What are the main considerations for using 5G for live production? David Thompson, DPP’s Technologist Strategist, provides an oversight of key pointers and potential pitfalls when adopting 5G.

At the DPP Leaders’ Briefing in November 2022, 5G and the transition to wireless production was hailed as having the potential “to change everything”. Although bold claims demand caution, it has since been demonstrated, at events from League 2 football to the coronation of King Charles III, that 5G can dramatically transform the way that live events are produced, broadcast, and experienced.

David Thompson

David Thompson, DPP

Wireless cameras allow producers to capture action from more angles, be more agile and create more dynamic shots. The increased use of mobile phones in place of expensive cameras has democratised live production, lowering the cost of entry and enabling less commercial events to provide fans with high-quality content.

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5G improves sustainability by reducing reliance on massive OB vans and large hardware infrastructure deployments. In turn, this decreases the time and human resources needed to set up, manage, and tear down live event productions.

In 2020, IBC launched an Accelerator for 5G Remote Production. The purpose of the Accelerator was to enable broadcasters to explore production use cases for early 5G deployments. It identified that 5G had the potential to enable more efficient methods for producing live events than traditional outside broadcasting.

However, the work also identified some major challenges, including the requirement for uplink capabilities that are not generally available on public 5G networks.

Public and private networks

High-quality live production requires a lot of reliable, low-latency network capacity to move video feeds and data around a production base. When opting for 5G, producers can acquire this capacity in two ways - via a public or a private 5G network.

Using a public 5G network means sharing the network provider’s spectrum with non-production users. Contention can cause problems ensuring reliable access to sufficient spectrum for video uplink, particularly at a live event filled with fans publishing their own content on social media.

Public 5G networks solve this problem by ‘slicing’ or reserving parts of the available spectrum for specific uses. This means that a spectrum allocated for production would be reliable and unaffected by the activities of non-production users. However, as available spectrum for reserved and non-reserved use is limited, operators have the problem of ensuring that slicing does not remove so much capacity that it affects the general public.

Spectrum availability limitations across public 5G networks lead many production teams to ‘bond’ together spectrum from multiple network providers to gather sufficient network resources for production purposes. Bonded networks can fuse spectrum from different providers into a single connection to provide extra capacity as well as some redundancy in case of failures. As bonding has become more commonly used to solve the limitations of public 5G networks, it has also come under scrutiny from regulators in various countries worried about potential fraudulent uses of so-called “SIM farms”.

Private 5G networks are set up exclusively for a specific use. They rely on portable infrastructure that can be deployed virtually anywhere from a sporting arena to a remote countryside. Private 5G networks can use any legally available spectrum to provide reliable and low-latency networking without concern for external users. However, the use of 5G networks can require weeks of forward planning as permission to use spectrum must be approved by regulatory authorities.

A key benefit of private 5G networks is that they are software-defined and can be configured for particular uses. For example, this can allow for the optimisation of spectrum and auxiliary frequencies for higher uplink performance in a multi-camera production scenario. This type of flexibility is not possible on a public network which, even with slicing, must cater for all types of use cases.

What is low latency?

One of the benefits of 5G is that it offers the potential for extremely low latency, theoretically only 1ms across a local network. Low latency is a requirement for live production, as even small delays can lead to sync problems. In a multi-camera production environment, this is even more important to avoid discontinuous cuts.

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Although 5G provides the fabric for low latency, delay is introduced when encoding camera feeds for IP distribution. Until recently, most 5G bonded encoders introduced up to 800ms of latency, creating challenges for live events. However, advances in technology have successfully reduced latency to around 240ms, with 80ms achievable in some encoders.

Using public 5G means sharing the network provider’s spectrum with non-production users

Using public 5G means sharing the network provider’s spectrum with non-production users

That said, the lowest latency 5G encoders come at a significantly higher cost. This has led many producers to reconsider their preconceptions of how much latency is actually tolerable. For example, some use cases may enable producers to exercise more judgement over where cuts are placed so that extra milliseconds of delays are not visible to the viewer.

Convergence of 5G and Cloud

Increased use of 5G has led to a convergence with the development of cloud-based tools for live production. Combining 5G technology with cloud-based production tools further reduces the physical infrastructure required on-site at a live event. Cloud also enables a production team to work remotely with less need for operators to travel on-site and to manage simultaneous events across different venues.

In our NAB 2023: Demand vs Supply report, the DPP investigated how well the industry is responding to customer interest in both 5G and cloud-based live production tools. We discovered that live production in the cloud has become a viable customer option, even for high-profile events. This was made possible through advances in cloud-based applications that provided tools including multi-camera switchers, multi-channel audio mixer, voiceovers and dynamic graphics engines - running across a virtualised video fabric capable of low latency and asynchronous video processing.

5G to Cloud “bridging” technologies have enabled producers to link together their 5G and cloud-based services. Bridges are composed of hybrid edge technologies that run some cloud-based services within a local 5G network. This allows producers to run applications in the cloud, without losing the near real-time benefits of running within a 5G network. “Camera to Cloud” bonded 5G encoders with direct cloud publishing capabilities are a simple example of what has become increasingly popular for production.

Benefits of hybrid

Of course, while 5G can provide demonstrable benefits for live production, it is not necessarily a panacea for all use cases. Successful migration to 5G requires significant planning with operational and business transformation. Many businesses found this out the hard way when migrating services to the public cloud.

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The lessons of hybrid cloud - running services both on-site and in the cloud - also apply to the introduction of 5G into the production environment. It isn’t always necessary, or even beneficial, to transform everything to 5G at once.

Working in a hybrid wired and wireless production environment is one approach that producers have taken to manage their costs. It has also enabled them to introduce 5G gradually while not completely throwing out their legacy equipment. This has been made possible through lower encoding latencies which enable production teams to switch between wired and wireless camera feeds for delivering more engaging content.

Similarly, the choice between public and private 5G networking is not exclusive. Many producers have found that bonding private and public 5G networks together can provide the best results. For example, using a public 5G network to capture fan reactions off the sports pitch to provide more atmosphere.

The future of 5G

5G production has come a long way since 2020 when the IBC accelerator put its concepts and architectural theories to the test. The industry has advanced significantly, even in the past year since the DPP investigated it at NAB 2023 thanks to increased interest and investment following 5G’s successful use in several high-profile events.

Continuing improvements in bonded encoders are enabling producers to finally take advantage of the low latency capabilities of 5G networks. Latency is now low enough that wireless cameras on 5G networks are being tested to provide VAR (Video Assistant Referee) services. This will make 5G viable for use across more production use cases.

The capacity and capabilities of both public and private 5G networks are continuing to increase and it is hoped that changes in legislation will make regulatory compliance easier and faster to acquire spectrum for private 5G networking.

As the barriers to introducing 5G in production continue to fall, lower costs and more sustainable operations mean that broadcasters can produce content from niche and local events that would never have been commercially viable before. The biggest beneficiary of these advances will be audiences, who will be able to engage more with live events both on their screens and through the lenses of their mobile phones.

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