The onset of the 5G era has brought massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology to the fore. The technology, which is often termed as a pre-5G technology, has been playing a vital role in enabling the evolution towards 5G networks. It does this by helping telcos build a 5G-ready transport network without investment in additional spectrum by helping them achieve four times capacity with the same spectrum. Further, it improves network capacity and offers advantages like beamforming and increased coverage. Owing to these benefits, telcos, both in India and, across the world have been scaling up their adoption of massive MIMO technology.

Key demand drivers

According to industry experts, long term evolution (LTE) Advanced Pro and 5G are the two biggest drivers for increasing the adoption of massive MIMO technology. Telecom markets with more advanced LTE networks and heavy data usage require operators to add capacity. Massive MIMO emerges as one of the most efficient ways to accomplish this requirement. The key areas where operators scale up deployments include dense urban traffic hotspots and high-rise buildings where beamforming can better reach indoor users.

Further, adopting massive MIMO technology helps telecom operators move towards future-ready 5G networks. In fact, massive MIMO is one of the major underpinnings to 5G technology, and allows greater channel bandwidth, access to new spectrum bands and network slicing. Moreover, the beamforming capabilities of massive MIMO systems enable telcos to rapidly spread high speed coverage to urban as well as rural areas, thereby improving the coverage of the 5G network. In addition, massive MIMO is a key enabler of 5G’s extremely fast data rates and is also helping raise 5G’s potential to a new level.

Meanwhile, the exponential increase in the number of mobile devices has created an enormous demand for high speed internet connections. The current Covid-19 pandemic too has compelled industries across all sectors to shift towards the work-from-home model. This has led to a substantial increase in the usage of internet for browsing online media content and increased calling, which exert a huge burden on the existing networks. In this scenario, it is imperative for operators to step up their adoption of solutions like massive MIMO that help in providing uninterrupted services to consumers.

Global uptake

In terms of global uptake, North America is considered to be the most advanced market for MIMO technology in the world. The North American market for massive MIMO is mostly supported by the mounting demand for software implementation within communication networks. Major players in the US market such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are investing heavily in 5G technology. Hence, massive MIMO is expected to witness an increased rate of adoption in this region. Moreover, collaborations between companies such as Verizon and Ericsson, and T-Mobile and Sprint for implementing massive MIMO technologies to future-proof their networks are also major factors driving the adoption of MIMO technology in this region.

In Europe too, the demand for massive MIMO is quite high, owing to the rising number of mobile as well as laptop users.

At the same time, the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region is an emerging market for massive MIMO technology. Currently, the technology is in the testing phase in some markets and deployment phase in others. However, the deployment is limited to top-end commercial applications only.

Indian deployment experience

In India too, telecom operators have been scaling up their deployments of massive MIMO technology. Among operators, Vodafone Idea Limited has been at the forefront in terms of adoption. In fact, Vodafone Idea’s network has undertaken India’s largest and the world’s third largest massive MIMO deployment exercise. According to Vishant Vora, chief technology officer, Vodafone Idea Limited, the operator has deployed more than 12,000 massive MIMO sites across key markets in the country. These include deployment of massive MIMO sites across the Mumbai, and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh circles, as well as in Delhi-NCR, Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad. In Mumbai alone, the operator has recently undertaken the deployment of over 1,550 sites, the highest by any operator in the region.

The deployment of massive MIMO sites is substantially helping the operator in managing the spike in data traffic, especially during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. By and large, Nokia has been undertaking the deployment of massive MIMO technology for the operator.

In another network modernisation exercise, Huawei deployed India’s first artificial intelligence (AI)-based massive MIMO network for Vodafone Idea. The deployed solution will enable Vodafone Idea to enhance its pre-5G massive MIMO network. Further, it would help in enhancing user experience threefold within the same spectrum. Another unique feature of the AI-based massive MIMO network is its smart algorithm that can analyse data from 4G base stations and predict network coverage, along with problems that may occur during 5G deployments. Moreover, Huawei’s smart massive MIMO AI solution uses a random forest algorithm for modelling and predicting, collecting and analysing data to optimise network performance. The technology adds automation capabilities to Vodafone Idea’s network, improving optimisation efficiency, boosting the cell capacity and enhancing end-user experience.

Bharti Airtel too has been active in the massive MIMO domain and was, in fact, among the first operators to start deploying the technology. Airtel made its first commercial deployment of massive MIMO in September 2017. The deployments began in Bengaluru and Kolkata and were later expanded to other parts of the country.

Huawei has been deploying massive MIMO on Airtel’s network. Airtel has deployed more than 100 hops of enhanced MIMO microwave links based on the latest MIMO technology developed by Huawei. According to Huawei, the deployment will deliver 1 Gbps capacity over a single 28 MHz spectrum band, thereby improving the backhaul capacity by four times.

Meanwhile, Reliance Jio has also been deploying massive MIMO technology in some of the metro cities that are seeing huge traffic growth, resulting in bad data speed experience. Further, Jio has started commercial deployment of massive MIMO technology in areas where it is not able to add new sites easily.

Energy efficiency – A key challenge

While telcos across the world are turning towards massive MIMO, a key concern has been rising energy consumption on their networks. As per industry reports, the move towards 5G is expected to increase the total network energy consumption across the globe by 150-170 per cent by 2026. This would primarily be on the back of growth in the number of massive MIMO antennas and small cells. Massive MIMO technology involves the use of arrays with several antennas at each base station, thereby increasing the total energy consumption of 5G base stations compared to 4G.

However, industry experts are optimistic that as massive MIMO technology develops, its energy efficiency may also improve over time. Therefore, despite containing more hardware, the future massive MIMO base stations will consume less energy than 4G base stations. Moreover, future improvements in massive MIMO hardware are expected to serve many more users at the same time and frequency, thereby reducing the average energy consumption per user.

The way forward

Going forward, massive MIMO deployments are expected to surge further as telcos look to jump on to the 5G bandwagon. According to an industry report, the massive MIMO market is projected to reach a valuation of $20.91 billion by 2026 on the back of increased demand for data, low latency, consistent connectivity and easy synchronisation with the previous generation technology, that is, 4G. This is because the technology is not only indispensable for enabling the switch to 5G networks, but it also holds immense promise for leveraging key use cases in a future-ready 5G world.