Next-Gen 5G Contribution: Part 2 - MEC & The Disruptive Potential Of 5G

The migration of the core network functionality of 5G to virtualized or cloud-native infrastructure opens up new capabilities like MEC which have the potential to disrupt current approaches to remote production contribution networks.

With current remote production workflows, most of the heavy lifting of video encoding is done on site.  It takes a significant amount of processing power that is typically done using dedicated devices. Backhaul takes the streams back to the NOC or to cloud data centers or both. Subsequent transcoding either happens at the production facility or within cloud based systems. Moving data to an NOC or to a cloud data center introduces latency which must be managed. Part of the management strategy with cloud-based systems is to use data centers that are as close to the source as possible for this reason.

The introduction of VNF and CNF core architecture with 5G SA brings with it the potential to make use of some compute resource that is very close to the action. Multi Access Edge Computing or MEC is not a broadcast specific thing, it is one of the key attributes of the ongoing convergence of IT and telecoms – a truly enabling technology that makes possible much of the IoT and ‘metaverse’ style next generation technology around which there is so much media hype.

MEC is centred around a set of standards developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). According to ETSI ‘Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) offers application developers and content providers cloud-computing capabilities and an IT service environment at the edge of the [cellular] network. This environment is characterized by ultra-low latency and high bandwidth as well as real-time access to radio network information that can be leveraged by applications. MEC provides a new ecosystem and value chain. Operators can open their Radio Access Network (RAN) edge to authorized third-parties, allowing them to flexibly and rapidly deploy innovative applications and services towards mobile subscribers, enterprises and vertical segments.’

In practicality this means compute resource that is actually located at cellular network base stations and a set of standards that enables vendors to develop software that leverages it.

What does it all mean for broadcast contribution systems?
Roaming

Roaming cameras and their operators are the mainstay of ENG and are used extensively within any type of entertainment production where an untethered broadcast camera is required, eg pitch side in sports. Historically this has commonly been done with bonded cellular where two or more 4G connections are aggregated to provide the bandwidth, stream stability and redundancy required.  A single UHD camera using H.265 needs around 5 or 6 Mbps so a single 4G connection can work but a pair of 4G connections is better. Although 4G has a theoretical latency of as low as 20ms, several seconds is common. 5G NSA clearly delivers more than enough bandwidth on a single connection for a single camera (with many 5G NSA systems using a 4G connection as backup) and the reduced latency is very welcome. The benefits of 5G NSA over 4G are clear and worthwhile.

Racing

Long distance, endurance racing events like cycling, marathons, rallying etc where the action happens in challenging terrain over distances that can be thousands of miles (Tour De France 2023 was 2116 miles) presents different contribution challenges. The contribution systems must follow the action. Deploying camera bikes using bonded cellular is the currently favoured solution but, over such distances and in often mountainous regions, cellular coverage black spots are inevitable. The solution to this remains using airborne repeater systems which connect to the local cellular network and serve the connection to the bikes on the ground. Much the same as any other roaming application this is well suited to 5G SA in FR1 and will benefit from the higher bandwidth and lower latency. A 5G private network based, airborne repeater system was used for the 2023 Tour De France production. The 2023 Mountain Attack ski mountaineering production in Austria used 5G SA with cameras tethered to cell phones fitted with custom SIM’s and using 700 MHz. They used Starlink to infill 5G black spots in the exceptionally challenging terrain of the alps. In such highly mobile and challenging coverage applications, it seems unlikely that the 500m range of FR2 will be viable.

Any form of track or circuit based motorsport like F1, Nascar etc has a need to contribute feeds from specialty cameras in very fast moving vehicles. It is obviously wireless.  The required bandwidth from 2 or 3 cameras per vehicle may not be such a massive challenge but the pace of movement certainly is – it is an extraordinarily tough challenge for any wireless network. Bear in mind the cameras are not the only ‘on board systems’ that require wireless data exchange, the cars themselves and the crew comms are also in this super wireless challenge. One traditional approach is to use a private WiFi network. A wired network is deployed around the circuit to connect a dense array of WiFi transceivers. This requires significant onsite preparation and laying of a lot of network cable.

Another approach, and the one favoured by F1, is to use Cellular services. On any given race 30+ UHD cameras are all backhauled to the UK Remote Production Center using 3G. The use of 3G services rather than 4G is driven by the need for availability anywhere in the world. As telcos begin to sunset 3G around the world, a migration will be inevitable. We have no insight into whether any specific engineering team will select 4G or 5G (or an alternative approach) but the ultra-low latency of 5G SA offers a migration path that would bring with it increased bandwidth and the potential to use MEC to streamline contribution networks and backhaul in this remote production based approach.

Remote Production

Currently remote production workflows are centred around a local contribution network. All required devices are connected to it; streams, comms, control data, metadata all flow through it. It is the conduit to and from the production center and the cloud. The combination of ultra-low latency, very high bandwidth, secure, scalable, controlled private 5G networks and MEC creates an opportunity for a completely different infrastructure methodology.

Instead of deploying dedicated encoding devices and a contribution network on site, the encoders could be deployed dynamically as software within MEC resource that is leased for the duration of the event, and a 5G SA private network could completely replace the contribution network. Furthermore, the second layer of transcoding that is currently done in cloud data centers or back at the NOC could also be moved to MEC resources, reducing latency. 

The component parts of such an infrastructure exist today, but whether they have been sufficiently rolled out to make this viable for large-scale production is debatable.

Conclusion

Rolling out 5G NSA over existing 4G infrastructure has been a significant investment for the telcos but it has delivered an easy win in the sense that it achieves a significant improvement in service which consumers are willing to pay for – 5G NSA has obvious short term ROI. On average it doubles the bandwidth when compared to 4G and does significantly reduce latency. For roaming applications and airborne repeater systems, the benefits are obvious and very welcome.

By comparison, for the telcos, rolling out 5G SA in FR1 is more complex and much more expensive. There are some networks globally who have launched some 5G SA services in some locations but the vast majority have not. Many high-profile telco providers are still effectively field testing the technology and attempting to finesse their systems. One key challenge is that for this model to be applied universally the entire network needs to be able to deliver, and like so many things, replacing the entire core infrastructure for a telco is likely at best to be a gradual process. Telco industry executives have intimated to various sources that the roll out is ‘difficult’.

The deployment of 5G SA using FR2, (which is where the next significant leap in bandwidth and exceptionally low latency that is especially enticing for broadcast production becomes possible), seems unlikely to be the basis of the wider telco network in the near term. The spectrum has been licensed however and many telcos in Asia, Europe and the US have stated an intention and some degree of progress towards, deployment in highly congested (and higher ROI) areas like airports and stadia.

As ever it will fall to the more adventurous and innovative broadcast engineering teams in the industry to design, develop and test the theory that 5G could completely transform remote broadcast infrastructure and systems. The potential advantages though are clear; less equipment and people on site, shorter time to deploy on site, reduced overall system latency and a higher level of intrinsic infrastructure redundancy and scalability.  

Supported by

You might also like...

Audio For Broadcast: Cloud Based Audio

With several industry leading audio vendors demonstrating milestone product releases based on new technology at the 2024 NAB Show, the evolution of cloud-based audio took a significant step forward. In light of these developments the article below replaces previously published content…

An Introduction To Network Observability

The more complex and intricate IP networks and cloud infrastructures become, the greater the potential for unwelcome dynamics in the system, and the greater the need for rich, reliable, real-time data about performance and error rates.

2024 BEITC Update: ATSC 3.0 Broadcast Positioning Systems

Move over, WWV and GPS. New information about Broadcast Positioning Systems presented at BEITC 2024 provides insight into work on a crucial, common view OTA, highly precision, public time reference that ATSC 3.0 broadcasters can easily provide.

Designing IP Broadcast Systems: Addressing & Packet Delivery

How layer-3 and layer-2 addresses work together to deliver data link layer packets and frames across networks to improve efficiency and reduce congestion.

Next-Gen 5G Contribution: Part 1 - The Technology Of 5G

5G is a collection of standards that encompass a wide array of different use cases, across the entire spectrum of consumer and commercial users. Here we discuss the aspects of it that apply to live video contribution in broadcast production.