The Experimental Private 5G Network-in-a-Box

New ‘Private 5G In A Box’ technology coupled with low orbit satellites has huge potential for high bandwidth contribution in remote areas.

An IBC Accelerator report titled “5G Remote Production (In the Middle of Nowhere)” got my attention. I live in the Missouri boondocks and have issues using 4G LTE for production and backhaul. How does 5G for video production work with little if any infrastructure in the middle of Kenya, New Zealand, or Ireland? Answer? They brought their own private 5G network in the trunk of a van.

IBC’s Mark Smith began the session by explaining that IBC Accelerators are about hands-on learning, learning by doing, and experimenting. It’s not about white papers or presentations. “That's the end part, he said. “The key part is learning by doing, and everybody working together learns about what can go wrong. They also learn how to fix some of these solutions, and how they can develop new technology for the future.”

Smith said the first stage of 5G Accelerators was in 2020 about what and how they might do on the public mobile network. The last two years they have been working with both large manufacturers and an amazing solution that's been developed by University of Strathclyde, which is a private 5G network in a box.

Panelists were Malcolm Brew, Senior Research Fellow in Electronic Engineering from the University of Strathclyde (where the network in a box concept was developed,) and acknowledged as the brains behind 5G in a box; Purminder Gandhu, Technology Transfer & Partnerships Manager at the BBC, interested in low earth orbit (LEO) satellites; Matt Stagg, Mobile Strategy Director at BT Sport; and Cameron Speirs, PhD MSc BEng CEng FIET SnrMIEEE, Chief Commercial Officer for Neutral Wireless, who was said to be responsible for what's next.

BT Sports

Matt Stagg with BT Sport said, "We were very early adopters of 5G mainly because we had a lot of access to pre-standards because we were part of BT Group, and they are the UK's biggest 5G provider. We realized we weren't going to be able to develop an interest for our productions to use a network that everybody else shares." The problem is exasperated in crowded stadiums. "There was talk of network-slicing, where you could take a slice of a band and give it to a carrier like BT, but it didn't make commercial sense. We needed to move on. In terms of the defined network, we wanted an uplink, and someone to sign off on a 5G Service Level Agreement (SLA)."

BT Sport’s Stagg continued, "In the UK, the operators freed up some spectrum. 5G cameras are perfect for not just your lack of rigging time, but it gives directors creative freedom of movement. We experimented at the Moto GP behind the scenes trials. Then they did a full sports production, with the 5G in a box and access straight out of the truck into the cloud for cloud-based production.

Malcolm Brew from the University of Strathclyde said, “We first started to work with the BBC in 2009-2010 with the idea of shared spectrum, and we did that again with BT. We built the UK's first private TV white space networks. If you want to build a private 5G network, you first must have access to spectrum. It’s been 12 years in the making. Two years ago the 3.8-4.2 GHz spectrum was opened in the UK. Ofcom (UK's communications regulator) won't allow a public operator to deploy in this spectrum. Without public devices, 400 MHz of continuous clear spectrum is available.

The heart of the private 5G system is the Neutral Wireless Lomond 5G Network in a Box (NIB).  Courtesy Lomond.

The heart of the private 5G system is the Neutral Wireless Lomond 5G Network in a Box (NIB). Courtesy Lomond.

The Magic Solution

The NIB delivers a fully portable 5G base station, with Release 16 aligned Virtual Broadband Base Unit (vBBU) software stack. It also contains a mini-5GC for subscriber management and local data breakout. Its computer platform is AMD Ryzen 9, with 16 GB RAM, 120 GB SSD, CPRI PCIe card, optional 10G network cards and Linux OS preconfigured with 5G vRAN and 5GC software.

The Lomond NIB is portable and burns little power. Neutral Wireless’ Cameron Speirs said the private 5G closed-network system allows the user to control who can use the band. The system also uses software defined radios (SDR) for control because privately available spectrum bands vary from country to country.

Backhaul

Regarding backhaul, Matt Stagg said, "We'll get whatever we can. That's a good thing that with encoders now, we've been bonding 4G for many years because bandwidth is a problem with any contended network. Once we've set up the private 5G network, we've got to get the signal back to the client or a master control room."

That's when Stagg said the group realized they needed to use this IBC Accelerator to start trying some new things that have come. He said, "If we had fiber, we would use that because it works perfectly, and most stadiums have it. Or we could use satellites. We used a bonded 4G signal to uplink using Starlink LEO satellites to get that amount of bandwidth. If you need to, you can do some mixing on site so you're not uplinking every frame of every camera feed over the backhaul."

Field Tests

Field testing was done at three locations in August 2022: The middle of a conservation area in Kenya, at a remote school in New Zealand, a music festival in southern Ireland and later, live from Scotland for the November IBC Accelerator presentation.

Cameron Speirs noted that "In the middle of nowhere has different meaning in different contexts." The setup in Ireland was in a town, but the local infrastructure to support a media broadcast simply wasn't there to connect to." Speirs said, "We chose these locations because we felt they demonstrated slightly different use cases for each one." The group was looking to develop a blueprint for this type of extreme remote production that can be replicated at similar remote locations. A blueprint would make it possible for extreme remote productions to deploy as soon as possible because of its commonality.

Malcolm Brew reminded the group that "One of our challenges was to rapidly deploy. The goal we set in April was to deploy our 5G network in 30 minutes. Out of the four places we've popped the network up we've leaned we can bring up a non-public network (NPN) in under 5 minutes. The Network in a Box is in a 5RU flight case weighing 32 kg (71 lbs), that draws 200 watts. It can be powered from a DC to AC inverter in the back of a car." A similar case can hold an optional companion antenna and tripod

The 5G NIB fit in the back of an RTE van in Ireland and ran on inverter power. Courtesy IBC.

The 5G NIB fit in the back of an RTE van in Ireland and ran on inverter power. Courtesy IBC.

At each location the test teams needed to get spectrum permission from various local regulators.

LEO Backhauls

BBC’s Purminder Gandhu reported, "When it became obvious that LEOs were going to be a solution that broadcasters could deploy, new standards were being designed by 3GPP about non-terrestrial architecture within 5G standards." She said, "Some enthusiastic engineers at BBC and our friends at TV2 in Denmark got their hands on a Starlink dish and started running some testing. As the testing was going on it became obvious this was something we should definitely think about incorporating in the Accelerator"

She continued, "When we started our testing a little over a year ago, not many people had a Starlink terminal. Access and speed was fantastic. What we've noticed since then is that as certain sites get more congested with subscriptions, there's less." Presently more than 1,500 Starlink satellites are in orbit. Musk is planning on a total of 42,000. In the meantime Starlink is moving satellites, particularly on the edge of geographic coverage, as it builds its worldwide coverage model. Whether Musk’s model can keep up with an increasing number of subscribers bandwidth demands for streaming video services such as YouTube TV, remains to be seen.

There is a Starlink business subscription that uses two antennas for two satellites that costs about $500/month. When the BBC started experimenting with Starlink, there was only a fixed location single antenna subscription. The nomadic subscription was later introduced primarily for RVs and a maritime subscription is available for ocean use. Malcolm Brew invented a two antenna bonded 4G LTE system before Starlink.

Matt Stagg suggested, "To those operating a satellite network or a mobile network, we are a niche industry for someone like Starlink to engage with. However, we need to step back and look at our requirements. We need guaranteed QoE and guaranteed bandwidth. We're not the only vertical market that needs that. So does education, medical imaging and other big data systems moving lots of bits.

Brew added, “Wireless cameras, microphones, or anything that runs on UDP or TCP/IP can be deployed on 5G. The flight case is the base station. Base station output can be split with a Controlled User Plane Separation. Once we're on satellite, we can be blended into the cloud or received in Master Control.”

Malcolm Brew said,

Malcolm Brew said, "The Ireland production used one bonded stream to a single Starlink satellite. We streamed all our pictures to a master control room in Dublin."

On Location

“In Ireland,” Brew said, "the whole system was powered up in the back of a Volkswagon van. When using a NPN for broadcast, it's all about the uplink. We have to use high-gain sensor antennas to receive a weak 23 dBm 5G signal. We measure the power of the cameras in milliwatts. That's why we use large antennas to receive the uplink signals.

“In New Zealand,” Cameron reported, "We were working with the interim Maori Spectrum Commission for the last year and they have a 50 MHz channel at about 3.75 GHz which has been secured by them for our test and evaluation purposes. The Maori have secured the rights to 20% of all future commercial RF spectrum in New Zealand for nothing, zero cost." The local Maori TV people helped produce the production.

Brew used a local Kenyan production company who had never seen 5G before. “They took to it like fish to water,” Brew said.

Brew used a local Kenyan production company who had never seen 5G before. “They took to it like fish to water,” Brew said.

In Kenya, the crew was able to microwave from the field location to a terrestrial fiber connected to the Kenyan internet exchange. Everything was solar powered.

Brew explained that the group was given a license by the Kenyan Communications Authority to run in two different bands. One was at 3.9GHz, the other was Channel 28 in the TV UHF spectrum. On the UHF Channel 28 frequency, Brew reported "You can be 20km away with a wireless camera and connect to the base station." Maybe not in every country, but it's a good start. Private 5G may be the Rosetta Stone for TV broadcasters and people who want to stream live sports events.

All images courtesy of IBC. 

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