5G Broadcast: Nowhere Near Ready For Prime Time

Article By : John Walko

Broadcasters see the potential for 5G broadcasting, but there's been little progress thus far...

When the mobile communications industry started its long evolution to the 5th generation (5G), one of the early significant applications identified was broadcasting. 5G was seen as equally applicable for both delivery of content and its production, notably for outside broadcast but also in a studio. However, this low hanging fruit has yet to start ripening in any serious way.

“There are some deployments we can point to, but on the whole what we are seeing are complementary applications rather than 5G being ready for any meaningful distribution of media content,” Peter MacAvock, Head of Delivery, Platforms and Services at the European  Broadcasting Union’s Technology and Innovation Division told EE Times.

Peter MacAvock

“The potential for 5G is just enormous for most aspects of this sector, but we need to be pragmatic about some of the time-scales here. Some in the broadcasting sector are, and have been, harboring unrealistic expectations of the performance improvements that could be achieved in the short term.”

The EBU has been the primary representative for public sector media (PSM) organizations for nearly 70 years and has over 100 broadcasting groups as full members. The organization is promoting numerous technology projects focusing on both the communications side as well as issues related to media production.

Addressing the latter opportunity, he noted while this may be ‘less sexy’, it is equally important for the effectiveness of the entire broadcasting ‘experience’.

MacAvock stressed “there also needs to be some serious discussions about the economics of delivering content.”

He has in the past argued that 5G is unlikely to replace DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television) because the economics of the latter have emerged and been refined and perfected over many years, while attempts to develop multicast over cellular have yet to succeed.

MacAvock also noted that 5G is different and thus special for the broadcasting (and other) sectors in that it has been designed to embrace verticals outside of the mainstream telecoms space.

“Indeed we at the EBU and the sector in general have been really active in ensuring that 5G will meet our sector’s needs and requirements, through numerous representations to the 3GPP.”

The first serious nod to the sector was in 3GPP’s Release 14 with the inclusion of eMBMS (evolved Multi Broadcast Multicast Services), that covered broadcaster — friendly features such as free-to-air reception — including on SIM-free devices) and modes to allow operation at HTHP (high tower high power) transmitter sites.

This so called ‘LTE Broadcast’ would enable multiple users in the same cell to access the same live stream, rather than the network having to serve multiple unicast streams.  However, it never really took off.

Operators were reluctant to deploy the technology unless compatible smartphones were launched and sold in volume, while handset suppliers held back until they could see sufficient compatible services being offered.

The breakthrough as far as 5G is concerned came with Release-15 in early 2018, but the really important “LTE-based 5G Terrestrial Broadcast”, which is built on top of the LTE core network, is only scheduled to be finalized with Release-16. However, as previously reported, this has been delayed due to issues around arranging meetings as a consequence of the Covid-19 outbreak.

And the next iteration, Release-17, now rescheduled for the middle of next year, will incorporate 5G Broadcast; it relies on a more versatile 5G core.

The 3GPP continues to include provisions in wireless standards supporting  TV broadcasting on cellular networks. (Source: EE)

The report interestingly cautions that “the inclusion of a feature in 3GPP specifications is a necessary step but it does not guarantee that this feature will inevitably be implemented in 5G networks and devices.”

MacAvock was speaking exclusively to EE Times following the publication of a  report from the EBU, published in June, that focuses predominantly on the distribution side of the equation.

The report brings into sharp focus that 5G is nowhere near prime-time for broadcasters, and that the sector has significant “structural barriers” to overcome so as to realize the potential.

Right from the start, the report highlights that “for the time being, the only way of delivering nonlinear services to portable and mobile devices is by means of unicast connections.”  It then stresses that “this is not satisfactory, both from the media services providers and user perspectives, due to deficits regarding quality of service (QoS), coverage and costs. 5G as specified by the 3GPP may be an opportunity to bridge this gap.”

Quite a lot of the 60 pages of the report focus on whether broadcasters would be able to deploy 5G technology to deliver both linear, and non-linear broadcasts, and supporting them with enhanced media services, which are a combination of both. The latter refers to content that is offered “on demand.”

The study considered delivery to mobile handsets, tablets and in-car infotainment devices, but sections also consider whether and how 5G could be relevant for delivering programs to domestic TV sets.

The main conclusion emphasizes that, technically, 5G may be able to meet the distribution requirements of both PSM and commercial media providers “if a combination of 5G Mobile Broadband and 5G Broadcast is used.”

5G Broadcast is a technology that uses FeMBMS (Further evolved MBMS) to deliver media using 5G specs.  The standard offers broadcaster the full spectrum for HPHT applications in downlink-only mode. It differs from 5G Mobile  Broadband in that the latter relies on 3GPP specifications based on the new 5G-NR radio access network and 5G core network, and are deployed by mobile network providers.

So unlike the LTE version, the new standard will allow media organizations to operate dedicated 5G Broadcast networks independently of mobile operators.  Thus, a free-to-air transmission mode would allow linear services to be made available to all mobile devices, irrespective of a user’s mobile network.

The report’s conclusion then adds a hugely important proviso.  “To achieve this in practice, collaboration between stakeholders across the media value chain is required. In addition further investigations into cooperative models between broadcasters and mobile network operators in terms of joint use of spectrum and site assets would be useful. Such cooperation may deliver the cost benefits and the economies of scales required to trigger the device and infrastructure ecosystem for 5G broadcast.”

Such cautious language from the EBU may be necessary, but some of the “stakeholders” may need rather more persuasion.

New, novel, business models will have to be devised to achieve scale and foster collaboration, and that will be necessary not just amongst European broadcasters, but will need to encompass harmonization between inter-continental broadcaster and mobile broadband providers.

The report’s 60 pages offer several suggestions and options of how this could be achieved, from both a technology and business perspective.

The EBU maintains the most straightforward option for 5G Broadcast to coexist with digital terrestrial television (DTT) would be for 5G Broadcast to deploy 5MHz channels with the same channel centers as the 8MHz DTT raster. But it acknowledges that other regions may differ and that changes may be necessary.

The report is also surprisingly realistic about the potential of 5G Broadcast. It notes that as of today, no 5G networks nor devices available for 5G support the technology. It also points out that the operating models of MNOs and handset makers are unlikely to change this position anytime soon, since this would require hardware modifications involving significant investments. “Should broadcasters wish to make use of 5G Broadcast, they will need to actively take the steps necessary to introduce it, for example by creating a convincing business perspective for all involved market partners, ideally in large/global markets.”

This is the second major report covering 5G opportunities for broadcasters over the past six months, which suggests the organization — and thus broadcasters — are fully on board.  Originally, the EBU was busily lobbying for DTT to retain its spectrum from the onslaught of the mobiles invasion.

And, perhaps coincidentally, during the same week, we had the results of a survey, commissioned by Nevion, a specialist developer and supplier of software designed solutions for broadcast production gear based in Oslo, Norway.

Andy Rayner

The survey revealed that an overwhelming 92% of broadcasters expect to adopt 5G technology within the next two years and that the sector set to benefit most will be remote production.

61% of respondents said they would consider deploying 5G for distribution as a potential replacement for DTT, satellite or cable.

Interestingly, only 20% of those participating in the study considered 5G’s ability to offer a more flexible and portable primary link for (some) outside broadcast production is its biggest benefit.

“I was not particularly surprised at the responses to most of the topics in our survey. Unless and until you get some real infrastructure in place, you are really only working on ‘best efforts.’ And in reality, what we have today is decent bundled LTE, which went through its testing process some five years ago,” Andy Rayner, Nevion’s chief technologist told EE Times.

Rayner said his take is that “one of the earliest benefits from 5G will be the prospect of a faster and more flexible way to transmit signals from outside broadcast venues to the central production facility.” Once we have the infrastructure, of course.

One statistic in the poll did raise Rayner’s eyebrows. “Forty-six percent of broadcasters maintain they have actually tested 5G’s capabilities within their organization. I suspect that is too high a figure. And even if correct, many of such projects are likely to have been put on hold due to the Coronavirus crisis.”

Rayner most definitely concurs with the EBU’s MacAvock when it comes to the huge influence 5G will have on the way the media industry produces content, whether in a studio or outside. “We are going to see and benefit from really exciting innovations in this sector of the broadcasting industry.”

He stresses everything Nevion is currently working on is open standards based. By way of an example, he notes the pan-European project the company is heading up — dubbed 5G Virtuosa.

The project is set to explore and demonstrate how 5G can be combined with virtualization concepts to allow broadcasters to create live content more efficiently and cost-effectively.

The participants in addition to Nevion include Mellanox Technologies (Israel) and two German groups — Logic Media Solutions and the IRT, the country’s Institute for Broadcasting Technology.

In mid-June, the participants said the project’s initial goal had been reached successfully. It involved setting up an IP-based studio, built on industry standards, and integrating equipment from numerous vendors including video cameras, a vision mixer, servers, a multiviewer, audio mixer, time and frequency synchronization gear, and software-defined media nodes — all of it managed by an orchestration and SDN control system developed by the Norwegian group.

The set-up has been completed at Nevion’s Service Operation Centre in Gdansk, Poland, and will soon be tested at the IRT’s facility in Munich, Germany.

Nevion did add a proviso — some of the latter stages of the work have had to be done remotely because of the pandemic situation.

Once testing is completed and shown to be standards compliant and work, the set-up will serve as the fundamental building block for developing and creating remote production equipment.

Rayner noted there many such 5G-related projects under way globally, with European countries well represented due to generous funding from initiatives such as Horizon 2020.

“5G means different things to different people. For me it represents a toolkit of technologies – some already in use, some still in the pipeline,” said Rayner. He added that for him, the ‘gold offering’ from the networking technology is the potential of network slicing, which could mean a dedicated, functional layer on a shared infrastructure.

“This could be seen as broadcasting’s ‘holy grail’ — deterministic, always available, on-demand  broadband.”

But of course, Rayner stresses, this can only become viable, and a commercial reality, if everyone in the loop — from the very large players to the start-ups, are ready to grasp both the technical and commercial advantages.

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