5G Broadcast Positioned As Revenue Winner For Telcos At Mobile World Congress 2023

Mobile World Congress (MWC) has become an increasingly relevant show for broadcasters and video service providers as more and more viewing takes place on smart phones, tablets and laptops, and as 5G networks becomes capable of delivering HD and even Ultra HD quality. This was truer than ever at the recent MWC 2023 in Barcelona, which was almost back to pre-pandemic levels of attendance, 88,000 against the record 109,000 in 2019.

While, unlike NAB, IBC or even CES (Consumer Electronics Show), MWC does not feature demonstrations of the latest TVs or technologies specific to video such as encoding, there was plenty of discussion relevant for streaming generally and not just mobile. Netflix was there not to present its services but to argue the case against imposition of streaming taxes to compensate telcos for the bandwidth consumed on their network by the content. This has been a hot potato for some years now that shows little sign of cooling down, with Netflix determined to keep the fire burning at MWC.

Greg Peters, who has joined Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings as co-CEO, presented at the MWC headline keynote and took this opportunity to take the fight to the many telcos present. He outlined his strong opposition to taxing streaming services for the additional demand they generate for ISPs, as has been proposed by the European Commission, which is now seeking public comments on the matter across the EU.

“A tax like that could have a significant adverse effect,” said Peters. “It would reduce investment in content, which hurts local creative communities.”

He went on to argue that the broadband customers driving this increased usage already pay for the development of ISP networks through their subscription fees, which is where the investment in capacity should come from. “That’s the service they’re buying when they sign up for an ISP. Requiring entertainment companies, both streamers and broadcasters, to pay more on top of that would mean ISPs effectively are charging twice for the same infrastructure.”

Peters even turned the argument on its head with the perhaps tongue in cheek suggestion that telcos should instead be the ones paying for the privilege of delivering the streaming content that attracts consumers to their services.

“Netflix’s operating margins are much lower than British Telecom or Deutsche Telekom. Se we could just as easily argue that network operators should pay entertainment companies to help with the cost of our content, which is of course exactly what happened under the old pay TV model, but we are not asking for that.”

Peters then pointed to the efforts Netflix had made to reduce the bandwidth toll of its content, halving the bitrate required for a given quality of content between 2015 and 2020. This was the result of improved encoding technology across the streaming industry generally.

Nonetheless, streaming content has become a problem for many mobile operators because of its proliferation over the last few years and the fact it is still delivered almost entirely unicast end to end. This means that each viewer consumes the same cumulative resources within the Radio Access Network (RAN), operator core network, and the transport network or backhaul inter connecting the two. For this reason there has been rising interest in 5G broadcast/multicast, which has been brewing for several years as The Broadcast Bridge has covered before.

Lenovo unveiled a laptop with an extendable screen ideal for viewing video on the move at MWC 2023.

Lenovo unveiled a laptop with an extendable screen ideal for viewing video on the move at MWC 2023.

The history of mobile broadcast is a chequered one with many false dawns dating back almost 20 years, but is now coming because, with 5G combined with handsets capable of displaying high resolution content, it can now provide a compelling viewing experience, even on quite large screens. This in turn is stimulating demand, and the higher bit rates enabled by 5G are in some respects bringing matters to a head by requiring correspondingly more capacity in the backhaul and core, while also sometimes causing congestion in the RAN at times of high demand.

Mobile broadcast/multicast would alleviate the problem by ensuring that popular linear content delivered at a given time could be pruned to single transmissions down the line. In broadcast mode, content would still be transmitted to all cells, but this could be done over an overlay network using High Power High Tower (HPHT) infrastructure, which The Broadcast Bridge has also covered before.

In multicast mode, a stream would be delivered only to cells within which at least one user had elected to join the session, but at the radio level would then be unicast to each device.

It was clear at MWC 2023 that 5G Broadcast was gaining traction, partly because it was also ideal for a number of other services that required multiple transmissions of the same content at a given time. German test and measurement company Rohde & Schwarz (R&S) led a live demonstration of 5G Broadcast for a range of applications that often still involved transmission of video, including in-car delivery, and localized services. The pitch was that these applications could generate those elusive new revenues for mobile operators and help recoup their investments in 5G infrastructure.

Delegates at IBC 2022 last September may recall a similar demonstration from R&S and partners. Now there is the added ingredient of critical or emergency services, with 5G Broadcast being ideally placed for delivering over the air warnings that would be received by all mobile handsets and therefore most people these days.

This completely turns round the old nostrum that mobile phones should not be relied on for emergency services or calling because of the intermittent service coverage. Now they are coming to the centre of the emergency stage.

Another development at MWC 2023 plays into this trend, as well as fulfilling demand for ubiquitous access to other services, including video. This is convergence between terrestrial cellular and satellite connectivity, with HAPS (High Altitude Platform Stations) offering an intermediate layer.

The most notable announcement on this front at MWC 2023 came from Germany’s biggest telco and former incumbent Deutsche Telekom (DT), with an agreement to work with the European Space Agency (ESA) to fill in gaps in terrestrial network coverage from the sky, whether with HAPS or satellite, or both. The two agreed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to work together on this front, citing disaster response as a major application with the recent devastating Turkish earthquake in mind.

In such cases terrestrial mobile networks are sometimes knocked out altogether, leaving satellite or HAPS as the only available medium. Until now though such connectivity has not always been widely available in disaster zones.

DT and the ESA also presented maritime broadband as a key use case for integrated networks, with video delivery very much in mind. In this case satellite or HAPS would fill in when vessels sail beyond reach of terrestrial mobile networks, as they would much of the time while in open waters.

There was also interest at MWC 2023 in the role of network slicing for delivering video at high QoS sufficient for Ultra HD. This is more of a challenge for larger viewing devices such as laptops, for which a higher bit rate is required for a given resolution. While network slicing was not as prominent at MWC 2023 as some of its advocates would have liked, partly because of its daunting complexity in implementation, there was a demonstration of its use on laptops for enabling high quality video delivery.

Network slicing involves partitioning a single physical mobile network into multiple virtual networks that are insulated from each other by software to ensure security and enable an operator to offer different levels of QoS across each. At MWC 2023, Swedish mobile infrastructure vendor Ericsson demonstrated how a network slice could protect high definition video from congestion with guaranteed QoS, even when other slices over the same infrastructure were bogged down with traffic.

The key development here was the ability to enable access to multiple slices from the user device, in this case a laptop. This was achieved using the cellular standard User Equipment Route Selection Policy (URSP), which allows different slices to be selected automatically by the user’s application according to its needs.

Other video interest at MWC 2023 revolved around innovations in devices themselves that improved the viewing experience in some way. Chinese telco equipment vendor ZTE showed a new way of viewing content through its Nubia Neovision Glass, which resembles large reflecting sunglasses, presenting a high pixel density display right in front of each eye. The aim was to simulate a 120-inch display at a distance of 4 meters. This heralds a likely spate of such products over the coming year.

Another stand out was an expandable laptop from China’s Lenovo, again with video in mind. The company revealed a laptop whose screen can be extended upwards by an internal motor to enable different aspect ratios, as well as larger overall screen area. The company showed how this can improve the experience of viewing content from popular apps such as You Tube by tailoring the aspect ratio.

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