IBC Accelerator: Pitlochry Highland Games to showcase how 5G plus Starlink LEO and 4G LTE bonding can bring remote live sports to all

Aiming to help broadcasters when live sport is remote and hard to connect, a a live showcase of the Pitlochry Highland Games will be broadcast at IBC as part of a project that aims to demonstrate the portability and flexibility of a private 5G ‘network in a box’

IBC’s 2022 Accelerator Media Innovation Programme is back in Amsterdam, and this year, a Highland Games in the heart of Scotland is at the forefront of a pioneering project trialling future television production in remote locations using 5G and involving world-leading broadcasters.

The Pitlochry Highland Games, which takes place on 10 September, will showcase a project live at IBC that aims to demonstrate the portability and flexibility of a private 5G ‘network in a box’ for live television production use cases where the location is remote and connectivity is sparse.

The technology has and is being trialled in Kenya, New Zealand, Southern Ireland, as well as Scotland, and will be showcased under the title of ‘5G Remote Production … in the middle of nowhere’ at IBC.

“Private 5G can be configured to meet the uplink data demands. Through advanced encoding, decoding and compression signal processing, low latency can also be achieved, which is critical for many live broadcast sport applications”

The private 5G standalone network being used in all four of these ‘middle of nowhere’ IBC Accelerators has been designed, engineered and integrated by Neutral Wireless, working alongside the University of Strathclyde’s Software Defined Radio engineering team (StrathSDR), which it was spun out from in 2021, and the Scotland 5G Centre rural testbed project.

The aim of the project is to trial production over 5G for broadcasters, including BBC Research & Development, BT Sport, BT Media & Broadcast, TV2, Paramount, Olympic Broadcasting Services and RTÉ.

Logistical challenges

Speaking to SVG Europe, Professor Bob Stewart, Professor of Signal Processing, University of Strathclyde, says: “Sports broadcasting has many key logistical challenges, especially when it takes place outside in the case of most sporting stadiums, and when it takes place over wide areas such as for golf, cycling, motorsport, marathons, water sports, etc.

“Affordable, rapidly deployable private 5G networks easily fit into sports broadcasting production workflows. Compared to traditional wired communications between cameras and recording and production facilities (especially for live broadcasting when the video content cannot simply be stored locally on the camera and retrieved later), private 5G offers a solution that minimises power and fibre runs. Without private 5G these cables runs often amount to kilometres of cabling for outside sporting event.”

Stewart goes on: “5G has the potential to complement or replace existing wireless camera and microphone solutions that require the application for and management of many spectrum licenses. Many cameras can be connected over the same 5G network under the single spectrum license, as well as audio equipment, monitoring equipment, communications and UEs, and data transmission and two comms for control.

“Like existing RF solutions, video can break out to SDI to land on existing broadcast equipment and follow the same production workflow as cabled cameras. The encoders and UE can be made very small and lightweight, allowing them to be mounted with small cameras on racing cars, motorbikes, or flown overhead. The true two-way data communication could be used for crew communications, as well as providing low latency telemetry data for team use or for broadcast overlays or immersive reality graphics.”

Stewart notes that audience participation in sport broadcasting is also a driver for these new technologies. He explains: “Audiences looking for more immersive experiences when watching sport, being so-called part of the action [is a driver]. This demand places heavy requirements on data throughput, volume and latency in particular. Private 5G can be configured to meet the uplink data demands. Through advanced encoding, decoding and compression signal processing, low latency can also be achieved, which is critical for many live broadcast sport applications.”

The Neutral Wireless Lomond Network-In-a-Box (NIB) being taken easily through central London in its travel case

Unassuming box

The technology from Neutral Wireless will be housed in an unassuming box with antenna at the Highland Games, situated in a corner of the balcony at the main event pavilion.

As dancers perform to bagpipes and cabers fly through the air, the Games will be provided with a dedicated bandwidth using shared spectrum, which will deliver no interference or capacity issues affecting the quality of transmission, even with the large crowds present where many visitors will be using their mobile phones and the local WiFi.

Says Dr. Cameron Speirs, chief commercial officer at Neutral Wireless: “Bob and I are co-founders of Neutral Wireless. It is a commercial spin out from Strathclyde University (where Bob is a professor). Bob and I spun-out Neutral Wireless last year. The rationale was that the university does not really have the appropriate mechanisms in place to support the increasing commercial interest in our 5G technology (or better defined as our software defined radio technology). Our private 5G solution – known as the Lomond Network-In-a-Box (NIB) – offers an innovative, affordable, and portable solution for rapidly popping up a private 5G network.

“Bob’s team at Strathclyde and our engineering team at Neutral Wireless are, for the time being, blended. We work seamlessly together, with the university team focusing on lower technology readiness R&D, and the Neutral Wireless team focusing on ‘solutioneering’, productisation and engineering support,” continues Speirs.

On the importance of this trial for sports broadcasting, Speirs comments: “5G networks are all the rage right now, but in fairness, many market verticals struggle to fully understand the business and operational impact. This is why most market verticals are exploring the potential of 5G at the proof-of-concept stage.

“Media broadcast – including sport broadcasting – places its own challenges on a 5G network. The two main challenges are (i) ensuring the communications network is biased towards data uplinks and (ii) have very low latency from glass to glass.

“The biasing is interesting, because conventional mobile network operator-derived 5G networks are typically biased to download applications (for rapid downloading of web or cloud content rather than uploading data),” continues Speirs. “This is the wrong way around for media production. Our private 5G solution can be configured to meet the data needs of the broadcast industry, and this is why it is causing so much interest in the market. BT Media & Broadcast, via their Project Shogun – Premier Rugby Match – is a good example. The 5G network deployed was our Lomond NIB. We have also previously supported our broadcast industry colleagues with a world first for private 5G in MotoGP in August 2021.”

Matt Stagg, BT Sport, comments: “We have been trailing 5G with public and private infrastructure so brought a lot of knowledge to the IBC Accelerator. One of the main advantages of 5G is enabling lower tier events to affordable broadcast content and we support that even if we do not have the rights ourselves.

“The main challenges of private 5G networks is the backhaul,” adds Stagg. “You can film all the content with great 5G coverage but it needs to get back to the production hub or cloud, this is obviously a huge challenge in places like Pitlochry. For me this was the most interesting part of the project, because we really pushed bleeding edge technology by using a combination of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites bonding to EE”s 4G network to maximise the amount of bandwidth we could get. This is a real revelation, especially for sports that tend to not get much coverage, as it’s a portable solution that can be taken to anywhere.”

The Pitlochry Highland Games IBC Accelerator is all about making 5G easy

To the stars and back

The network technologies being trailed at Pitlochry are 5G, Starlink LEO and 4G LTE bonding.

On the private 5G Standalone Radio Access Network, it will be operating in the OfCom Shared Spectrum Band (upper) n77 (3.8GHz to 4.2GHz). Says Stewart: “The media broadcast market and the use case being explored relies on biasing the network towards uplink communication (from camera to user). Private 5G enables this biasing to be configured and controlled by the communications engineers (Neutral Wireless) to meet these demands. The ‘private’ nature of the resulting network means that access to the network is strictly controlled, and this mitigates the contention that would otherwise be experienced on a public network when, for example, hundreds or thousands of spectators try to simultaneously access the internet via their mobile devices. This latter point gives media broadcasters assurance over network resilience and control over the quality of service for ‘their’ private network.”

Also, Starlink LEO satellite communication is being trialled to provide backhaul between the 5G network and the wider world, in this case to the broadcaster’s production facilities either on the cloud or at their studios. Stewart notes: “The POC successfully used Starlink in the Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland trials.”

Additionally, Starlink and 4G LTE bonding is also being trialled both to increase uplink capacity and for resiliency for Starlink terminals (for example if in a specific location there was a reattach event to a rising satellite).

Other companies involved in the Pitlochry Highland Games trial are: Scottish technical specialist and outside broadcasting company QTV; Zixi, specialist in broadcast quality video over IP, which will be offering its streaming protocol to transport the encoded video streams from the encoders over the 5G network, and then to the cloud over bonded Starlink and 4G LTE backhaul for distribution; Net Insight, specialist in media delivery and distribution, which will be offering its Nimbra platform to receive and distribute the programme feed to anywhere in the world, including the Accelerator Stand at IBC; Open Broadcast Systems, which provides end-to-end encoding and decoding software to deliver broadcast quality low latency video over IP, and which will be supplying the same for the POC to enable the streaming of high-bitrate, low latency video over the 5G network using the Zixi protocol.

Says Stewart on the workflow being used at the Games: “There will be three mobile cameras as well as one static location camera (still connected via 5G,) with the aim of two following the action and the third filming the other two wireless cameras so that viewers at IBC can see how it is being filmed. The fourth static camera will provide an elevated overview of the field from the pavilion. We are working with full HD at 50 frames per second (1080p50) connected by SDI to the encoders.

“The Zixi protocol provides real time statistics on the video and network performance, which will allow us to demonstrate the robustness and latency of our 5G private network solution,” Stewart continues. “Given the remote location, the functionality to bond multiple backhaul sources using Zixi will help with throughput and resiliency.

“The 5G camera sources will break out to SDI on Neutral Wireless’ mobile production vehicle, where they will be mixed on site by a QTV engineer to produce the programme feed.”

Have NIB in suitcase, ready to go

Global success

In August, the other three trials took place. In Southern Ireland the Neutral Wireless 5G NIB enabled broadcasting of the large traditional music festival, Fleadh Cheoil, in Mullingar. This POC was being demonstrated in conjunction with Irish national television broadcaster RTÉ. Video content and multiple feeds from the festival location were backhauled via Starlink LEO satellite link to land in RTÉ studios in Dublin for live post production.

In Kenya, the same technology was used to enable video content production for Youtube streaming and distribution and with an emphasis on youth audiences and conservation. Backhaul provision was via fibre and was live from Ol Pejeta Conservancy on the Equator. Neutral Wireless and StrathSDR engineers travelled to Kenya with the NIB as oversized luggage on a commercial flight, and travelled by Land Rover with hosting and production caried out by with Whatsgoodstudios.

Finally in New Zealand the NIB was used to showcase a traditional Māori event. This POC was being demonstrated in conjunction with the Interim Māori Spectrum Commission (IMSC) and Māori national television broadcaster, Whakaata Māori (MaoriTV). Working alongside IMSC engineers, Neutral Wireless supported the build and rural deployment of the NIB in a rural location north of Hamilton in the North Island. Video content from the event location was backhauled via Starlink satellite link to Whakaata Māori studios in Auckland for live media post production.

Says Mark Smith, who heads the Accelerator Programme for IBC: “This Accelerator – led by the outstanding team at Strathclyde University – forged some real world-firsts in the workflow and architectures of the various use cases, such as exploiting LEO for backhaul, particularly in Ireland and in New Zealand. These were also world firsts for the use of 5G in remote production in Africa and New Zealand.”

The Final Showcase Session for ‘5G Remote Production … in the middle of nowhere’ will be taking place at IBC on 10 September, 13:30 to 14:15 on the Innovation Stage, Hall 2

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