The telecoms sector often struggles to align itself with the needs of other vertical industries, and vice versa, as both sides view each other with an equal amount of desire and mistrust. It often boils down to perceived ownership of services and customers, and as a result not much progress is ever made. However, the advent of 5G appears to be galvanising all parties into action, with the realisation that cellular can indeed be a key enabling and transformational technology.
The case with the broadcast industry is a little different. CSPs have long seen broadcast as a customer gain and retention play, providing their own video services across their broadband networks. The resulting financial gains have generally so far been disappointing. However, CSPs can also offer broadcasters an alternative route to market and potential new viewers, with cellular broadcast to smartphones and other devices. The problem here has been technology – early services were hamstrung by low bandwidth and transmission rates, and an architecture that was inherently unsuitable for “broadcast”.
This only started to change in 2015, when European broadcasters started get engaged in 3GPP standards activities, as a means to help shape the technology to their actual requirements. These included the regulatory obligation of public service broadcasters to offer linear TV and radio programmes free-to-air (back in the days when Netflix was just feeling its way into the market). These recommendations formed part of 3GPP Release 14, which was published in 2017. Various field trials have been conducted (and still are) using this LTE specification, and the results are being used in the current Release 16 study on LTE-based 5G terrestrial broadcast.
However, the market has since evolved and requirements have widened. Broadcasters are now moving into IP-based workflows and the demand for original content (whether news, sport or entertainment) is increasing dramatically. Hence there is now a need to look to cellular to expand from just distribution and become a more established part of the production process.
Distributed resources need to be bundled in a flexible manner, to avoid duplication of work and to make the best use of existing infrastructure. The increasing data rates demanded by video sources as 4K UHD becomes more widespread are also posing severe challenges for broadcasters. Add to that the consumer expectation that their smartphone should be able to do everything, everywhere – and that includes TV-like services from broadcasters and content providers.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and industry partners have therefore proposed to start a study item in 3GPP working group SA1 on audio-visual production, as part of the Release 17 timeframe. It’s early days, with use cases being collated and corresponding new technical requirements for the 3GPP system being identified. The fear is that it will take too long for this work to make its way into commercial services – as both the EBU and 3GPP play catch-up with a rapidly evolving market and consumer expectations.
As the 3GPP says in its announcement; “Some of these use cases will entail very challenging technical requirements in terms of calling for synchronized capture devices to deliver very high data rates at very high velocities, simultaneously, requiring very low latencies.”
The 3GPP is already struggling under the weight of 5G standardisation efforts – a monumental task in and of itself. But don’t underestimate the willingness to make “5G broadcast” happen. There is an excellent summary document of field trials from June last year available to download here.