiple antennas that have sufficient space between them (at least ½ wavelength). In any given location, the receiver will thus receive multiple copies of the same signal. Depending on the location of the receiver, the signals may be in opposite phases, destructively averaging each other out, or constructively sum up if the different copies are in the same phase, or anything in between. Beamforming is further divided to subcategories as explained in the following chapters.
Digital beamforming (Baseband beamforming, precoding)
In this scenario, the signal is pre-coded (amplitude and phase modifications) in baseband processing before RF transmission. Multiple beams (one per each user) can be formed simultaneously from the same set of antenna elements. In the context of LTE/5G, MU-MIMO equals to digital beamforming. Multiple TRX chains, one per each simultaneous MU-MIMO user, are needed in the base station. Digital beamforming (MU-MIMO) is used in LTE Advanced Pro (transmission modes 7,8, and 9) and in 5G NR. Digital beamforming improves the cell capacity as the same PRBs (frequency/time resources) can be used to transmit data simultaneously for multiple users.
Here, the signal phases of individual antenna signals are adjusted in RF domain. Analog beamforming impacts the radiation pattern and gain of the antenna array, thus improves coverage. Unlike in digital beamforming, only one beam per set of antenna elements can be formed. The antenna gain boost provided by the analog beamforming overcomes partly the impact of high pathloss in mmWave. Therefore analog beamforming is considered mandatory for the mmWave frequency range 5G NR.
Hybrid beamforming combines the analog beamforming and digital beamforming. It is expected that mm-wave gNB (5G base station) implementations will use some form of hybrid beamforming. One approach is to use analog beamforming for coarse beamforming, and inside the analog beam use a digital beamforming scheme as appropriate, either MU-MIMO or SU-MIMO.
Most common definitions are that mMIMO is a system where the number of antennas exceeds the number of users. In practice, massive means there are 32 or more logical antenna ports in the base station It is expected that NEMs will start with a maximum of 64 logical antenna ports in 5G.
This diagram illustrates how mMIMO works in practice. An antenna array of 50 omni elements, with ½ wavelength spacing in between the antenna elements is used. The 50 elements transmit 4 distinct streams of data via 4 logical antenna ports, one stream for each UE. All four streams are transmitted using the same physical resource blocks, i.e. the same time/frequency resources. The data streams do not interfere between each other because each of them has a distinct radiation pattern, where the signal strength in the direction of the target UE is optimized, and in the directions of the other UEs (victim UEs) the signal strength is minimized.
In MU-MIMO/mMIMO, the base station applies distinct precoding for the data stream of each UE where the location of the UE, as well as the location of all the other UEs, are taken into account to optimize the signal for target UE and at the same time minimize interference to the other UEs. To do this, the base station needs to know how the downlink radio channel looks like for each of the UEs.
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