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Exploring 5G

Posted on Apr 10, 2024 by FEED Staff

Are we nearly there yet?

5G stands poised to reshape the ways we consume, produce and interact with the media. But the question remains: is it truly ready for mass adoption?

Five years since 5G’s introduction, the global telecom landscape has witnessed significant evolution.

Mobile operators are projected to spend $1.1 trillion on capex from 2020-2025, predominantly on 5G according to trade body GSMA.

With 2023 heralding 5G’s launch in 30 new markets, primarily in Africa and Asia, global 5G connections are projected to soar to ten billion by 2025.

5G availability on public networks in most European nations, South Korea, the US, China and Canada is widespread, though concentration remains in urban areas.

While the global average download speeds have increased to 207.42Mbps, 5G upload performance has stagnated at 19.90Mbps, while latency continues to drag on the whole experience according to recent tests by Ookla.

The EU warned in January that low 5G deployment in Europe risks other technologies dependent on fast internet, such as AI, facing delays.

In 2023, 5G in Europe reached 80% of the population – that’s up from 73% the previous year – whereas the level is 98% in South Korea and the US, and 94% in Japan according to the EU.

Around 40 million people in EU countries will still have no access to a fixed gigabit connection by 2030, therefore failing to meet the block’s target of providing 5G to all households.

Moving into media

For media and broadcast, 5G is a classic technical engineering story, a lot of early (over) promise brought to down to earth with longer timelines than expected, exacerbated by outside blockers like the global pandemic.

This year finds 5G for broadcast moving into commercial, but still niche use.

For mobile video vendors at the front end of live event broadcast, 5G is an incremental evolution which increases the aggregate of bandwidth available for coverage of live events.

“To our customers in news and sports, 5G is a natural progression in cellular technology and offers new spectrum and infrastructure,” says Matthew McEwen, VP of product management at TVU Networks. Most TVU customers are ordering cellular units with a 5G option ‘because they want to be future-proofed’, but are using the box today ‘to aggregate multiple links for high bandwidth and consistent connectivity’.

LiveU, whose bonded cellular modems also support 5G, reports everyday broadcasts using 5G over the public network also to add bandwidth.

At a rough estimate, over half of LiveU transmissions in the US use 5G as part of their standard workflow.

What’s not widespread – achieved only in a handful of trials and limited commercial application – are the benefits of superfast, ultra-low-latency, multi-megabit upload and downloads.

Depending on the country and exact choice of rollout, reports suggest 5G has not offered amazingly improved performance than top-of-the-range LTE, the standard 5G was to supersede.

“The dream of simply turning up to an event with 5G kit, switching on and streaming high-quality, low-latency video direct to the studio is proving elusive,” introduces Stuart Brown, special projects director at Domo Broadcast Systems.  

“5G coverage is patchy and likely to be limited to highly populated urban areas for the foreseeable future. Using public networks to cover large events can also run into problems with network congestion, as most attract large numbers of spectators who also compete for access to the cellular network.”

McEwen agrees: “We would not recommend a customer to rely on one carrier’s 5G. That is hugely risky because there is no such thing as 100% perfect coverage. Customers may not use LTE or 3G, but these are prudent fallbacks.”

Much of this is to do with the delay in rolling out the full-fat flavour of the technology.

Early phases of 5G relied on existing infrastructure (non-stand-alone networks) to deliver 5G and are only now moving to stand-alone (SA) technology, in which the whole network has been upgraded to 5G. Without SA 5G, there can be no network slicing, a much-heralded benefit to broadcasters.

“Speaking frankly, SA took a little longer to roll out than carriers would have liked,” argues Dan Pisarski, CTO at LiveU. “Covid-19 may have played some role there. Now, we’re seeing more SA networks available, leading to the ability to finally leverage slicing after many years of speaking about it.

“Widespread deployment is the next milestone; ubiquitous access to an SA network is the next big leap. This opens the door to widespread slicing and should lead to higher performance on the public networks. Some more specialised parts of 5G only happen due to virtualisation of the network core.”

Going private

In the interim, the industry has sought to bypass public networks and set up private 5G networks specifically for event coverage use.

There is already a clear disparity of investment between the two.

The private network market is expected to grow to $10.41 billion by 2028, compared to a mere $1.89 billion for network slicing according to GSMA.

LiveU cites 20 to 30 examples of private 5G networks in action last year, mostly around sports. The number demonstrates this kind of deployment is more readily available than slicing.

Both slicing and private methods share similarities.

They enable broadcasters to use a dedicated section of bandwidth, highly useful in traffic-congested areas such as arenas – where other users can delay and interrupt the transmission. Both have the capacity to receive and forward multiple, concurrent UHD videos in real time. 

Live event producers have long used wireless cameras because of the flexibility and greater safety over cabled kit.

The key advantage of 5G over traditional wireless camera systems is it’s bidirectional, with IP connectivity to all devices on a given network.

“As IP workflows are now embedded in event coverage – particularly since increasing adoption of remote production – this is a game changer,” says Brown. “Previously nomadic wireless camera systems can now be monitored and controlled via IP using their built-in GUIs, and engineering teams can manage their mobile assets wherever these assets are deployed in the world – reducing the number of technicians required on site.”

However, challenges remain regarding the implementation of the technology to handle the high bandwidth and very low latency required in high-end live production.

“5G is some way off in terms of displacing traditional wireless camera systems,” states Brown, who says 5G can struggle to deliver the required bit rates of a live high-end sport ‘because it is optimised for maximising the download speeds to consumer phones and tablets’. 

Slicing outperforms private 5G by enabling a guaranteed end-to-end path from RF to the local tower and backhaul across the network.

Private networks, on the other hand, only assure the local portion of this, after which the feed can hit congestion in the public network. 

In private scenarios, the broadcaster has to work a little harder to set up their own infrastructure such as radio, antenna and a network core to deploy the radio into.

Even here, though, there have been advances made. “You can get everything down to running on a mini PC plugged into the radio. It is virtualised in the cloud and much more accessible,” explains Pisarski.

Countries are starting to set aside some frequency for private use, managed by the spectrum owner which is usually the government.

The process differs from being almost as simple as filling out a web form in some parts of the globe to hassles of red tape. 

Slicing, on the other hand, is arranged by the carrier in partnership with a broadcaster and dedicates a portion of the in-air frequency and a portion of the whole virtual network for just the time and place required.

“Broadcasters are excited about slicing since a guaranteed slice of bandwidth is very appealing when you’re going to be in a specific site for remote broadcast,” says Pisarski. “Media companies will likely prefer to provision slices with specific service level requirements (SLRs) for individual events spanning hours or days.”

Having all links available from 5G down added to network slicing allows customers to have greater bandwidth more of the time, but this doesn’t mean customers are going to abandon lower frequencies.

“We experience this ourselves. For example, walking down the street with excellent coverage, only for the signal to drop off on the next block perhaps because of greater congestion or gaps between towers,” explains McEwen. For this reason, he believes live event producers will always need carrier aggregation. “Even on a high-speed SA network, there will be dead zones.”

Scaling up

One big question surrounds the commercial model.

Broadcasters desire a similar just-in-time flexibility of satellite where they can book an uplink for a few hours at a moment’s notice.

Carriers are keener on larger volumes of business, such as the year-round frequency slicing that an autonomous car company might pay.

“What remains to be seen is exactly how the economics are going to work,” Pisarski says. “What is the price of slicing versus satellite, and therefore what is the advantage? In both private 5G and slicing during the coronation, the economics came out less than satellite, but I will say it’s still early.”

Alessandro Reitano, SVP of sports production at Sky Deutschland, urges broadcasters to keep highlighting the technical and financial advantages of 5G as a transport layer.

“There’s still too much dependency on traditional transport mechanisms. This needs to change to fully allow the use of shortened and far more flexible workflows. We see demand growing from broadcasters who want to use 5G and IP-bonding at major events to drive more extensive and diverse coverage.”

A holistic integration of wireless cameras over a dedicated 5G network will do more than enhance the overall efficiency of live broadcasts; it will form the foundation of the interconnected broadcast infrastructure, paving the way for an increasingly automated future of sports broadcasting technology.

Bolstering broadcast

5G encompasses many verticals, and one of them is broadcast. 5G Broadcast (5G BC) is the technology designed to complement DTT, bringing an original use case and generating new cash flow enveloped in the latest business models. Like other wireless technology, 5G BC was specified for the first time in 2017 and enhanced in 2020. 

However, to enable 5G BC to leverage the UHF band with existing bandwidths (eg 6MHz in the Americas, 7MHz in Australia and 8MHz in MEA and APAC), the wireless technology needed to undergo a new standard enhancement – which took place in the 3GPP Rel-18 to be ready by mid-2024. And now, 5G BC is ready for prime time!

Rohde & Schwarz (R&S) has conducted and supported more than 40 trials and proofs of concept over the last four years to investigate the benefits of 5G BC for content distribution to mobile, as well as to test the technology’s limitations.

Use cases include live and linear streaming, public safety and venue casting.

According to Mohamed Aziz Taga, head product business development and strategy at R&S, “5G BC is the right technology when reaching a large audience simultaneously, offering significant cost, energy and frequency efficiency advantages versus the existing legacy methods for content distribution using Unicast.”

Thanks to ‘tremendous business development and market creation efforts’, 5G BC is now mature enough for commercialisation. “Currently, more focus is being placed on fine-tuning the right business model before the first deployments,” he says.

Enhancing fan experience 

A recent F1 Grand Prix in the US benefited from private 5G networks by Verizon.

They deployed a private solution, enabling venue management solutions like ticket scanning, point of sale and instant uploads for accredited photographers. 

T-Mobile also activated something similar on behalf of the venues in Vegas during the 2023 GP, including ‘customer perks at Sphere, an immersive driving experience with 360° HD views of the race circuit captured by 5G-connected cameras, plus deployment throughout the Las Vegas Grand Prix pit building for race teams. 

mmWave enhancements, both inside and outside the Allegiant Stadium, enabled fans with T-Mobile’s network to quickly update their social feeds on the latest plays during Super Bowl LVIII.

SFR, Bouygues Telecom and Orange are also arranging a series of private 5G networks at venues in Paris.

These serve dual purposes, providing both Olympics broadcast coverage as well as countering anticipated spectator mobile saturation during the opening ceremony. 

This will see 10,000 athletes parading down the Seine in boats watched by 400,000 spectators with  smartphones in hand.

Cameras on each boat will live transmit footage over Orange’s private 5G.

A unique application was trialled at Wimbledon 2023, where Vodafone headsets enabled visually impaired fans on Centre Court to watch live footage streamed from local TV cameras over 5G. The game footage was enhanced to suit the person’s specific sight profile.

A view to the future

The advent of 5G technology in broadcast, media and entertainment industries has undoubtedly unleashed a wave of possibilities.

Its ultra-fast speeds, low latency and high capacity have revolutionised content delivery, production workflows and consumer experiences.

It has enabled seamless livestreaming and new AR applications, as well as providing a far stronger framework for remote production and personalised content delivery.

However, the journey to fully leveraging the potential of 5G is ongoing.

Challenges such as infrastructure deployment and regulatory frameworks remain to be addressed.

Additionally, concerns regarding privacy, security and equitable access must be carefully navigated.

As the technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see further innovations in immersive experiences, interactive storytelling and real-time content creation. 

This feature was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of FEED.

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