Cell-Free Massive MIMO : Scalability, Signal Processing and Power Control

Abstract: The fifth generation of mobile communication systems (5G) is nowadays a reality. 5G networks are been deployed all over the world, and the first 5G-capable devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, wearable, etc.) are already commercially available. 5G systems provide unprecedented levels of connectivity and quality of service (QoS) to cope with the incessant growth in the number of connected devices and the huge increase in data-rate demand.Massive MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) technology plays a key role in 5G systems. The underlying principle of this technology is the use of a large number of co-located antennas at the base station, which coherently transmit/receive signals to/from multiple users. This signal co-processing at multiple antennas leads to manifold benefits: array gain, spatial diversity and spatial user multiplexing. These elements enable to meet the QoS requirements established for the 5G systems. The major bottleneck of massive MIMO systems as well as of any cellular network is the inter-cell interference, which affects significantly the cell-edge users, whose performance is already degraded by the path attenuation. To overcome these limitations and provide uniformly excellent service to all the users we need a more radical approach: we need to challenge the cellular paradigm.In this regard, cell-free massive MIMO constitutes the paradigm shift. In the cell-free paradigm, it is not the base station surrounded by the users, but rather it is each user being surrounded by smaller, simpler, serving base stations referred to as access points (APs). In such a system, each user experiences being in the cell-center, and it does not experience any cell boundaries. Hence, the terminology cell-free. As a result, users are not affected by inter-cell interference, and the path attenuation is significantly reduced due to the presence of many APs in their proximity. This leads to impressive performance.Although appealing from the performance viewpoint, the designing and implementation of such a distributed massive MIMO system is a challenging task, and it is the object of this thesis. More specifically, in this thesis we study:Paper A) The large potential of this promising technology in realistic indoor/outdoor scenarios while also addressing practical deployment issues, such as clock synchronization among APs, and cost-efficient implementations. We provide an extensive description of a cell-free massive MIMO system, emphasizing strengths and weaknesses, and pointing out differences and similarities with existing distributed multiple antenna systems, such as Coordinated MultiPoint (CoMP). Paper B) How to preserve the scalability of the system, by proposing a solution related to data processing, network topology and power control. We consider a realistic scenario where multiple central processing units serve disjoint subsets of APs, and compare the spectral efficiency provided by the proposed scalable framework with the canonical cell-free massive MIMO and CoMP. Paper C) How to improve the spectral efficiency (SE) in the downlink (DL), by devising two distributed precoding schemes, referred to as local partial zero-forcing (ZF) and local protective partial ZF, that provide an adaptable trade-off between interference cancelation and boosting of the desired signal, with no additional front-haul overhead, and that are implementable by APs with very few antennas. We derive closed-form expressions for the achievable SE under the assumption of independent Rayleigh fading channel, channel estimation error and pilot contamination. These closed-form expressions are then used to devise optimal max-min fairness power control. Paper D) How to further improve the SE by letting the user estimate the DL channel from DL pilots, instead of relying solely on the knowledge of the channel statistics. We derive an approximate closed-form expression of the DL SE for conjugate beamforming (CB), and assuming independent Rayleigh fading. This expression accounts for beamformed DL pilots, estimation errors and pilot contamination at both the AP and the user side. We devise a sequential convex approximation algorithm to globally solve the max-min fairness power control optimization problem, and a greedy algorithm for uplink (UL) and DL pilot assignment. The latter consists in jointly selecting the UL and DL pilot pair, for each user, that maximizes the smallest SE in the network. Paper E) A precoding scheme that is more suitable when only the channel statistics are available at the users, referred to as enhanced normalized CB. It consists in normalizing the precoding vector by its squared norm in order to reduce the fluctuations of the effective channel seen at the user, and thereby to boost the channel hardening. The performance achieved by this scheme is compared with the CB scheme with DL training (described in Paper D). Paper F) A maximum-likelihood-based method to estimate the channel statistics in the UL, along with an accompanying pilot transmission scheme, that is particularly useful in line-of-sight operation and in scenarios with resource constraints. Pilots are structurally phase-rotated over different coherence blocks to create an effective statistical distribution of the received pilot signal that can be efficiently exploited by the AP when performing the proposed estimation method.The overall conclusion is that cell-free massive MIMO is not a utopia, and a practical, distributed, scalable, high-performance system can be implemented. Today it represents a hot research topic, but tomorrow it might represent a key enabler for beyond-5G technology, as massive MIMO has been for 5G.

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