Long reads


5G: The transformation of video distribution is underway

2019 was a pivotal year for 5G: operators began launching commercial services, enterprise use cases became clearer and its moved into consumer consciousness. 5G was on course to add nearly US$2.2 trillion to the global economy between 2024-34 and to account for 20% of all global connections by 2025.

Albeit reported in February by the GSMA before the global shutdown, these figures suggest 5G has finally become a reality. So, after all the years of talk, speculation and hype, did mobile’s latest generation meet expectations? Even the GSMA is not sure.

“In some ways, yes. But, in others, the answer is a resounding, no – or, at least, not yet,” blogged Jan Stryjak at GSMA Intelligence.

4G technology is now the dominant mobile technology across the world. These connections will continue to grow, particularly across Sub-Saharan Africa, CIS and parts of MENA, reaching just under 60% of global connections by 2023.

“This underscores a key learning over the last year: it’s not all about 5G,” says Stryjak. “Yes, 5G is now live in 24 markets but that leaves the vast majority of connections still running on a 4G or slower network and more than half of the global population which won’t even be covered by 5G.”

Ground-breaking applications

A study from Ericsson found that 65% of early adopters – the so-called 5G Forerunners which comprise 14% of smartphone users – expect ground-breaking new applications.

“But, in reality, the biggest app we’ll see in 2020 isn’t really an app at all… it’s speed,” says Jim O’Neill, principal analyst, Brightcove. “The biggest impact 5G will have in its first couple of years in the market will simply be on the mobile broadband experience. Users are looking forward to the increased bandwidth, reduced latency, and flat out speed that 5G will be able to deliver.”

Thierry Fautier

However, as Theirry Fautier, VP video strategy at video technology outfit Harmonic points out, in terms of video, most smartphones are currently only capable of supporting 1080p, so HD will initially be delivered over 5G.

“Even when 1080p is zero rated (viewing unlimited content from a service provider without impacting the user data allowance) it is already a big leap forward from the experience today on 4G,” he says. “Delivering 100Mbps simultaneously to millions of subscribers, combined with the low latency possible with 5G, could have a transformative impact on video distribution, especially for live streaming.”

For reference, 4K sports content today is encoded with HEVC at about 25Mbps. “For in-home delivery, I expect we will start with 4K HDR everywhere, then 8K,” says Damien Lucas, founder and CTO at technology company Anevia. “But even on handheld devices, my guess is that HD will become the new minimum quality.”

Other applications that could drive interest in 5G video in the nearer term include what Fautier describes as immersive personalised 8K streaming services.

“8K is the only technology that can capture the entire field for sports like tennis, soccer and baseball. We think there could be interest in this because it is already being done in the broadcast production domain.”

The consensus is that within the M&E vertical, live sports, both as is and when enriched with AR, and videogaming will be early adopters.

“Applications that can uniquely leverage its low latency will be first movers to require 5G technology,” says Robert Koch, VP technology solutions at EPAM, citing real-time betting either remote or in-stadium as one of them.

Juliet Walker

In the mid-term there could be a fusion of 5G with more traditional broadcast, according to Juliet Walker, chief marketing officer at media services provider Globecast, “to bring an augmented reality approach for premium content and more interactivity between consumers and content creators.”

Other applications may come to life including full-screen, high-quality social network video or co-production of user-generated content. In other verticals, Baruch Altman, AVP R&D at LiveU, flags telemedicine and technician assistance because of the requirements for consistent quality and low latency in a proven market.

He says: “Coronavirus has shown the benefits of remote consultation from anywhere and this will more and more include high-quality video, home imaging and other sensory information.”

Lucas also takes lessons from current social distancing and home working. “We are seeing some of our colleagues connecting mainly through 4G instead of ADSL,” he says. “This goes to show that, once 5G is deployed, it could become the preferred means of communication everywhere where fibre does not arrive.”

A prime early use-case in video is ‘first mile’ contribution, particularly for live sports production. For instance, with 5G it will be possible to broadcast a live sports event directly from cameras on the field or more likely, to stream directly to a broadcast facility,” says O’Neill.

Sports production companies are conducting video tests for contribution and some remote production. Cellular bonding backpacks are used by Globecast as part of its content capture infrastructure and associated redundancy links.

Verizon Media’s demo in the Hard Rock Stadium during Super Bowl LIV meanwhile featured real-time streaming and multiple camera views.

“5G is still very conceptual in many people’s minds, but the technology is already having a transformative impact on video distribution,” says Ariff Sidi, general manager and chief product officer, media platform at Verizon Media. “The deployment of next-generation networks is going to transform the live arena with the way that we experience sports games, concerts, and other major events. Greater bandwidth, connection density and lower last-mile latency connectivity will lead to new user experiences, like in-event AR, greater reliability and higher bitrates for improved streaming quality.”

Testing and development of 5G video applications

Testing for B2B contribution has been underway for more than a year and is well advanced, according to Globecast. B2C distribution will follow 5G rollout and will, as always, depend on the penetration of suitable devices. Apple’s first 5G iPhone is planned for end of the year but supply chain issues may derail this.

“US, South Korea and Japan will lead but it will be linked to subscriber management costs of post-pay and pre-pay,” Walker notes.

Harmonic has insight on South Korea where VR applications are already deployed in 5G networks by operators SKT, KT and LGU+. The main applications are VR video for sports and music clips on HMD and phones; multiview, including multigame and multicam (mostly on phones) and 8K streaming with phone pan and scan, including zooming in on the entire content.

In Europe, some testing is being done via various operator collaboration programmes and the EU Horizon 2020 and 5GPP test platforms. As Altman reports, almost all the 5G commercial networks are ‘non-stand-alone’, reliant on the operator’s existing 4G core, and not yet supporting the full span of 5G performance capabilities.

“To commercialise these capabilities, a full ecosystem should be implemented, from actual 5G network deployments to 5G smartphones and modems,” he says. “We are in the early stages of all that, but companies like AT&T with Ericsson, Samsung and LiveU have partnered with content owners to commercially produce live sports using 5G non-public networks in venues [during the NBA summer league 2019].”

Damien Lucas

Huawei and Sharp among others have demonstrated the feasibility of delivering 8K video over 5G. “But in order for this to go commercial, it would require a broad adoption of 5G to the home (not 5G to the device), since handheld devices are definitely not about to support 8K, due to their limited screen sizes,” says Lucas.

Yet, as Kock points out, mobile devices, pixel densities, and video quality are becoming nearly indistinguishable to the human eye meaning that 4K-8K mobile video will likely not be the killer app of 5G.

“One of the most significant changes that should be enabled via a mature 5G network is Fixed Wireless Access-based video delivery,” he says. “This will bring high quality video to the biggest screen in your home and enable carriers with 5G networks to compete directly with traditional wireline cable providers.”

His EPAM colleague, Bhuban Hota – senior manager at technology consulting – agrees. “The key is to showcase the value proposition in user experience so that consumers are willing to pay for the enhanced experience offered by 5G,” he says. “Standard video applications can’t provide that differentiating experience even though QoS will be improved. Video providers are still searching for the killer app, which might go in the direction of even more immersive video experience.”

Verizon Media’s RYOT Studio is pioneering new production technologies and media formats, enabled by 5G connectivity.

“We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what 5G can do, but the potential for true, live, highly personalised and interactive experiences is more of a reality as we move into a 5G-enabled era,” says Sidi.

The take-off of VR for video applications has so far been disappointing, admits Harmonic’s Fautier, although initial VR deployments were in 4K, with limited capability on the device side.

“We expect the combination of 5G with 8K production delivered to next-gen devices like the Qualcomm XR2, featuring a newly announced VR reference design, will bring new life to VR video.”

Edge computing, broader spectrum, massive MIMO and multicast will support a higher number of simultaneous viewers under various conditions.

“AI will be used to improve the resource allocation by the network, to predict consumption by the content owners or device owners, and if coupled together, better experiences at lower infrastructure cost can be achieved,” says Altman. “I expect creative minds to come up with new ideas, if the price is right. Perhaps immersive personalised and dynamic advertisements or ad-supported content.”

Further along the adoption curve, 5G offers a Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) platform that can be used for several purposes. “An area where we see 5G MEC shining is offering deep caching in the mobile network and on-demand CDN capacity,” Fautier says. “The second relevant application of MEC is for an in-stadium experience, which we believe will include local processing and streaming from MEC to significantly reduce the delay vs a centralised cloud solution.”

As importantly, the rise of 5G will help the video-delivery infrastructure – especially the CDN – to be integrated tightly with the network.

“Since 5G networks rely heavily on Software-Defined Networking (SDN), this is a great opportunity to enable the video CDN to be reconfigured dynamically, at the same time as the network is being reconfigured through SDN,” argues Lucas.

“This is important because the video industry sees huge fluctuations in terms of usage, with occasional huge peaks that put a strain to the system. And secondly, because thanks to 5G, we will see the adoption of multi-access edge computing. Combined with SDN, it enables different applications to share the use of those edge resources. Being able to dynamically reconfigure a CDN to deploy cache servers on those edge resources as needed will significantly help the delivery of high-quality, low-latency video during peak traffic.”

The importance of multicast

Although the first two releases of 5G (3GPP Rel-15 and 16) only supported point-to-point (unicast) transmissions, multicast is now considered an essential feature, not least for scaling live events.

“Delivering video to thousands of spectators gathered in a single space has proven to be challenging until now,” says Fautier. “The 4G standard includes eMBMS [evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services] and has been relatively disappointing, as it requires an expensive base station upgrade as well as specific mobile device functionality.”

Multicast, however, allows operators to reduce their distribution costs especially for live events, says Altman. “The bigger the event, the larger the savings in parallel to increased quality and hence experience.”

Broadcasting information once via an overlay network is much more efficient than sending it hundreds of thousands of times to mobile cells.

“With bigger cell coverage, this improved flexibility will substantially reduce the cost of deployment and operation,” says Thomas Janner, director of R&D, signal processing at Rohde & Schwarz. “It helps MNOs offload their heavy streaming and data loads so that they avoid infrastructure over-provisioning and therefore serve their consumers with higher QoS while reducing capex and opex.”

The benefits of 5G multicast are not confined to live events and mobile TV. As Janner points out, it reaches smart vehicles with in-car media and entertainment and map updates and can transmit public safety messages, such as urgent weather and community information. “Several other services could be optimised while using multicast over 5G, including OTA multicast for centralised configuration and control, live commerce and rural e-learning where no internet connection is available.”

Consequently, 5G broadcast and multicast field and lab trials are becoming increasingly important. R&S is testing this technology with China Broadcasting Networks in Beijing and with Brazil’s TV Globo. There are tests in France, Austria, Finland, Spain, and the Philippines. Janner reports high interest in South Africa, Mexico, Malaysia, Australia, UAE, Russia, Hong Kong, Korea and the UK. In the US he predicts a major expansion of 5G multicast commercial trials.

Globecast agrees that “IP multicast ABR by satellite (to mobile towers) has potential to reduce CDN bandwidth consumption and help with network resource optimisation. Walker says, “If the new 5G frequencies aren’t enough to manage all the expected mobile video traffic increase in the next five years, this may drive mobile operators to look at such technology.

“The key challenge will be whether there is sufficient cooperation to have the Multicast feature standardised with all the stakeholders and implemented by the chipset manufacturers,” she warns. “Agreeing standards across the telco industry can be a slow process.  This may also be regional. We have already seen very different decisions around spectrum reallocation between C-band and mobile in different countries.”

Broadcast enhancements for the new radio and core will be addressed by 3GPP in Rel-17 due 2021. Harmonic expects this will lead to service deployments in 2022.

“The key challenge is to bring point-to-multipoint (PTM) delivery in 5G in a transparent manner to both users and content providers, such that it becomes an internal optimization tool of the network,” Altman explains. This was the main design principle of EU H2020 research project 5G-Xcast. “Indeed, making it a service transparent to both content owners and viewers, in all aspects, including moving from unicast to multicast and back, to support mobility, transparent digital rights and billing management.”

Not everyone is convinced. “Multicast sounds like a great solution to reduce bandwidth but in fact it does away with many of the exciting possibilities of OTT,” Lucas says. “Personally, I don’t see this as a priority. And the massive failure of 4G multicast technology [LTE-broadcast] seems to prove this.”

5G as complement or replacement to DTT

Both 5G broadcast/multicast and digital-terrestrial TV are considered to be complementary rather than in direct competition. In the US, broadcasters are betting heavily on ATSC 3.0, but they’re also looking to use 5G.

“It would not surprise me to see a product like [a 5G receiver] that also incorporates an ATSC 3.0 receiver as a gateway device, making available content from both wireless connections for distribution through the home,” says Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology for US broadcast group Sinclair Broadcasting.

In Europe, broadcasters submitted their requirements to the 3GPP, including the obligation of public service broadcasters to offer linear TV and radio programs free-to-air. This has finally led to FeMBMS (or LTE-based 5G Terrestrial Broadcast), but if and to what extent broadcast content and services will be distributed over FeMBMS networks in future is up for debate.

“Although FeMBMS is sometimes addressed as a potential replacement for DTT, it has been developed for a different purpose than digital terrestrial television standards,” says David Gomez-Barquero,coordinator of the 5G-Xcast project. “For example, whereas DVB-T2 is highly optimised for the distribution of linear TV services for fixed rooftop reception, FeMBMS is meant to reach portable and mobile devices and carries the LTE legacy.”

With FeMBMS planned (though not agreed) for 3GPP release in 2022, “telcos will need to make the trade-off between reserving some of the capacity for broadcast versus the cost of carrying multiple copies of the same content,” Walker advises. “Multicasting will help, 5G Broadcast is likely to be a later step.  Will it make sense for a telco to do this for big events – a presidential address or a World Cup final, for example?”

Regulators will play a role. “Will they insist on a slice of 5G for B2B or for broadcast?” Walker asks.  “Again, this remains to be seen in many markets.”

In some cases, such as fixed wireless, 5G will be a possible complement to very high-speed broadband to the home. Harmonic also believe DTT can be replaced by very high speed wired networks like DOCSIS 3.1.

“5G can be an option but the scale and cost of deployments might not be relevant in the coming years,” Fautier says.

What is more realistic, he thinks, is to deliver high-quality video during sports events to 5G devices. Fautier points to the Harmonic’s involvement in France Télévisions’ pilot with the French Open tennis tournament last May. “Although we achieved our goal to transmit 8K over 5G, we clearly saw that in order to deliver this experience to thousands of people in a dense area a multicast solution is necessary.”

Anevia views wireless OTT TV infrastructure as a complementary technology to terrestrial and satellite networks – “until OTT can actually deliver higher-specification content than traditional broadcast,” Lucas says. “8K, for example, has the potential to become a primarily OTT-based standard.”

One example of OTT replacing DTT – but over a 4G network – is Telia in Lithuania. In September 2018, it phased out its terrestrial services, moving everything to OTT over outdoor LTE enabling it to reach rural areas with next-gen TV services. This was possible in a country where subscribers were used to spending €7 per month for their TV service.

“Doing this at a mass scale while keeping prices low, offering high-quality video, and still staying in business is more problematic,” Lucas says.

Unless, that is, the carrier can make use of the specific advantages of 5G and deliver much more value to consumers with,personalised and interactive content.

“As latencies come down any advantage that traditional broadcast has over OTT will evaporate,” says Sidi. “There will also be increased amounts of OTT-exclusive content and this, combined with the consumer flexibility, will continue to divert viewers to streaming, making it the primary method of consumption.”

Naturally thenuances of rollout and overlap will vary between and within markets.

“In cities, we will see 5G to handheld devices, delivering video streams to mobile phones,” says Lucas. “In rural areas, we will see 5G to the home, delivering first-screen video services.”

In countries without existing DTT, satellite will be part of 5G networks to feed base stations or phones directly. “Within DTT-enabled countries, 5G could replace DTT in the next 10 years but, as above, it will depend on the regulators and negotiations in different countries,” says Walker.

South Korea’s KT Corp already is offering a 5G IPTV service via mobile devices and set-top boxes.  The Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation is working with IRT, Kathrein, Rohde & Schwarz and Telefónica Deutschland on field trials in expectation of transmitting to millions of 5G devices in the near future.

“Territories with wide DTT distribution have a great opportunity to free up the DTT frequencies and allocate them to 5G, to enable non-linear services for all users,” Lucas adds. “But all this will take time, since TVs will need to be connected to a 5G network.”