5G connectivity is key to tomorrow's consumer technology. It's role for broadcast remains less clear. Image: Intel
The hype and discussion about next generation telecom systems - most notably 5G - has hit the mainstream, partly because of the promise of faster and more widespread mobile broadband services for smartphones and other devices. It is also something that is being debated seriously in broadcast circles as a possible alternative - if not replacement - for digital terrestrial transmission in both radio and television, as well as cable and satellite.
This year's IBC conference programme features two sessions that will look at the possibilities for connectivity to multi-play devices offered by 5G (fifth generation) technology and whether that promise will be fulfilled in the near future. These presentations follow other events, including the 2017 Radio TechCon and the recent Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) Global Summit, where broadcasters and broadcast regulators began to look at the viability of mobile technologies for both contribution links and distribution.
Much of the debate is being driven by the continuing reallocation of frequency spectrum in favour of telecom groups and new media developers. The 800MHz band and other key segments have already been cleared of broadcast users, including the PMSE (programme makers and special events) community that relies on radio microphone, wireless camera and in-ear monitoring (IEM) equipment, for new 4G services. Also known as LTE (long-term evolution), 4G has brought faster speeds for streaming video to smartphones and tablets.
This has reinforced the case put forward by the mobile lobby - and some regulators, including Ofcom in the UK - that these technologies are now fast and reliable enough to support the transmission of radio and TV programming. This view was not shared by those actually involved in broadcasting and its transmission processes. At the 2013 TechCon, an annual technology-based conference for the UK radio industry, the then head of BBC Distribution, which deliver the Corporation's radio and TV services, observed that the cost of transmitting top-rated programmes - such as the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show - would be prohibitive for both the broadcaster and the consumer.
Full roll-out of 5G solutions will not happen until at least 2020, say many experts. The cellphone companies will be the first to take advantage of the millimeter wavelengths, but other applications will quickly follow. Image: Rysavy. Click to enlarge.
The most recent TechCon, held during November last year, showed that while there hadn't been a complete reversal of such views, broadcast engineers were at least starting to look more deeply into what 5G could do in terms of radio and TV distribution. The decision by the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) 2015 agreeing to the clearance of the 700MHz band, a process that will begin in 2020 in many countries including the UK, was a key factor in the change of position.
This will give telecom companies greater resources for the implementation of 5G and have an impact on DTT (digital terrestrial TV) services already operating in the affected bands. Full implementation of 5G is seen as crucial not only to the continuing roll-out of enhanced mobile broadband but also to provide infrastructure for the Internet of Things (IoT), which will provide remote machine control of a variety of devices, and generally enable more reliable, low latency communications.
As well as the IoT, smart homes and self-driving cars, 5G will have capacity for Ultra HD and augmented reality (AR). Speaking at TechCon 2017, Andrew Murphy, lead research engineer with BBC R&D, commented that the technology had potential as a replacement for satellite and ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) links on large-scale live events. Whether it could be used for distributing radio signals was less certain, he said, because there were still questions over the cost and the "complex coverage" issues involved. Another factor, pointed out by Simon Fell, who recently left his post as director of technology and innovation at the EBU, is that with so many conventional radios already being used, it may be difficult to persuade many listeners to change over to other kinds of devices.
The broadcast and multicast elements of 5G are being laid out by the 5G-Xcast project. The technology for this is designated 5G PPP (Public Private Partnership) Phase II and is being developed jointly by the European Commission along with information and communication technology (ICT) manufacturers, telecommunications operators, service providers and research bodies in Europe. It includes Next Generation Audio (NGA), a key part of proposed immersive and interactive TV services, which will incorporate UHD, object-based based production and virtual/augmented reality.
Mark Henry, at the time of TechCon the head of 5G at BT/EE and now in charge of BT's technology strategy department, commented that new radio services would work on a co-existence basis and have the capability to scale the amount of frequency required. He did, however, stress that each block still needed a certain amount of power associated with it for mission critical applications such as broadcasting.
Henry added that the accelerated implementation of 5G in its non-stand alone form which started with an 'early drop' at the end of last year, was being pushed along by operators wanting to have services ready in time for big international events such as the Winter Olympics in South Korea and the 2020 Summer Games in Japan. Trials of 5G for VR have already taken place at the 2018 World Cup during the Morocco-Iran game. Speaking at the Media Production Show in June, Henry's colleague, newly appointed director of mobile strategy at BT Sport, Matt Stagg, said 5G's guaranteed bit rate and latency made it suitable for contribution circuits and remote production compared to over the less reliable 4G.
As with any emerging technology, standardisation will be crucial in the wide-scale adoption of 5G. The key standards of 5G are being set out by 3G PP (Partnership Project), which approved the first New Radio (NR) specifications for non-standalone (NSA) operations in December 2017. On 14 June the body issued Release 15, covering standalone (SA) usage. This is seen as paving the way towards greater "commercialisation" of 5G, with ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) predicting that the second phase of Release 16 will be ready for submission to the ITU in March 2020.
Despite the potential of 5G for broadcasting, there are still large sections of the TV and radio sectors that remain unconvinced. There is annoyance at being forced to give up spectrum in favour of new technologies, particularly on the part of PMSE users. Broadcasters are also concerned at the chance of increased interference from emerging white space (WS) devices, which will operate in the segments between frequencies.
Kalpak Gude, DSA president
Kalpak Gude, president of the DSA, which held its Global Summit in London at the beginning of May, acknowledges there is "incredible pressure on broadcasters to give up spectrum to terrestrial mobile". He feels, however, that more organised allocation could help different types of user co-habit on the same bands: "Part of the problem is that spectrum is not as highly utilised as it could be. But effectively newcomers have been coming in and saying to incumbents, 'Give me half of your capacity.' The dynamic sharing approach makes it harder for an incumbent to be removed from the band."
The idea behind dynamic sharing is to allow adjacent spectrum to be used simultaneously and dynamically across frequencies, time and locations, involving different users, applications and networks. Technical bodies such as the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) state that this will require wireless technologies markets and regulatory policy to evolve at the same time. Gude comments that the fundamental difference between dynamic sharing and other approaches, and essentially the key to the whole concept, is a central database that can be accessed by all users.
"By using the database you know where an incumbent is and what they are using," Gude explains. "It is a living device that can be used to identify when you can use spectrum and when it's not being used. Sharing has been shown to be work incredibly well. There hasn't been a case of interference reported when it is used and regulators have back-end control as well. This gives the ability to turn off devices individually or in a whole region, which, from an ongoing business perspective, protects the incumbents."
Early on the battle for spectrum polarised into telecom and mobile companies versus broadcasters and the PMSE community. The telecoms sector clearly sees the future for modern connectivity, including broadcasting and video streaming, as wireless based on a variety of devices. More traditional broadcast organisations, while seeing that streamed services and video-on-demand (VoD) have created a growing new audience, still see terrestrial transmission as the bedrock of operations.
Which is why 5G, like preceding iterations (3G and 4G/LTE), have been viewed by both sides as predominantly for broadband functionality, such as gaming, downloads, video streaming and voice/visual communications. This, says Gude, is where everyone is going wrong with the perception of the emerging technology.
"The mobile carriers are seeing 5G as the next generation 4G," he says. "In other words, it's all about them. But 5G is something different. If you view it as just about mobile services then its future seems unrealistic. But 5G is more about mobility and a lot of it has to do with the IoT, connecting people and devices everywhere. Industrial IoT, manufacturers, small cell operators and integrators are all part of the story to enable deployment. And we need to think about vertical markets, of which broadcast is one."
Broadcasting as a driver for 5G, says Gude, will become increasingly important due to the shift in viewing habits that has already taken place. It is generally held that younger people are now watching less video on conventional TV sets. While this is largely true, the trend is not exclusive to the young, with their parents and older people in general also watching streamed programmes and catch-up services on tablets or mobiles.
"The new infrastructure will be critically important for broadcasters to enable greater diversity and ease of consumption through other screens, " says Gude. "Our kids barely look at TV now. They consume 90 percent of contentonline but too often that gets confused with mobile viewing. Video consumption takes place in the home using WiFi. So we need to deal with the home to make it easier to move from platform to platform."
Points such as this will no doubt be discussed during the two 5G sessions taking place at IBC 2018. The panel discussion Smart Connectivity and Multiplay Devices - The Road to 5G takes place from 11.30am to 12.15pm on 15 September. The Tech Talks session 5G - Are We Nearly There Yet? is on the same day from 4.15pm to 5.30pm.
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