5G and C-Band Herald a New Era of Broadcast Innovation
5G is not only the next generation of mobile technology—it will radically transform the media and entertainment industry. Promising greater functionality from the network infrastructure, it has the potential to create exciting new opportunities for broadcasters and content providers alike. The deployment of 5G networks will notably change live content production, particularly concerning how audiences experience sporting events, concerts, and other major arena events. It will also enable far greater bandwidth, high data speeds, connection density, and much lower latency. This connectivity will, in turn, create new in-event experiences and an overall improvement to streaming quality.
The 5G opportunity opens up significant new possibilities for both contribution of camera sources into broadcast production and new methods of audience engagement, such as in-venue streaming.
5G deployments are only just starting to take place at scale; Ericsson's June 2020 Mobility Report found that 5G networks will carry 45 percent of global mobile data traffic by 2025 compared to less than 10 percent in 2020. Video accounts for an increasing proportion of that, and it is set to make up more than three-quarters of this traffic by 2025. This roadmap leads to the potential to change the entire media supply chain from production, management, delivery, and monetization.
The Spectrum Conundrum
The increased use of mobile data in recent years has placed significant new capacity demands on networks. The same Ericsson Mobility Report found that mobile network data traffic grew 56 percent between Q1 2019 and Q1 2020. This surge in usage has been one of the main drivers behind the rollout of 5G.
5G, however, needs an adequate radio frequency spectrum in which to operate. This spectrum is coordinated internationally by the International Telecommunications Union in its World Radiocommunication Conference and uses spectrum in three different bands; low, mid, and high. Each of these bands poses unique benefits and limitations depending on the application. The licenses themselves are allocated country by country.
The low band spectrum, in the region used by terrestrial broadcasters, has excellent reach. However, because the frequencies are low, the allocated bandwidth – and therefore, the data rate – is limited. The high band (or “mmWave”) spectrum has existing users in the satellite uplink market and is where the massive data rates with 5G exist. However, this has a very short reach and is ideal for fixed wireless terminals. Mid band spectrum is an excellent balance between reach and bandwidth but includes the C-band frequencies used for satellite distribution, such as national channels, in the US and other countries.
C-band refers typically to frequencies in the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz range. The US's dominant use of this range is for program distribution of video feeds to broadcast, cable, and telco headends. However, to make some of this spectrum available for 5G, C-band users need to take action now. Most countries are currently holding spectrum auctions for various ranges within C-band, such as in Italy, where in 2018, it auctioned a 200 MHz block of 5G at 3.7 GHz for €4 billion. This example is undoubtedly towards the higher end of the European costs, with Germany holding sales at around two-thirds of that price per MHz. However, what is clear is that the value of this spectrum to 5G mobile operators is very likely, and as a consequence, existing users will need to take action.
Realizing the Future of Broadcast
C-Band migration has become a global phenomenon because of 5G capacity needs, with countries varying in the details of scale and timing, but with a common trend. In the US, an incentive program has been put in place to accelerate the clearing of existing users in several stages, providing compensation for the costs incurred in adapting to the changes.
For the low-band spectrum, the trend is for a progressive reduction in the available spectrum for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), as it becomes re-allocated to low-band mobile use. In parts of the world that use DVB, early systems used DVB-T and MPEG-2. However, DVB-T2 and MPEG-4 AVC are now very widely supported in consumer devices, providing immediate efficiency improvement. In other areas, such as with ATSC systems, the migration is not so easy because the newer standards, such as ATSC-3.0, are very recent, and consequently, the support in consumer equipment is much less mature. As a result, most of the existing ATSC stations will stay on air with MPEG-2, under pressure to occupy fewer RF channels. The only option, therefore, is to use more efficient encoders for MPEG-2, to use the available spectrum better.
Futureproofing Broadcast Distribution Systems
Globally, actions are needed by C-Band users that are likely to be affected by this migration. One possible option, if some C-band spectrum remains, is just to use it more efficiently. With the latest encoding standards, such as HEVC and VVC, the ability to use less spectrum per channel has improved. This doesn’t fundamentally change the distribution system but simply makes it more spectrum efficient. An alternative is to embrace a longer-term view and include IP-based distribution. This is a more radical change but brings with it a higher degree of flexibility and futureproofing. It also means that there is the potential to use these connections' bi-directional nature—for example, to backhaul content from local stations to central facilities.
Cloud providers can deliver the wide-area network connectivity, along with compute, to enable media solutions vendors to provide these kinds of solutions. In reality, the deployments are usually hybrid satellite and IP because of the needs for a backup path and the practical needs of migration.
Major regional and national sports networks in the U.S. are embracing this solution, including NESN, which recently migrated its existing satellite delivery model for a hybrid fiber/IP platform.
Following the successful rollout of 5G networks, the ability for content to be created directly from stadiums and large venues, delivering unique primary and second-screen experiences to 5G smartphones, is enormous.
The rollout of 5G networks impacts media businesses through both new and exciting connectivity options and the consequences of spectrum allocation changes. 5G will change the game for delivering live video experiences. The migration is already underway; the time to take action is now.
5G holds promise for smart cities, smart vehicles, and industrial automation. For video streaming? Not so much.
Carriers are moving to standalone networks to fulfill 5G's true potential, but it remains a work in progress
InterDigital, one of the chief architects of generational telecoms developments, says true immersive video experiences are a bust at 5G