Controversy, challenges and cunning: Making 5G Broadcast for sport a reality with the Vista 5G Create project

The DTG is leading a consortium of technology providers, including telecoms operator Telefonica O2, focused on developing a 5G-based platform to broadcast live sports events and enhanced content in stadiums and similar locations.

Named Video In Stadia Technical Architecture, or Vista for short, the project is about creating and enabling the 5G backhaul that will be integrated into today’s broadcast systems – from glass to glass – to deliver all the exciting content being created for live sporting events. This covers not only the broadcasts themselves, but virtual, augmented and mixed reality, enhanced graphics, interactive and personalised audio and visual elements for viewers, and a lot more.

The consortium has won £1.3 million funding towards the project’s £2.3 million total cost from the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) 5G project incubator, under the 5G Create competition.

In partnership with Digital Catapult, Global Wireless Solutions, O2 and Rohde & Schwarz, the DTG is looking to use a technology called 5G Broadcast, or more technically, further enhanced multimedia broadcast multicast service (feMBMS), to provide enhanced interactive viewing experiences direct to devices in stadiums and at other select locations. Handset manufacturer Samsung was a member of the consortium but it is now partnered instead, and will provide the devices required to run tests throughout the project.

Clamour for live sport experiences

The objective of the consortium’s Vista project is to test and demonstrate consumer benefits and the technical feasibility of using 5G FeMBMS technology.

David Owens, head of technical trials at O2, tells SVG Europe: “This is an incredibly exciting project, coming at a time where there’s a great clamour for the return of live experiences. This programme will allow us to deliver amazing experiences for our customers and to provide a positive use case for 5G that is both entertaining and realisable.”

“Everyone wants to see things whenever they want to, wherever they want to, or whatever device they want to today. So how do we bridge that side of things as well as the traditional TV delivery and the public service TV delivery?”

Alex Buchan, strategic technologist at the DTG and lead on the 5G Vista Project, explains: “First and foremost in our project we’re looking at sports events where you can see action from multiple camera locations, repeat slow motion, plus tailored viewing experiences, synchronised commentary, personalised multi-game atmosphere; just basically a kind of enhanced viewing experience. At the moment you can’t do that with 4G networks because you haven’t got the capability [in the network] for doing that where there’s lots of people trying to access the network at the same time.”

“If it’s a live event, you could have a lot of people trying to access that content at the same time, meaning a broadcast solution is perfect because you can send that overall requirement out once and everyone gets it and then your device can sort out how you want to view it and what you want to see, and pick out the bits that are interesting to you,” adds Buchan.

Owens continues: “The challenge with large sporting venues is providing enough capacity to deliver these enhanced experiences at a reasonable cost. FeMBMS allows us to do just that, but at a cost advantage compared to more traditional cellular solutions, while allowing large-scale live multi-camera, multi-angle video to be part of a live performance.”

From DTT to FeMBMS

Inspired by a similar concept in South Korea which was trialled around baseball matches, O2 and Rohde & Schwarz discussed FeMBMS being a potential solution to broadcast enhanced content to the masses and, through 5G Create, an initial collaboration with the DTG and Digital Catapult was developed.

The DTG has been looking for several years at how 5G can be used to distribute content from A to B or to aid in content production, but the main block to taking these investigations further was the fact that “no one was prepared to pay for it to be put in the networks, in the devices, or wherever”, Buchan says. He goes on: “So when we heard about the 5G Create Project that could be a way of unlocking this impasse because a third party was going to put money into [the project] and get everyone together, we thought, ‘great’.”

The DTG is in a transitionary period now where many of its members, who have traditionally broadcast content on digital terrestrial television (DTT), are now looking at how they can move that forward to internet-delivered content, states Buchan. He notes on DTT that it “still works fine and it’s still a very efficient way of delivering content, but it has its limitations; it’s a kind of one-way system and it’s really tailored for big screens on a fixed environment with an aerial on the roof”.

He goes on: “Everyone wants to see things whenever they want to, wherever they want to, or whatever device they want to today. So how do we bridge that side of things as well as the traditional TV delivery and the public service TV delivery still? We’re getting involved to try and help evolve the opportunities for our members to be able to reach new audiences with content and offerings.”

However, he adds that the use of FeMBMS involves a large integration project, from the camera at the side of the pitch, to overlays, to 5G networks, into the broadcast solution and out to the viewer. “It’s not about existing networks; there’s a lot of things we’ve got to overlay on top of the broadcast solution,” explains Buchan. “There are potentially mobile edge computing solutions to store content and cache content, but then there’s the live cameras as well, and how does that feed into the network? So we’ve got quite a lot of work to do.”

Buchan adds that latency is the real issue for broadcasting live sporting events and additional content, whether that be data, graphics or augmented reality. He says: “The key is about the latency, because if you’re talking about a live sporting event and interacting with that in real time, as you’re sat in there and watching it you’ve got no time for any delay at all. If you’re watching it [on TV or at the stadium] and you’re watching it on your phone at the same time and it’s completely out of step, it’s just going to annoy people and the experience is going to be poor. So really it’s about integrating that overall solution in a seamless way and keeping it as tight as possible and as streamlined as possible.”

Telefónica is on the 5G case throughout Europe: Sky Deutschland presenter Katharina Kleinfeldt at work at the SG Flensburg-Handewitt versus Frisch Auf Göppingen handball competition on 6 December 2020, live streamed using a dedicated 5G network from Telefónica O2

5G broadcast goals and objectives

On the main goals of this project, Owens comments: “The objective of 5G Vista is helping to explore new avenues in the area of live events in sports and culture and bring the UK into pole position for this new business. We also felt that by reinventing an old broadcast technology, FeMBMS, we could deliver a great in-stadium video experience too. Live experiences are something close to O2’s heritage and brand.”

The project will define use cases which stimulate the development of the device and network ecosystem to support 5G broadcast and by having these features inherent in network architecture it provides built-in efficiencies which are seamless to end-users.

It will also demonstrate how 5G broadcast can reduce carbon footprints by reducing the number of base stations and the amount of spectrum needed to deliver content to mass audiences.

“This project is different because we’ve actually got a mobile network operator pushing it, and they’ve got the key to unlock the content providers because they’ve got good partnerships with sports venues and content owners “

The result will highlight the potential for delivery of content and ways of watching which can bring about possibilities for collaborative viewing and interplay between venues, meaning that watching a sporting event becomes a social occasion, even if you cannot leave the house.

The use cases that could come out of this project may include:

  • Live audience: develop and evaluate a 5G multi-screen experience for fans at a live sporting event
  • Remote audience: aimed at fans at an external location to experience live multi-screen sports using the same app
  • Larger screen demonstration: provide near real time video content to a large screen 65in QLED in a VIP box in the stadium

“We see multiple benefits for live audiences whether they are in the stadium, at specially designed remote areas (ie, VR lounges), or just sitting at home via their TV and phone. It will help take sports broadcasting to the next level of immersive entertainment, via the power of new technology and 5G networks,” states Owens.

Touch of the controversial

FeMBMS has a touch of the controversial around it because it has often been mentioned as a technology that could be used to replace DTT or free-to-air TV. However, the DTG and its consortium have taken a different angle; how it could be used to complement existing TV delivery and provide new and exciting services.

Buchan states: “The reason we chose FeMBMS is because where there’s always been a problem with mobile networks is in live sport, live entertainment, live events, where a lot of people want watch the same thing at the same time. You’ve probably been in a venue, stadium, or at a music festival and you can see you’ve got full coverage but you can’t get on the network and you can’t do anything, and that’s a capacity issue because there’s too many people trying to access the same stuff.”

“The broadcast solution that we’re looking at will allow people in those kinds of situations to get access to the network and not just that, but to be able to receive all sorts of exciting new services due to the availability of it all,” he continues. “So it’s really a way to provide network operators, venue owners and sports rights owners with opportunities to engage with fans – which is even more important these days as people can’t get to the actual venue, so it’s also a way for remote access to these things as well.”

Within the government’s 5G Create projects, Vista is looking at the infrastructure, backhaul and integration side of sports broadcasting, while projects such as 5G Edge-XR are looking at the exciting types of content that could run over 5G in sports broadcasting and what would be required from a network perspective to make it happen.

Adds Buchan, a key part of the Vista project is to build an ecosystem with the mobile technology industry, of network operators and device manufacturers, as without those players implementing FeMBMS, there can be no service.

He explains: “Our solutions could be a way of delivering [5G Edge-XR’s] content. It is a lot about network announcements and enabling devices. We want to build up an ecosystem because I think one of the problems at the moment with FeMBMS is that there was always a bit of a chicken and egg problem, where the networks didn’t want to implement it because there were no devices that supported it, and the device manufacturers didn’t want to enable it in their chips because there was no networks or demand to deliver it. So we’re trying to get the whole end-to-end ecosystem developed by showcasing the services that could be created as a result of it.”

Buchan goes on: “The issue has always been someone actually installing it in the network and in the chipsets, and that’s where this project is designed to unlock that impasse. Chipset vendors need to enable this functionality in some of the major devices that everyone’s got. Without a driver of a service or some uptake, they don’t want to have that kind of extra burden [in their chip sets]. This whole project is designed to meet that challenge and work with them; so through Samsung and working with chipset vendors like Qualcomm, [we can] get through that process.”

On creating the ecosystem, Buchan adds: “In the past we attended lots of [discussions] with the EBU looking at 5G for distribution and really it was a room full of broadcasters discussing it; there were no mobile network operators and no device manufacturers, so it didn’t go anywhere because there was no one to implement it, even if the broadcasters thought it was a good idea.

“This project is different because we’ve actually got a mobile network operator pushing it, and they’ve got the key to unlock the content providers because they’ve got good partnerships with sports venues and content owners to say, ‘look, we’re interested in this. We want to deliver this’. They can partner with their content providers to get it all driven at the same time. And if we’ve got these big network operators involved, then it brings in the handset manufacturers as well.”

Stages to conclusion in March 2022

The project runs until March 2022. Vista will have three key stages to its project between now and then, with Digital Catapult working on a closed demonstration for the potential use cases of the technology in its test labs this month [February 2021]. The project will then move onto a wider demonstration in mid-summer, in a venue using broadcast equipment to show how the acquisition side of live sport will integrate into the 5G technology. The final demonstration in February 2022 will involve a live event – possibly the rugby at Twickenham – with whichever broadcast partner is involved in that event showcasing the possibility of FeMBMS on devices with applications, live content and people in and outside of the stadium.

“The second demo in July is going to be about what spec is required for the camera to be able to interface with [what we’re trying to create on the backhaul and what is needed] to integrate it all together seamlessly,” notes Buchan.

The DTG is also working with the 5G Media Access Group (MAG), another members organisation spun out of the EBU. Buchan is hopeful that some of its broadcaster members will also get involved in supporting the project, along with those members of the DTG.

In conclusion, Buchan says: “One of the questions in bringing the ecosystem together is if you’re offering all these different things at a stadium where people are watching the sport, some [might say the viewers] are not going to actually watch the sport [live] and the venue owners will be disgruntled about that.

“We’re really turning that on its head and saying, well, not at all. [Viewers are] going to be able to be completely engaged and immersed in their sporting activity and really feel closer to their teams and more part of the action, personalising and tailoring experiences.”

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