IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON COMMUNICATIONS, VOL. 58, NO.

2, FEBRUARY 2010 399
On Using Transmission Overhead Efficiently for
Channel Estimation in OFDM
Christian Oberli, Member, IEEE, María Constanza Estela, and Miguel Ríos, Senior Member, IEEE
Abstract—The limited time available for acquiring the channel
state in mobile broadband wireless communication systems
makes it crucial to count with channel estimation methods that
attain the highest accuracy with a given preamble length. For
the family of preambles that probe channels repeatedly at equi-
spaced frequencies, we find that the shortest preamble that
attains a given mean square error is a sequence that under-
samples the channel spectrum, thereby allowing for a better
mitigation of white Gaussian noise by averaging a higher number
of observations.
Index Terms—Channel estimation, interpolation, training over-
head, OFDM.
I. INTRODUCTION
C
HANNEL estimation in Orthogonal Frequency Division
Multiplexing (OFDM) systems is often done by trans-
mitting pilot symbols on selected subcarriers and feeding the
received values into an estimator, such as a least squares or
minimum mean square estimator [1]–[4]. Simplified estimators
[5]–[10], optimal sequence design [11]–[16], optimal pilot
symbol placement [12], [13], [17], [18], for single-antenna as
well as multi-antenna OFDM systems, are topics well covered
in the literature. However, with the exception of [19], whose
approach is information-theoretical, one area that falls outside
the scope of past attention is to study the relationship between
channel estimation quality and the amount of transmission
overhead necessary to attain it.
Gaining a better understanding of how to use transmission
overhead efficiently is crucial for future mobile broadband
wireless communication systems. In effect, under mobility, the
maximum amount of training data that is useful to transmit
for acquiring the channel state is proportional —by some
measure— to the coherence time of the channel. As the
coherence time shortens when a mobile’s speed increases, and
as bandwidth and number of antenna elements grow, a point is
eventually reached at which the channel can only be acquired
with sufficient accuracy if the transmission overhead is used
efficiently.
In order to motivate our work, consider the problem of
acquiring the channel state in an OFDM system that uses

subcarriers for payload transmission. Approach A consists
of simply probing all

channel coefficients times, as
Paper approved by S. N. Batalama, the Editor for Spread Spectrum
and Estimation of the IEEE Communications Society. Manuscript received
October 12, 2007; revised June 20, 2008 and April 28, 2009.
C. Oberli and M. Ríos are with the Department of Electrical Engineering,
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile (e-mail: {obe,
mrios}@ing.puc.cl).
M. Constanza Estela is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the
Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, United Kingdom (e-mail:
m.estela09@imperial.ac.uk).
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/TCOMM.2010.02.070530
64 samples
DC 31 −31
N repetitions = MN samples
frequency
frequency
(b)
64 samples
symbol
First OFDM
(a)
time
Bandwidth B
T
time
DC M/2−1 −M/2
M samples
Bandwidth B
T
Synch preamble
symbol
First OFDM
10 short symbols 2 long symbols with cyclic prefix
( ) r n
l
Fig. 1. (a) Approach A: preamble structure used for channel estimation in
IEEE 802.11a. (b) Approach B: alternative preamble structure.
it is envisioned to be done with the = 2 long symbols
of the IEEE 802.11a specification [20] (Figure 1a). Ignoring
the cyclic prefix that precedes the transmission of the first
training symbol (later repetitions of the symbol are prefixed
by the previous one), the entire acquisition preamble is ×

samples long. While using this kind of a preamble provides a
simple means for estimating the channel on all subcarriers,
it is clearly spectrally inefficient, because it does not take
advantage of the correlation of the channel over frequency.
Consider thus Approach B, which probes the channel only
on <

equi-spaced frequencies (Figure 1b). This may be
attained by repeatedly transmitting an -point OFDM symbol
—a symbol that only has subcarriers; the bandwidth, and
hence the sample rate, is the same as in Approach A. The
symbol’s duration in the time domain is therefore samples.
The channel on the desired

payload subcarriers must then
be obtained by interpolation.
Given the same preamble length, Approach B allows for
observing the channel more often than Approach A (albeit
with coarser resolution). This leads to better estimates on
the observed frequencies, because Additive White Gaussian
Noise (AWGN) is averaged out more. On the other hand, an
interpolation error is incurred when computing the

-point
channel estimate. The question that arises is how to choose
and optimally, so that the minimum channel estimation
Mean Square Error (MSE) is attained with a given preamble
length.
0090-6778/10$25.00 c ⃝ 2010 IEEE
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400 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON COMMUNICATIONS, VOL. 58, NO. 2, FEBRUARY 2010
Our approach does not seek nor claim optimality in a global
sense. We rather seek to find optimum performance among
the family of training preambles that consist of repeatedly
transmitting a unique training symbol, as it is common in
current commercial systems and likely in future ones.
This letter is organized as follows. Section II describes
our signal model and the estimator used on the probed
frequencies. Section III presents the interpolation procedure
and derivation of the estimation MSE. The result is then used
in Section IV for deriving optimal (, ) pairs for a preamble
of given length. Examples based on the IEEE 802.11a OFDM
standard [20] are given for illustration. Finally, Section V
summarizes the main conclusions.
II. OFDM SIGNAL MODEL AND CHANNEL ESTIMATION
Consider sounding a frequency selective channel of band-
width

by repeatedly transmitting an OFDM symbol of
subcarriers, each one modulated with random symbols
(), = 0, . . . , − 1. The symbols are drawn from
a modulation such as QPSK, with unit energy per symbol.
The -point inverse Discrete Fourier Transform (DFT) is
used for generating the corresponding time-domain symbol
(), with = 0, . . . , − 1 (all DFT operations in this
letter are unitary). Its cyclic extension, ˜ () = (∣), with
= 0, 1, 2, . . . and ∣ denoting the modulo operation, is
transmitted over the air.
The received signal is given by
() = ˜ () ∗

ℎ() +(), ≥ 0, (1)
where ℎ() is the channel impulse response, ∗

indicates linear
discrete convolution, and () represents AWGN of power
spectral density
0
.
The maximum excess delay of the channel (

samples)
may be larger or smaller than the period of the preamble
(). In either case, () is -periodic for ≥

− 1.
contiguous periods of samples are extracted from the
periodic portion of (). Perfect knowledge of symbol timing
and frequency offset are assumed at the receiver. The
resulting sequences are defined as (cf. Figure 1b)

() = ( + [ − 1]), (2)
with = 1, . . . , and = 0, . . . , −1. Because each cycle
of ˜ () is a cyclic prefix to the following one, it is simple to
show that

() = () ∗

ℎ() +

(), (3)
where ∗

indicates cyclic convolution and

() = (+[ −
1]), with = 1, . . . , and = 0, . . . , − 1. Taking an
-point forward FFT on

() yields

() =

()

() +

(), (4)
where

() is the -point FFT of ℎ(). It is straightfor-
ward to show that
ˇ
() =
1


()


=1

() (5)
is the maximum likelihood channel estimator for subcarrier
, when no information of other subcarriers is known [21].
It is to be noted that when = 1 and equals the number
of subcarriers of the OFDM payload transmission (

), then
(5) is van de Beek’s LS estimator [1].
III. INTERPOLATION AND MSE DERIVATION
Given the channel estimates
ˇ
() at equi-spaced
frequencies, we seek to obtain

channel estimates
ˆ
(),
= 0, . . . ,

− 1, by means of interpolation. We consider
using the DFT for this task. This method is more accurate
than e.g. linear interpolation, it is mathematically tractable,
and can be provided at little extra cost with a careful receiver
design that reuses hardware of the

-point FFT used for data
transmission. Because a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) would
be used in practice, the values of interest for are integer
powers of two.
FFT interpolation requires first taking an -point inverse
FFT on
ˇ
(), then zero-padding the result with

− zeros
and, finally, taking a forward

-point FFT on the zero-padded
sequence. The result is
ˆ
() =
1

−1

=0
(
−1

=0
ˇ
()
+2/
)

−2/

.
(6)
Using (4) in (5) and the result in (6), we find
ˆ
() =
1

−1

=0
(
−1

=0

()
+2/
)

−2/

(7)
+
1

−1

=0
(
−1

=0
[


=1

()
]

+2/
)

−2/

,
with

() =
1

()

(). (8)
Considering an ensemble of frequency selective channels
with Rayleigh fading exponentially decaying power profiles
and RMS delay spread
RMS
(cf. Appendix A), we show
in Appendix B that the expected MSE of the estimated and
interpolated channel with respect to the exact channel is
MSE
{
ˆ

}
=
{
2
(

RMS

RMS
)
+

0

, <

0

, ≥

.
(9)
The MSE of (9) is shown with solid lines in Figure 2 as
a function of the preamble sequence length × for a
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) of 7 dB. For each curve,
is fixed and increases. The markers on top of the curves
are simulation results. Each point collects statistics from 3000
channel realizations whose expected
RMS
, normalized to the
sampling rate, is one (E{
RMS
} = 1). This represents, for
instance, indoor office environments for OFDM transmissions
configured with IEEE 802.11a parameters [20].
The channel impulse response sequences used in the curves
of Figure 2 are

= 16 samples long (Appendix A). Let us
focus then, for instance, on the curves for = 8 and =
16 at a preamble length of 112 samples (markers “8/14” and
“16/7”, respectively). One would expect the curve = 16
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OBERLI et al.: ON USING TRANSMISSION OVERHEAD EFFICIENTLY FOR CHANNEL ESTIMATION IN OFDM 401
0 20 40 60 80 100 120 140 160 180 200
−22
−20
−18
−16
−14
−12
−10
−8
−6
Preamble length M×N [samples]
M
S
E

[
d
B
]


4/8
4/18
4/28
4/38
8/4
8/9
8/14
8/19
16/2
16/7
64/2
M=4
M=8
M=16
M=64
Fig. 2. Channel estimation MSE according to (9) (curves) and simulation
(markers). Circled data points indicate “/”. SNR=7 dB.
to provide better estimates, because it satisfies the sampling
theorem for a channel with

= 16 taps, while = 8 does
not. However, the best estimation performance is attained with
= 8 samples of the channel spectrum, when 8 multipath
components out of the 16 of the channel impulse response alias
in the time domain. Disregarding the sampling theorem allows
for doubling the number of observations (), which in turn
serves the purpose of averaging-out AWGN. Therefore, there
is a trade-off between mitigating AWGN () and avoiding
aliasing () for attaining the minimum MSE.
The trade-off between aliasing and AWGN is explicit in
(9). The term 2
(

−/
RMS

/
RMS
)
depends solely on
and on the channel parameters
RMS
and

, and not on
the number of observations . As increases, the MSE
decreases until reaches the value of

. From this point on,
the estimation is free of aliasing and this error term becomes
zero. Therefore, this term represents the interpolation error,
while the term

0

exclusively captures the estimation error
due to AWGN. This aspect can be observed graphically in the
curve for = 4 in Figure 2, which reaches an asymptote
at MSE ≈ −14.4 dB. As increases, the AWGN eventually
becomes negligible and the interpolation error (constant to
) dominates. is then the limiting parameter in estimation
accuracy.
Also shown in Figure 2 is the curve for = 64. At
= 2, this curve illustrates the MSE for a channel estimation
performed using the two “long” symbols of the IEEE 802.11a
preamble. The standard’s approach clearly trades transmission
overhead for simplicity.
Even though result (9) is specific for channels whose
multipath components are Rayleigh fading and whose power
profile decays exponentially, the above discussion does give
an insight for channels with other power profiles as well. In
effect, by considering that the exponentially decaying profile
represents worst-case multipath propagation conditions, (9)
can be taken as an upper bound of the MSE attainable when
estimating channels whose power profile is more benign,
such as the Ricean channels (these profiles have the same
0 50 100 150 200 250
−30
−25
−20
−15
−10
−5
preamble length M×N [samples]
M
S
E

[
d
B
]


M=4
M=8
M=16
4/8
8/8
8/12
8/16
8/20
8/24
8/28
8/32
8/4
8/8
8/12
8/16
8/20
8/24
8/28
8/32
8/4
8/8
8/12
8/16
8/20
8/24
8/28
8/32
SNR = 5 dB
SNR = 10 dB
SNR = 15 dB
IEEE 802.11a
Fig. 3. MSE with optimal choice of and .
maximum excess delay but a smaller
RMS
than the expo-
nentially decaying channel). Note also that when
RMS
→ 0
(frequency flat fading channel), the MSE of (9) becomes

0

and is independent of . This prompts the intuitive result to
maximize by setting = 1 (i.e. to transmit the same pilot
symbol times).
IV. OPTIMAL VALUES OF AND FOR A GIVEN MSE
The best channel estimate as a function of the transmission
overhead is attained by following the lower envelope of the
curves in Figure 2 (dashed line). This envelope is composed
piecewise by curves of (9) whose value of is different.
Therefore, determining the envelope requires finding the inter-
section points between those curves. By analyzing (9), one can
show that the intersection points always occur between curves
whose value of differs by a factor of 2. The MSE at the
intersection points can then be shown to be (cf. Appendix C)
MSE
×
= 4

RMS
− 2
−2

RMS
− 2

RMS
, (10)
which does not depend on . Thus, given a desired channel
estimation MSE, (10) can be solved for and the result used
in (9) for finding . The lower envelope and optimal (, )
pairs obtained this way are plotted in Figure 3 for various SNR
(environment as in Figure 2 with expected
RMS
equal one).
Figure 3 also shows the intervals of MSE that lead to different
choices of , as well as the MSE attained when estimating
the channel using the two “long” symbols of the IEEE 802.11a
preamble (square markers, equal

0
2
, from (9); to be fair, the
standard does not mandate to estimate the channel using only
the two long symbols.) In practice, it is clear that and
cannot be adjusted as a function of SNR. The pair = 8 and
= 4 attains or surpasses the estimation MSE obtained with
the two “long” symbols for all SNRs considered, but uses a
preamble four times shorter.
V. CONCLUSIONS
The problem of attaining initial channel estimates in OFDM
with minimum transmission overhead was considered. The
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402 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON COMMUNICATIONS, VOL. 58, NO. 2, FEBRUARY 2010
relationship between the estimation mean square error and
the preamble length was established for an estimator based
on observing the channel spectrum a given number of times
at a given number of equi-spaced frequencies, followed by
interpolation. The result was used for finding the shortest
training sequence that attains a given channel estimation mean
square error. An example based on IEEE 802.11a parameters
illustrates that the optimal preamble is at least four times
shorter than the one used by 802.11a.
APPENDIX A
CHANNEL MODEL
The channel model used in our mathematical analysis and
simulations is the exponentially decaying Rayleigh fading
channel model. Its discrete impulse response sequence is
ℎ() =

1
2
(1 −
−2
)

[() +()], (11)
where () and () are independent and identically dis-
tributed Gaussian random sequences with zero mean and unit
variance, = 0, 1, . . . ,

−1 is a discrete time index whose
underlying sampling time is the inverse of the transmission
bandwidth.

is the maximum excess delay of the channel
(length of the impulse response sequence, in samples) and
=
1
2
RMS
. In our simulations and numerical examples
(but not in the mathematical derivations) we assumed

=
⌈16
RMS
⌉. This corresponds to eight time-constants of the
decaying exponential of (11), and ensures that no multipath
components with significant power are neglected.
APPENDIX B
DERIVATION OF THE MSE (9)
In order to simplify the notation in (7), we define
() =
1

−1

=0

()
2

(12)
() =
1

−1

=0
[


=1

()
]

2

, (13)
and denote the exact channel by

(). Then, the channel
estimation MSE for subcarrier is
MSE
{
ˆ
()
}
= E
{

ˆ
() −

()

2
}
=
1

−1

1
=0
−1

2
=0
E{(
1
)

(
2
)}
−2
(
1

2
)

(14)

2

Re
{
−1

=0
E
{
()

()
}

−2

}
(15)
+E
{

()

()
}
(16)
+
1

−1

1
=0
−1

2
=0
E{(
1
)

(
2
)}
−2
(
1

2
)

. (17)
For deriving the expectations in (14) to (17), we generically
denote the -point frequency response of the channel impulse
response ℎ() by

(). Then
E{

1
(
1
)

2
(
2
)} = (18)
1

1

2

−1

1
=0

−1

2
=0
E{ℎ(
1
)ℎ

(
2
)}
−2

1

1

1

2

2

2

2
,
where E{ℎ(
1
)ℎ

(
2
)} can be obtained using (11). Thus,
E
{

1
(
1
)

2
(
2
)
}
= (19)
1

1

2

−1

=0
(
1 −
−2
)

−2

−2

1

1

2

2

2
.
Using (19), the expected values in (14) to (17) are given by
E{(
1
)

(
2
)} =
1

2
−1

1
=0
−1

2
=0

−1

=0
(1 −
−2
)

−2

−2
(
1

2
)

2

1

1

2

2

, (20)
E
{
()

()
}
=
1

(21)

−1

=0

−1

=0
(
1 −
−2
)

−2

−2

2

2

,
E
{

()

()
}
=
1

−1

=0
(
1 −
−2
)

−2
, (22)
and
E{(
1
)

(
2
)} = (23)
1

−1

1
=0
−1

2
=0
(

1
=1

2
=1
E
{

1
(
1
)

2
(
2
)
}
)

+2

1

1

2

2

.
Using (8) and recalling that ∥()∥
2
= 1, we find
E
{

1
(
1
)

2
(
2
)
}
=
{

0

2
,
1
=
2
,
1
=
2
0, otherwise
,
(24)
where
0
is the variance of the noise. Then, (23) becomes
E{(
1
)

(
2
)} =

0

2
−1

=0

+2
(
1

2
)

. (25)
By replacing (20), (21), (22) and (25) into (14) to (17),
respectively, and averaging over all subcarrier frequencies
we obtain
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OBERLI et al.: ON USING TRANSMISSION OVERHEAD EFFICIENTLY FOR CHANNEL ESTIMATION IN OFDM 403
MSE
{
ˆ

}
=
1

2

−1

=0
−1

1
=0
−1

2
=0
[
−1

1
=0
−1

2
=0
(26)
(

−1

=0
(
1 −
−2
)

−2

−2(
1

2
)/
)

+2(
1

1

2

2
)/
]

−2(
1

2
)/


2

Re
{

−1

=0
−1

=0
[
−1

=0
(27)
(

−1

=0
(
1 −
−2
)

−2

−2/

+2/

)

+2/
]

−2/

}
+
1

−1

=0

−1

=0
(
1 −
−2
)

−2
(28)
+

0

2

−1

=0
−1

1
=0
−1

2
=0
(29)
(
−1

=0

+2(
1

2
)/
)

−2(
1

2
)/

.
The MSE (26) to (29) can be simplified significantly. We
do this in the sequel and thus obtain the components of (9).
Simplification of (26): If
1
∕=
2
, then the only part that
depends on is
−2(
1

2
)/

. Then, the geometric series

−1
=0

−2(
1

2
)/

evaluates to zero.
If
1
=
2
Δ
= and
1
∕=
2
, then the

−1
=0
only
operates on
2(
1

2
)/
. This is also a geometric series
that evaluates to zero.
If
1
=
2
and
1
=
2
, then (26) is a geometric series
in and can be reduced to 1 −
−2

.
Simplification of (27): The second line in (27) (round brack-
ets), is a geometric series. After solving it, the expression in
square brackets can be broken up into the following geometric
series of

terms:
(
1 −
−2
)
−1

=0
(
1 +
−(2−2

)

−2

+. . . (30)
+
−(2−2

)(

−1)

−2
(

−1)

)

2

.
The

−1
=0
is then applied to each summand in (30), and
the corresponding geometric series is evaluated. The result,
denoted (30)-bis, is the argument of the

−1
=0
(first sum
outside square brackets in (27)). Using (30)-bis, it is simple
to show that for each value of <

, only one summand in
(30) is nonzero, and all summands are zero for ≥

). This
allows to re-write the sum on as
min{,

}−1

=0
(30)
−2

= (31)

(
1 −
−2
)
min{,

}−1

=0

−2

2

−2

,
which is a straighforward geometric series that yields

(
1 −
−2 min{,

}
)
. Finally, the

−1
=0
evaluates to

(
1 −
−2 min{,

}
)
.
Simplification of (28): This is a straightforward geometric
series.
Simplification of (29): If
1
∕=
2
, then the sum on in
round brackets is a geometric series that evaluates to zero.
When
1
=
2
the sums are trivial and yield

0

.
APPENDIX C
DERIVATION OF (10)
Eq. (10) is obtained by a system of 3 equations. The first
equation restricts two preambles to have the same MSE. This
is imposed by evaluating (9) once with pair (
1
,
1
), another
time with pair (
2
,
2
), and then by setting both expressions
equal. The second equation restricts both preambles to have
the same length,
1

1
=
2

2
, and the third equation
forces
2
= 2
1
. Solving for
1
and replacing the result in
(9) yields (10).
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This work was supported by grants FONDECYT 1060718
and ADI-32 2006 from CONICYT Chile.
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