FutureSPORT 2019: Adding bandwidth for sports broadcasting at the 5G level

(L/R): Matt Stagg, Claire Harvey, Ian Wagdin, Heather McLean (chair), Pete Rodriguez and Tiana Trumpa

5G cellular technology has the potential to deliver video signals with similar quality and speeds as broadcast wireless links or even fibre connections, but making sure a consumer-focused telecoms industry takes heed of broadcast needs has required early engagement, as a session on ‘Adding bandwidth: Sports broadcasting at the 5G level’ at FutureSPORT 2019 revealed.

When 4G launched “it was just a flat network that provided more bandwidth,” was quicker, and allowed people to watch video, explained Matt Stagg, BT Sport, director of mobile strategy. But when 5G was envisaged, industries that saw opportunities in it got involved early on, so its very low latency (1 millisecond) was a request from car manufacturers “because of braking distance on autonomous cars.”

Media and entertainment companies were “fairly late” engaging with 5G, but there was a realisation that if they didn’t get their requirements into the standards we “would end up the same as we are with 4G”, having to share bandwidth with consumers and just be on a best-effort network, he added.

The latest version of 5G standards, release 15, does have some broadcast-relevant implementations, but is still fairly generic. Broadcast has had more involvement in release 16, but it will be release 17, in 18 months, “that we’ve had very heavy involvement in,” via the EBU and companies like NEP, said Ian Wagdin, BBC R&D, senior technology transfer manager. “We’ve got a whole bunch of specifications that we need for media to cover everything that we currently do using radio.” It is dull and boring, “but really important work” that will enable us to replace the spectrum we will lose in 3-5 years for things like radio microphones with 5G.

“I think it’s a mistake to think of 5G as just a cellular technology. There is a whole bunch of stuff that is going to come along that we will make use of.”

From the telco perspective, early co-operation with broadcasters allows them “to try out things and learn together,” and “not just putting the network out there and seeing what happens, and what different industries do with it, but really to design the network together,” said Tiana Trumpa, Deutsche Telekom, 5G product manager.

Deutsche Telekom worked on a test on the Berlin Marathon, in September, to see how its uplinks would function over the 5G network and “see how stable the connection would be” when it was competing with many other users for bandwidth, in an area with many LTE antennas that might cause interference. They wanted to see if the quality would be good enough for the OB director to use those camera angles, and indeed some did end up in the world feed.

They also wanted to experiment with user-generated content, such as YouTubers, and “learned a lot playing around with smart phones and cloud production,” she said.

Vodafone UK has also worked with some sports video-related 5G trials.

In the Isles of Scilly it set up with eight Samsung S10 phones around a football pitch, for the smallest league in the world (there are only two teams). There were also three RF broadcast cameras and a gallery in the changing rooms. Each S10 signal was sent to a mast 2km away, was collated and returned via fixed wireless access from the mast. The result was transmitted around the island with fans using Facebook to give their verdict on whether the referee got everything right. “It helped not having much 5G out there – that’s why we got the distance,” said Pete Rodriguez, Vodafone UK, 5G programme delivery, senior manager.

Vodafone also did a trial at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry during the summer, where it has 5G indoors and outdoors, with Wasps rugby club to demonstrate an interactive haptic rugby tackle suit.

The EE Wembley Cup was the first 5G live-streaming, remotely-produced sports event, with EE working with its sister company BT Sport, “which worked really well,” said Matt Stagg, BT Sport, director of mobile strategy. Then, at IBC, it did the first multi-area 5G demonstration, with presenters in various locations.

However, “we have a long way to go to have a satellite replacement or broadcast-grade network,” said Stagg. The economics of mobile networks mean that all roll-outs are driven by consumer offerings, which is why that is being launched now “is all focused on downlinks, so more people can stream in more areas. It works very well in a stadium” where 4G really struggles.

There will be various issues to overcome before 5G is suitable for broadcast. For example, “not all devices use 5G for the uplink. You sometimes have a mix of 4G and 5G.” There is also still a legacy 4G core network, he explained.

Work is also needed to guarantee quality of service, with service level agreements and network slicing (when it arrives – along with the 5G core). There will also be a cost to operators to develop a broadcast slice, with guaranteed latency for a specific area, so they need to see a return on that investment, added Stagg.

An evolving revolution

The lower latency and greater bandwidth of current 5G will be useful for remote production, but some of this can already be done on 4G LTE, said Claire Harvey, UK5G Creative Industries Working Group, Chair, and Red Bee Media, account director. Indeed, broadcasters can already experiment with this, or with AR and VR applications, with existing technology. “You can kind of get a feel, albeit in a fairly controlled environment for what’s going on,” she said. But, “you need to start thinking now about how you are going to be able to use these technologies, because they are going to come along pretty quickly once the standards are there.”

BT Sport’s Matt Stagg with Claire Harvey of the UK5G Creative Industries Working Group

“I think it’s a mistake to think of 5G as just a cellular technology. There is a whole bunch of stuff that is going to come along that we will make use of,” said Wagdin. Stand-alone private 5G networks are already being built for factories, and some industries may be allowed to have their own slice of spectrum. This could be done for sporting events, and convergence with other wired, satellite and wireless networks could mean that “everything just becomes one good network,” connecting devices together in different ways.

We are approaching an era “where we don’t care how a signal gets from point A to point B. We’re just sending ones and noughts,” and as long as they end up in the right order at the right time “then I can start to be a lot more creative about how I deploy things,” from covering marathons or the Tour de France down to a handful of cameras on a snooker match.

Trumpa admitted that 5G may be getting overhyped as revolutionary, although there are undoubtedly some “really cool technological aspects”, it will be an evolution that requires a lot of iteration in conjunction with broadcasters. “There are a lot of things we can already do, and practice and test on 4G and just add 5G to it.”

Wagdin believes that the opportunity for broadcasters will be in rolling out private networks, “in the same way that we put in mesh networks for radio cams,” or install a WiFi network. “We’re really clever with RF. We really know what we’re doing, and with access to the spectrum – whether we lease that from Ofcom or whatever – then we’ll be able to put in our own, stand-alone private networks and do things that don’t rely on the big cores.” He’s not suggesting broadcasters build their own nationwide network, but simply one covering a studio or event space.

Even so “you still have to do the spreadsheet to see if the ROI is better than carrying on doing what you’re doing,” responded Stagg. The question, for him, is still whether 5G is a viable replacement for satellite or fibre services or is it too expensive?

“We currently build big studios and big environments based on bespoke specialist technologies that are really expensive and when I can move to a world where I can almost get off-the-shelf routers and stuff like that, then that will change,” replied Wagdin.

Increasing coverage

“The policy objective for Europe is 5G coverage in large cities and along major highways by 2025, so no time soon,” pointed out session chair and SVG Europe editor, Heather McLean. “So, is what we’re looking at here, in the near and mid future, 5G as a city-based content and production contribution network rather than distribution, because you’re not going to have national networks, or is it going to be this heterogenous network?,” she asked.

Mid-band 5G lends itself to cities and highways, while the low band will offer wider-spread coverage “so people will be able to receive 5G. It probably won’t be as high a throughput, but even with a non stand-alone architecture we’re working with now it will be supplemented by 4G, so you will still have your higher throughputs in the rural areas,” explained Rodriguez.

He predicts there will be an increase from next year with operators introducing low-band 5G in rural areas.

Harvey believes the revolutionary side of 5G will be around Internet of Things and critical services, “which mean, perhaps, that we’ll become increasingly dependent on these networks and therefore it’s not a valid structure to have some areas unable to access it. It won’t be politically acceptable.”

In Nordic countries, Germany and Switzerland, there is already access to the spectrum “and we’re

Vodafone’s Pete Rodriguez and Deutsche Telekom’s Tiana Trumpa

seeing broadcasters deploy their own LTE networks in order to cover events,” pointed out Wagdin. Use cases considered by the mobile standards body 3GPP range from single camera contribution to covering the Tour de France, including building a radio area network with an aircraft as a mobile 5G hotspot taking camera and data feeds from motorbikes and bicycles.

“With any kind of connectivity you are going to improve the experience, and for us particularly, because we’re looking at distribution as well, we’re starting to think about how we can tell stories in different ways,” such as linking with AI to produce automated highlights or to output different graphics to a phone than a large TV set.

“5G is just an enabler and it’s an add-on to all the stuff we’ve been looking at with IP,” such as object-based sound and video. “As a content producer, having stuff that is IP, carrying our IP and metadata over those same signals, and then pushing that all the way out to the audience is the end game,” said Wagdin.

Harvey believes that all parts of the media and broadcast value chain will be impacted by 5G. Red Bee Media has been implementing aspects of what is possible with 5G (albeit sometimes on 4G) in its remote or “efficient production” workflows, and sees great potential for it in delivery also. “Being able to use OTT or IP networks to be able to go direct to the consumer is much more affordable and possible now than perhaps it was even a year ago.”

Trumpa is working on several projects that could put AR in to stadia or direct to consumers, to provide “more fun and exciting ways of experiencing sports” over the next few years. “We’re experimenting quite a bit with that.” While this could be possible with 4G, “it’s not scalable,” which is why she thinks 5G will be a huge enabler for this. However, it will require the right hardware and new ways of content production on top of an improved network.

Stagg finds that when he talks about AR in the stadium, it divides fans, many of whom say they wouldn’t want it, while others are used to VR and would love it. Today, the biggest use of 4G in the stadium is people videoing and streaming their view of the match. He believes that using AR and VR to see the view from other angles while at the match will appeal, and augment the experience. It could also be useful for fans trying to find their seat to get an AR view on their phone overlaying where the seat is. “There are some really good use cases,” he said.

Challenges ahead

Wagdin feels a big challenge is getting our voice heard in the industry. “We like to think we spend lots of money, but we don’t,” particularly compared to other sectors like driverless cars, railways or medicine.

“I was in a meeting last week where medical were asking for uncompressed 8K 120 frames per second, and they’ve got a real need for that.” This puts broadcaster’s request for 4K in perspective – it is coming, but might take time. However, there will be developments in other sectors that could be used in sports broadcasting. “We can do far more if we just adopt some of this consumer-grade tech from elsewhere,” he said.

“I was in a meeting last week where medical were asking for uncompressed 8K 120 frames per second, and they’ve got a real need for that” – Ian Wagdin

“From the operator perspective, just rolling out the network in general is already pretty complex – especially in Europe,” said Trumpa. In Germany it takes 18 months, on average, to get a single antenna site up and running.

“We still have to think about our legacy technologies,” 2G/3G/4G, said Rodriguez. “We’re looking at switching 3G off and re-farming those frequencies,” and there are other frequencies being released.

“There is still massive investment all operators are making in 4G,” as areas still struggle with 4G, added Stagg.

When people question the need for 5G, he points out that it will need to handle 4K and 8K to be able to replace fibre for fixed-wireless access links, and it needs to be flexible to fit in with other technologies, including WiFi and fibre as part of “a suite of technology to deliver the requirements of many industries.”

Wagdin and others from the broadcast industry, including many at the conference, have done a lot of work over the last year or so to get a dedicated set of specifications for video imaging and audio for professional applications into the standards. These will be adopted in release 17 of the 5G standard, but one of the biggest issues was getting PTP (Precision Time Protocol) timing “so we can run IP workflows and time cameras in so that multi-camera becomes a reality and our kit just looks like it is in the studio – but it’s five years away,” he said.

FutureSPORT 2019 took place on 26 November 2019 at Chelsea FC

Subscribe and Get SVG Europe Newsletters