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Without feedback, the backoff from capacity due to non-asymptotic blocklength can be quite substantial for blocklengths and error probabilities of interest in many practical applications. In this paper, novel achievability bounds are used to demonstrate that in the non-asymptotic regime, the maximal achievable rate improves dramatically thanks to variable-length coding and feedback. For example, for the binary symmetric channel with capacity 1/2 the blocklength required to achieve 90% of the capacity is smaller than 200, compared to at least 3100 for the best fixed-blocklength code (even with noiseless feedback). Virtually all the advantages of noiseless feedback are shown to be achievable, even if the feedback link is used only to send a single signal informing the encoder to terminate the transmission (stop-feedback). It is demonstrated that the non-asymptotic behavior of the fundamental limit depends crucially on the particular model chosen for the “end-of-packet” control signal. Fixed-blocklength codes and related questions concerning communicating with a guaranteed delay are discussed, in which situation feedback is demonstrated to be almost useless even non-asymptotically.
Date of Publication: Aug. 2011