5G is being rolled out to all 32 NFL stadia.
This year’s Super Bowl will be the first to offer 5G connectivity to fans in the stadia – but 5G contribution is a little way off.
The ability to use 5G during major sporting events such as the Super Bowl is important because data usage is astronomical. During last year’s Super Bowl, there were 24.05 terabytes of data transferred over the Wi-Fi network inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, with 9.99 TB used pre-game, 11.11 TB during the game, and 2.95 TB post-game, according to Extreme Networks.
“I think 5G will revolutionise what we can do in our stadiums with the edge computing and the speed and connectivity that it brings,” Michelle McKenna, chief information officer of the NFL said at the CES. “It will allow you to immerse yourself in the game in a different way.”
Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, which will host Super Bowl LIV, is one of 16 NFL stadia where Verizon is offering its 5G Ultra Wideband service. Ultimately it will be rolled out to all 32 NFL clubs. McKenna gave some potential content examples, saying that fans may be able to hold their phones up to the field and see integrated content from stats to names of players to, potentially, the yellow 1st and Ten line integrated on the field.
She also noted that, while fully understanding that the industry still has a way to go in terms of 5G devices in fans’ hands, the league wants to be proactive in this initiative.
“Even though there’s not that many devices in the marketplace, we want to be ahead of the devices. We don’t want to be trying to install after everybody has a device. I think 5G will revolutionise the in-stadium fan experience for everything from food and beverage to ticketing, to ingress and egress and your in-seat experience.”
Verizon’s Service will be concentrated in parts of the seating areas but could eventually be available in other locations in and around the stadium as well. When customers with 5G enabled smartphones move outside Verizon's 5G Ultra Wideband coverage area, the 5G-enabled devices will transition the signal to Verizon's 4G network.
McKenna also stressed the importance of the right sponsors as key to a successful technology deployment. “The way we do amazing things is with great sponsors like Microsoft, Verizon, and AWS. We find a problem that needs to be solved and find a sponsor to make that happen. For example, Wi-Fi in stadiums. We had to convince owners how important it was and we had to find a partner that could help us. We partnered with Verizon and Extreme Networks, and they went to every stadium.”
McKenna noted that the league is trying to take more calculated risks in terms of technology over the next five years but also wants to remain committed to the purity of competition in the game.
“Technology is the enabler,” she said, “but it really should be frictionless, seamless, and almost invisible. It shouldn’t be about the technology; it should be about the experience. When you get technology right, that’s what happens.”
“Every company is a tech company now, and you can’t leave it until the end. Tech should be in the beginning of everything now not last in the chain.”
The NFL is not the first to use 5G in the US at a sports event to enhance the fan experience. Last July, the NBA generated plenty of buzz when the league broadcast an entire NBA Summer League game using smartphone cameras streaming on a 5G infrastructure.
In December, Swedish esports-production company DreamHack and AT&T made the first 5G-enabled live coverage of an esports event in North America. The DreamHack Open CS:GO tournament was live-streamed using 5G workflows. The production included a camera operator able to freely move about the competition and feed content to the live stream via 5G wireless network technology provided by AT&T.
Shiz Suzuki, assistant VP, sponsorships and experiential marketing, AT&T Communications, said, “Through our relationships across the gaming and esports ecosystem, we’re able to show how 5G will eventually enable content creators to capture higher-quality live-streaming video at a faster rate, get it to the end user more quickly, and create new fan and event experiences.
Not utilising 5G connectivity is the host broadcast of the event. Even though remote at-home production will be facilitated by the emergence of 5G. That’s despite bonded cellular transmission packs from the likes of LiveU shipping now with integrated 5G modems.
5G technology will help replace costly onsite broadcast facilities with a lighter footprint in terms of equipment and personnel. Sports is a primary application where live pictures from pitchside cameras can be contributed over 5G to a studio hub more cheaply than using satellite.
Some are even predicting the death of satellite, Wi-Fi and even LAN. For video contribution from the camera, 5G will open new possibilities even for tier 1 sports with 4K that traditionally would rely on satellite and fibre. Currently live streaming 4K video over 4G connection is near on impossible in terms of a reliable throughput, even with multiple bonded 4G connections. The available bandwidth required for 4K just cannot be guaranteed for 4G over a public network, especially if there is contention such as in a stadium with thousands of people. 5G is predicted to give bit rates of between 50MB/sec to over a gigabit/sec. Even at the lower end, that would be enough for a reliable 4K stream.
The next issue is latency, which typical H.265 encoders using 4G connections can rarely get below a second between the camera and the production centre. 5G is promising average latencies of 10ms, which even with extra encoding and decoding of video will give latencies well below of what they are now.
So, will this open the door to alternative cheaper technology such as a simple router with a 5G SIM to connect an IP camera and just live stream? There are many facets to emote live production that still need to be considered.
“Would an enterprise broadcaster always want to rely on a single 5G connection?” asks Michel Bais, MobileViewpoint’s Managing Director. “No, they will want resilience and the ability to support multiple 5G connections.
“Does a mobile news team only want to live stream? No, as well as live streaming, it is also important to collect clips for the news bulletin so it is a requirement that they can send raw video files over the cellular network in their full original quality.”
But more than that, they want the ability to use a file naming convention that can be utilized to automatically ingest video files into a news MAM or a production asset management system such as Avid’s Interplay.
“The point is open integration into an existing media workflow is a vital part of any news or sports ingest platform,” says Bais. “But 5G gives the benefit of much quicker file upload and the ability to consider 4K and even 8K files for remote transfer.”
Finally, any discussion on sports technology would be short sighted if it was not to mention the use of AI technology within the broadcast industry. With smart cameras installed above the field of play, AI technology can follow the action automatically, even zooming in and out of the action where necessary.
“AI coupled with 5G can deliver a cost effective 4K immersive experience that can be enjoyed live, or after the event AI can be utilized to create a highlight package of the game and pushed to any social media platform of choice,” says Bais.
There is no doubt that once 5G is universally deployed it will be used as a major communication channel for live video contribution. Given its price point, speed, low latency and its universal availability, it will commoditize the whole video live streaming world. This in turn will open up new opportunities and of course 8K formats once they inevitably become popular from cameras to smartphones, will open up a whole new world of video immersion. The technology will be there, but of course we hope the content and creativity will live up to expectation as well.
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