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Massive MIMO: Paving the way for 5G

August 17, 2018

Given massive multiple input multiple output’s (MIMO) ability to serve multiple users and devices while maintaining fast data rates and a consistent performance, it has emerged as a key enabler of 5G globally. Simply put, massive MIMO is a wireless network that allows the transmission and receival of more than one data signal simultaneously over the same radio channel. While standard MIMO networks use two or four antennas, a massive MIMO system uses a much higher number of antennas, which sometimes may run into hundreds. The presence of a large number of antennas enables the possibility of more signal paths and better performance in terms of data rate and link reliability. Further, it makes the network more resistant to interference and intentional jamming.

In the Indian context, massive MIMO can prove to be a key enabler for realising the digital goals of the Indian government. It is often termed as the pre-5G technology that will make networks future-ready for meeting the increase in data demand. With the help of massive MIMO, customers can enjoy faster data speeds on their existing 4G mobile devices without any upgrades or plan change. Furthermore, the deployment of massive MIMO uses green technology, thereby reducing the carbon footprint.

tele.net discusses the challenges involved in the deployment of massive MIMO and the benefits of the technology...

Deployment status

Indian telecom operators are currently deploying massive MIMO technology on their existing 4G network. Airtel was the first to introduce massive MIMO to the Indian telecom sector, in September 2017, when it collaborated with Huawei to deploy the technology in the Bengaluru and Kolkata circles. Since then, the company has been progressively expanding the technology to its other circles as part of its ambitious Project Leap initiative, under which it has earmarked an investment of Rs 600 billion by 2020. As part of this project, Airtel is setting up over 7,000 new mobile sites, which will include the large-scale deployment of pre-5G massive MIMO technology, and boost the current data and voice service standards for its users. The operator recently deployed the technology at various stadiums where cricket matches were played during the Indian Premier League, 2018. Airtel has further announced that it will expand massive MIMO technology in all major business hubs and residential complexes across several states.

Vodafone India has also been conducting trials of the technology on its existing network, with a special focus on improving latency. Idea Cellular too has conducted trials for massive MIMO technology in various cities.

Meanwhile, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited has collaborated with gear vendors for conducting massive MIMO trials on its existing 4G networks. It had partnered with Samsung, which working as the operator’s only commercial vendor across India to enhance its existing 4G networks, to offer 5G-like services. It has also been running trials with ZTE.

In April 2018, IIT Delhi announced the setting up of a massive MIMO radio laboratory. This is in line with its efforts to establish India as a key global player in the standardisation, research and development, and manufacturing of 5G equipment.

Benefits and challenges

Massive MIMO significantly improves spectral efficiency by expanding the existing network capacity by five to seven times over the existing spectrum. As a result, customers are able to experience superfast data speeds on the existing 4G network even if there are a large number of concurrent users on the network sites. It is expected that massive MIMO will be able to increase the current data speeds from around 16 Mbps to anywhere between 30 Mbps and 50 Mbps. Further, massive MIMO enables multiple users and multiple devices to work simultaneously without facing any congestion issues, especially at hotspot locations.

Massive MIMO creates 3D beams on horizontal and vertical planes in the direction of users located within its coverage footprint. This helps in improving coverage and reducing interference across users in different beams, which, in turn, improves signal quality by 2-3dB. The beam-forming capabilities of massive MIMO systems will enable telecom operators to rapidly spread highspeed coverage to rural areas as well.

Massive MIMO will also play an important role in improving the latency of a network, that is, the time taken for the signals to travel between the transmitter and receiver. The improved latency on the existing networks would further facilitate the use and adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence, internet of things, autonomous driving, cloud, etc.

By far one of the most important advantages of the technology is that it will make the transition to 5G really smooth for operators. As per experts, the new massive MIMO systems will  have a large number of antennas; the number can be scaled up based on the requirement.

Despite several benefits, the deployment of massive MIMO technology has its own set of challenges. First, the availability of spectrum in India is highly limited. The existing spectrum is already overloaded with new data connections. In such a scenario, adding more antennas or utilising higher frequency millimetre waves to build massive MIMO base stations poses a serious challenge. Added to this is the problem of the high cost of deployment. The presence of a large number of antennas will lead to higher out-of-band radiation. Given that operators need to ensure compliance with the spectral emission masks and spectrum is incredibly expensive, a spectrum licensee cannot accept interference from adjacent bands. Therefore, many industry experts are of the view that network service providers will have to use similar hardware components in massive MIMO as in the contemporary base stations. Thus, the hardware cost will grow linearly with the number of antennas.

Conclusion

Given the exponential growth in data consumption that is taking place, a need has emerged for faster wireless technology. Massive MIMO will not only address the immediate need of faster connectivity but also pave the way for a smooth transition to 5G. Further, as the role of network service providers transforms significantly, and their customer base widens beyond retail users to encompass industries such as healthcare, retail, logistics and transportation among others, technologies like massive MIMO can prove to be a game changer.

 
 

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