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When two or more users in a wireless network transmit simultaneously, their electromagnetic signals are linearly superimposed on the channel. As a result, a receiver that is interested in one of these signals sees the others as unwanted interference. This property of the wireless medium is typically viewed as a hindrance to reliable communication over a network. However, using a recently developed coding strategy, interference can in fact be harnessed for network coding. In a wired network, (linear) network coding refers to each intermediate node taking its received packets, computing a linear combination over a finite field, and forwarding the outcome towards the destinations. Then, given an appropriate set of linear combinations, a destination can solve for its desired packets. For certain topologies, this strategy can attain significantly higher throughputs over routing-based strategies. Reliable physical layer network coding takes this idea one step further: using judiciously chosen linear error-correcting codes, intermediate nodes in a wireless network can directly recover linear combinations of the packets from the observed noisy superpositions of transmitted signals. Starting with some simple examples, this paper explores the core ideas behind this new technique and the possibilities it offers for communication over interference-limited wireless networks.
Date of Publication: March 2011