5G technology promises a faster, more streamlined future for broadcasters. At around 10 times the speed of 4G/LTE, it can handle even 4K footage wirelessly. Those lightning-fast connections give producers and editors the ability to work with massive amounts of data, even in the field.
Two areas of the business are particularly poised to see changes with the rise of 5G: broadcast production and delivery. Understanding the benefits of 5G in both arenas is the first step; the next is understanding how broadcasters can prepare for more widespread 5G implementation.
Boosting Delivery to Mobile Viewers
Let's start with the "easy" one: delivery. A major barrier to actually broadcasting to 5G devices has been the lack of 5G devices available to consumers. This barrier is starting to lower, however, with the arrival of 5G-capable devices like Apple's iPhone 12 on the market.
Mobile 5G delivery gives viewers the video content they desire on the device they use most often—a 2019 Ericsson study predicted that by 2025, 76 percent of mobile traffic will be spent viewing video. Around 6 percent will be live video.
What's more, in addition to "simple" ultra-high-definition (UHD) video, 5G can carry new formats like live 360° video and virtual and augmented reality, both of which offer more immersive viewing experiences. The promise of 5G also extends to laptops and desktops, possibly performing some of the same functions as an internet service provider.
The delivery piece of the 5G puzzle is falling into place. But what about the actual production side of things?
Streamlining Broadcast Production Environments
The impacts of 5G technology on broadcast production are more difficult to realize at this juncture—but they are proportionately much larger.
Dave Woolston, systems and projects manager at UK broadcaster ITV, is one of many watching the 5G space with great interest. He sees two ways for broadcasters to use 5G.
The first is setting up a nonpublic 5G network, either temporarily or permanently, that gives a broadcaster exclusive access to an entire network of their own. A second option is for networks to be temporarily given access to a slice of a public 5G network, which Woolston says is more likely to happen with breaking news events.
5G makes the biggest splash in sports production. Currently, live sports broadcasting incurs huge infrastructure costs. There's cable and fiber to be laid, antennas for technicians to set up and remove; the equipment and labor required to broadcast a single game are quite expensive. A 5G network at the stadium or arena eliminates the need for this extensive setup and breakdown. In the US, Verizon appears to be anticipating this need, announcing their plans to add 5G service to 28 NFL stadiums by the end of 2021 at this year's CES trade show.
But is a 5G network truly capable of handling all the UHD footage and communications flying back and forth? Trials like Fox Sports' 2018 broadcast of the U.S. Open and a 2020 IBC Showcase Accelerator Programme have showed that 5G networks are in fact robust enough to handle 4K footage from multiple cameras. The use of a 5G network in the case of the U.S. Open pointed to a 34 percent decrease in overall production costs, in part because 5G requires fewer production vehicles, fewer satellite costs, and less manpower to run these productions.
As 5G becomes more widely available, it will also streamline at-home or other remote production. COVID-19 has already made remote production essential, and many broadcasters will continue to exploit the gains they've made in remote production even after it is safe to work in-studio at pre-pandemic levels. Being able to bypass the usual camera-to-fiber-to-production-compound-to-central-distribution journey by simply having the camera transmit wirelessly to the production/distribution location will give more productions this capability. It will also encourage the use of PC over IP (PCoIP) editing and the use of control systems for remote cameras.
And the potential doesn't stop there. Woolston says the reduced latency of 5G could also enable the use of edge computing—a distributed approach to IT infrastructure that brings information processing and data storage closer to the end user (the "edge") to improve response times and save bandwidth—as well as advanced AI functionality that current networks cannot handle.
Prepare for 5G Technology
Acquiring new kits that offer 5G technology as a native form of connectivity is the most obvious way for newsrooms to prepare for this low-latency future, Woolston says. LiveU, for instance, has already invested in 5G-enabled field equipment. With that said, many broadcasters will prefer to delay that investment and sweat out their existing kit while they wait for 5G coverage to improve; Woolston predicts that telecommunications companies upgrading their networks to allow for truly widespread use is still years away.
Still broadcasters that are bullish about the possibilities of 5G don't have to wait idly for prices to fall and coverage to increase. In the interim, building capabilities that 5G will only enhance sets up broadcasters to quickly capitalize on the opportunity when the time is right. For example, broadcasters who spun up work-from-home capabilities for remote staff during the pandemic typically require LAN-based operations to operate equipment in order to achieve low enough latency. 5G connectivity will alleviate that requirement, but in the meantime there's likely considerable work to be done to optimize remote working for broadcasters that choose to make it a long-term capability. Similarly, adopting or improving IP streaming for remote live feeds is a step in the right direction—while today, live feeds can take advantage of 3G or 4G networks, 5G will let broadcasters get even more value from existing infrastructure.
The actual promise of 5G isn't going to materialize in the short term, it's true—today, 5G coverage only reaches about 15 percent of the global population, concentrated in the US, China, South Korea, and Switzerland. Still, forward-looking broadcasters would be wise to keep an eye on developments in this space so that when the time comes, they're ready to move.