5G is one of the hottest topics in broadcasting and, for the media and entertainment sector, the technology will prove to be transformative.
The topic of 5G in broadcast and TV is a vast one, covering everything from the future consumption of digital TV by consumers, to a wide variety of industry-facing innovations. These in turn range from improved remote production (thanks to higher bandwidth and lower latency), through into some of the more specific applications that newer versions of the 5G standard enables.
One of the challenges around 5G is that it is - at the moment - constantly evolving. Unlike older mobile standards, 5G has been through multiple iterations already, creating a gap between the hardware actually available on the market and the latest theoretical version of the standard. This means that some elements of 5G are available for use today (such as higher bandwidth), others are yet to be included in chipsets, and still others are agreed, but not fully ratified by the 3GPP standards body.
The practical result is something of a patchwork quilt of capabilities, further complicated by varying geographical rollout (some operators have invested more in certain areas than others), and even further complicated by private-sector implementations.
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The latter ‘private networks’ allow organisations to harness the benefits of 5G by essentially building their own networks in a limited area, for example, across a studio complex or sports stadium. The benefits for these early adopters are potentially substantial, enabling the latest hardware and highest network speeds to be reached, without needing to wait for wider public rollout.
We’ll now take a view through the media industry and assess the role that 5G can play, as well as look to the future of 5G in broadcast.
5G Standards - what’s going on?
One of the complicating factors when discussing ‘5G’ is that it is not one static specification, rather a list of ‘Releases’, each adding extra functionality onto the base standard. This means that manufacturers and early adopters can begin production and rollout while the finer points of the standards are thrashed out by the standards body, the 3GPP.
Currently, the 3GPP is finalising Release 17, and has begun Release 18 in parallel. Release 17 is scheduled for final ratification in Q3 2022, while 18 will span into 2024. Release 17 marks the last 5G ‘New Radio’ Release, as Release 18 and beyond will be dubbed ‘5G-Advanced’.
Release 17 offers several key enhancements of interest, specifically 5G Multicast broadcast, as well as advanced interactive services, multimedia priority service (MPS) and NR eXtended Reality (XR).
5G remote production meets reality
Remote production is one of the earliest and most exciting and developed of 5G use cases. As a much more efficient method of producing live sports, news, entertainment and events coverage than traditional outside broadcasts, it will allow broadcasters to deploy fewer camera operators to events (although many more cameras) and enable staff to work on multiple events a day, located in a centralised studio.
Inevitably, 5G is set to play a key role in the IBC 2022 Accelerator programme, with projects including ‘5G and the Arena of the Future for XR Events’ and ‘5G Remote Production … in the middle of nowhere’ already taking shape. Looking back a couple of years, an early-stage proof of concept for 5G Remote Production featured in this accelerator project:
This was designed for broadcasters to get an inside track on some of the multi-camera remote production capabilities, challenges and possibilities to come during the very early phases of 5G deployment, and with further key standards completion to come in 2021.
In 2021, an Accelerator looking at the role of 5G in Location-Based entertainment experience in extended realities - or 5G in Location-Based eXtended realities (LBXR) - made waves. Designed to examine how 5G’s low latency and provision of edge computing in particular can amplify important aspects of LBXR’s (Location-Based eXtended Realities) immersive interactivity, technical feasibility, inclusion, and accessibility, the project looked to the gaming market as a testbed.
“Live sporting events provide a real challenge for mobile operators. On match days there are large numbers of people in a stadium and that creates a massive demand for data.”
The demonstration involved the world’s first physical esport, Hado, where players compete on a physical court using head-mounted displays and armband sensors to both see and wield energy balls and shields. The Accelerator aimed to implement a remote play POC - remote play experiments where the two teams compete in different arenas had been tried before, but with the caveat that all the AR elements from the other team can be seen, but the players can’t.
“What we are doing through the Accelerator is solving that,” says Jim Sephton, ex UK team captain and in charge of Augmented Reality sports development with Hado UK.
“We’re working with Noitom to scan the players in real time and we will be merging that data with the Hado gameplay data for the output to viewers. So, we will have two teams in two different locations, and the players and spectators will be able to see a single court created from the data with avatars representing the players.”
Live sport with 5G VISTA and FeMBMS
The 5G VISTA project demonstrated the technical feasibility of using FeMBMS (Further evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service) technology to enhance the live sports experience in mid-2021, an ongoing project which teams up The Digital Television Group with O2 Telefonica, Digital Catapult, Global Wireless Solutions, and Rohde & Schwarz.
5G VISTA is exploring 5G Broadcast via the 3GPP standard FeMBMS, as it solves some of the crucial challenges in delivering live sporting events, as David Owens, Telefonica head of technical trials explained to IBC 365: “Live sporting events provide a real challenge for mobile operators. On match days there are large numbers of people in a stadium and that creates a massive demand for data.”
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“At those key moments (of poor download performance) it is really difficult to stream and post content, and customers are likely to become dissatisfied. This is because the 4G and 5G networks today rely on a TCP-IP service to stream data in a unicast way.
“One source to one customer is just not suited to high demand apps in high demand areas like stadia, and this can cause both perception and physical issues,” Owens added. “Services that could, would and should generate additional revenue can never be implemented.”
The VISTA project has recently (February 2022) completed a successful live trial at a football match in the MK Dons stadium in Milton Keynes, enabling a selected group of fans to use the 5G Vista app to access content. The content was sent over a 5G Broadcast network integrated into the TV broadcast network, and allows fans in the stadium to watch replays and key moments in the game they may have missed.
How 5G could transform production
Much of the conversations around the benefits of 5G for the media and entertainment industry focus on the delivery of content – 5G broadcasting or the benefits of streaming over 5G. But 5G could also be transformative for the creative side of the industry.
The industry relies on many forms of cabling and connectivity to transport pictures and sound, from SDI to IP to satellite. More recently, bonded cellular links have become increasingly commonplace, using 3G or 4G connections to transmit a live video feed – particularly for contribution - over mobile networks.
As BBC R&D senior technology transfer manager Ian Wagdin explains: “Bonded cellular units have revolutionised workflows in newsgathering by allowing journalists and crews go live from anywhere with suitable coverage using a simple backpack or camera mounted device to encode and relay video without the need for large vehicles and lots of cables.”
- Read more: Interview with Ian Wagdin, BBC R&D
Immersive media, marketing & brand collaboration
The really exciting aspect of 5G from a broadcast and media perspective is the vastly increased number of concurrent devices that can be supported, as well as an often-mentioned but underplayed 5G feature - network slicing. The latter offers astonishing potential as it allows network managers extremely granular control of network capacity, enabling different channels to be prioritised at different times.
“[We want to] make these productions feel like you’re not just in a broadcast scenario, you’ll feel like you’re at a participatory event, and you’re really engaging with other folks.”
For example, emergency services might have dedicated capacity ‘locked in’ to all urban 5G networks, which would remain available at all times. Equally, a stadium operator could prioritise the camera-to-edit desk links during a sporting event.
Brendan Yam, SVP & general manager, Viacom Digital Studios International told IBC365 last year that the potential is considerable: “On the visual (‘See’) side of this, we’re looking at different execution, more cameras for example, in some scenarios, turning control over to the users. We’ve seen really strong reactions with things like the VMAs when we launched the ‘Stan Cam’, where fans could follow one particular artist. That was a fixed camera setup, but with this technology we have a lot of opportunity to basically turn that power over to users, particularly as they love to engage with talent – it’s all possible right now, we just have to connect it all together.
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“On the ‘Feel’ side, what we’re looking to do is actually make these events, or make these productions feel like you’re not just in a broadcast scenario, you’ll feel like you’re at a participatory event, and you’re really engaging with other folks, with the talent, and it feels very much like you’re a part of something live. Then the ‘Engage’ side is really where you can affect the production.”
Yam also observed that 4G turned social media from a desktop application into a mobile application and massively expanded the user base. He predicts 5G will have a similar impact on live and interactive broadcasts. “It will massively extend the use case and the user base for that type of programming,” he said. “Established markets that already have a lot of different media experiences are the ones that are going to really get supercharged. It’s about taking incredible IP that people already know, taking big fan bases that you can already activate, and taking that technological know-how and putting it together. We want to take existing brands and programming to the next level, and then start to create new formats and new options.”
The future - multicast MBMS?
That 5G Multicast broadcast may alone have significant implications for broadcasters, although the details are still very much in the discussion stages. It is thought that the multicase service will initially be limited to supporting general multicast and broadcast communication services (such as transparent IPv4/IPv6 multicast delivery, IPTV, IoT applications and V2X applications), as opposed to stand-along broadcast media services, but there is potential for a high-power broadcast mode specification to be developed too.
Overall, the opportunities offered by 5G broadcast are substantial and far reaching already, and there is still much more potential coming down the pipe. For the immediate future, the probability of delivering live 5G TV services to mobile devices - in the context of a sporting event, movie premiers or live show seems a well-developed use case, and only awaits higher penetration of user devices before rollout. In other words, the future of 5G is very much now…
Discover more about 5G and mobile connectivity, read: IBC Tech paper - Delivering on the promise of 5G