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EBU Calls for Broadcasters to Get Engaged with Mobile Convergence

Broadcasters around the world need to engage with mobile standardization efforts around the 5G banner to ensure their interests are represented in emerging technologies for converged networks combining fixed broadband with Wi-Fi and cellular transmission. This was a key takeaway from the annual EBU (European Broadcasting Union) state of the industry conference called Forecast, held at its Geneva headquarters late November 2016.

Delegates heard how the EU (European Union) was developing an action plan for the forthcoming 5G mobile standards which will embrace video to a greater extent than ever before. It was vital therefore for broadcasters to take full part in the 5G discussions and ensure their services can make a smooth transition to future hybrid and ultimately IP-only transmission. At the same time a strong case was made for the continuing importance and relevance of satellite and digital terrestrial delivery for the foreseeable future, certainly through the medium term up to 10 or 15 years ahead.

This represents a shift in emphasis for broadcasters, which until quite recently were fighting a rear-guard action to defend their long held terrestrial spectrum against the advance from mobile. On the one hand broadcasters have lost ground by conceding firstly the 800 MHz band (790-862 MHz) in most regions around 2009 in what was often called the first digital dividend from digital switchover, followed by the 700 MHz band (694 – 790 MHz) most recently, leaving just the lower sub 700 MHz band (470 – 694 MHz). Even the latter may only be a temporary reprieve following the decision at the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2015 to leave that band exclusively for terrestrial TV services in ITU Region 1, which covers Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, until 2023.

On the other side of the equation though video consumption from mobile devices has exploded, putting pressure on mobile operators to make their networks more efficient, with reduced latency. This is creating a shared interest for both broadcasters and mobile operators to develop a coherent approach to future converged networks that meet the needs of all services. The message from the EBU’s Forecast was that broadcasters have been slow to step up to the plate here and have allowed mobile operators to dictate the terms of the debate so far.

There is still time for them to get involved in 5G though since the standards are still fluid while the process has opened up to more parties than was the case for 4G and early generations. It is becoming a broader constituency representing the whole Telco and increasingly entertainment arena.

ETSI, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, is one body that has become more deeply involved in mobile standardization for 5G, via the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project). As the name suggests 3GPP was set up initially to coordinate development of 3G standards around 15 years ago, but the scope has since been enlarged to embrace future versions and enlarging scope of mobile communications, including video, under the banner of LTE (Long Term Evolution). LTE is an umbrella programme spanning emerging and future mobile standards, aiming towards ever higher bit rates, lower latency and greater spectral efficiency to reduce costs and meet escalating capacity demands.

Cath Westcott, the BBC’s Communications Regulation Specialist, moderated a panel on adaption to changing consumer behavior at Forecast.

Cath Westcott, the BBC’s Communications Regulation Specialist, moderated a panel on adaption to changing consumer behavior at Forecast.

ETSI was set up as a body dedicated to traditional fixed telephony standardization in Europe with a reputation for technical competence, very much a follower rather than innovator. But over the last few years, according to Caroline Gabriel, Research Director and Co-Founder, Rethink Technology Research, ETSI has transformed itself “from a sleepy organization to a genuine trailblazer in defining new network architectures.”

As Gabriel pointed out, ETSI’s NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) project has created a widely-accepted basis for carrier-grade virtualization and accelerated adoption to a surprising degree. “Also, its related MEC (Mobile Edge Computing) initiative is a key element in harnessing the convergence of telecoms and IT.”

Gabriel highlighted ETSI’s Mobile and Broadcast Convergence Industry Specification Group, the (MBC ISG) as another beacon of innovation. MBC ISG held its first meeting in June 2016, with a remit to ensure that wireless and wireline access networks evolve in parallel so that they reach their full potential and are aligned with the needs of video. The group is concerned that if the overall architecture is not in line with the 5G RAN (Radio Access Network) core, the performance improvements envisaged for 5G services will be at least severely mitigated for video.

ETSI is taking account of increased realization among mobile operators of the need to have broad provisions for “one-to-many” transmission of video, including traditional multicast or broadcast. A number of operators have been testing LTE Broadcast but there are other approaches involving distributed caching that enable one-to-many transmission across multiple infrastructures, including both fixed line backhaul and the RAN.

This is still work in progress and current technologies such as LTE Broadcast can be seen as interim steps. Among innovative proposals under development and discussed at the EBU’s Forecast is a concept for digital terrestrial TV called WiB (WideBand Reuse-1), from Swedish state owned DTT distributor Teracom. WiB could transmit a country’s DTT service set as a single wideband signal embracing the whole UHF band from 300 MHz to 3 GHz, but allowing separation between adjacent transmitter sites through directional variation of receiving antennae and interference cancellation.

This brings two big potential advantages. Firstly, the approach is much more efficient, reducing power consumption significantly while increasing capacity by 37-60% for a given spectral coverage as a result of the frequency reuse, according to Teracom. Secondly and most significantly, it would provide a platform for TV/mobile convergence, because it would embrace both DTT and cellular frequencies.

High speed mobile reception as well as granular local services would be supported, without loss of capacity. The project includes more exotic technologies such as cross polar Multiple in Multiple Out (MIMO) and Layer Division Multiplexing (LDM) layer within the same spectrum to boost capacity further, either for mobile broadcast or broadband. Cross polar MIMO involves two or three transmitting radio waves oscillating at right angles so that each can carry separate information. Then LDM exploits the ability to modulate data to different power levels or ways of coding channels to carry more information in a given spectral band.

Both these techniques hold promise and are likely to be incorporated in 5G or successors as part of the LTE movement. The message for broadcasters now is that such developments are highly relevant for their futures and they should get involved if they are not already. This is not just because they face competition from emerging content providers but that consumer habits are changing, as was acknowledged at the Forecast event in a panel moderated by the BBC’s Communications Regulation Specialist Cath Westcott. The conclusion was that the way forward lay with complementary platforms combining broadcast techniques with mobile and fixed broadband delivery. 

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