Exploring the potential of 5G in remote production
By Olivier Suard, VP of Marketing, Nevion
Mobile technology has played a role in broadcasting for many years now, with consumers often watching TV on the go, streamed over the internet and cellular networks to their devices. It’s now such a popular way to watch content that Cisco predicts by 2022, video will make up 79% of all mobile traffic. On the production side, cameras with 3G/4G/LTE connectivity have provided unprecedented flexibility for ingest, especially in situations where mobility is key.
However, the advent of 5G with its promise of significantly greater bandwidth, faster data communication, lower latency, and defined quality of service, is creating a lot of excitement in the broadcast industry. In fact, Nevion research conducted in the first half 2020 has found that broadcasters are optimistic about 5G and the timeframes in which they will be able to adopt it, with 92% expecting to do so within two years. Almost two-thirds (65%) of the broadcasters would consider adopting 5G for remote production, but just how plausible is this and what needs to be considered first?
Opportunities in remote production
It’s no secret that broadcasters are looking to do more with less – create more content with fewer resources. One aspect of achieving that goal is to become more light-weight and nimble in the process of acquisition, and to centralize production to make optimum use of equipment and production staff.
The trend for IP-based remote production fits squarely within that framework. With cellular technology, acquisition becomes even more portable and more mobile, thanks to the fact that fewer cables are required, for example. Broadcasters can set up on site more quickly and cost-effectively almost anywhere, which is particularly useful to report on breaking news, for example. It also means that events that require tracking over considerable distances, such as sports including cycling, road running, or cross-country skiing, become easier to cover. This is not just about 5G connected cameras though:, there is also the potential for “pop-up” production facilities using 5G to deliver multiple camera signals back to a central production facility.
One issue, however, is that the environments in which mobile technology would be most suited are often those where there is a lot of contention for bandwidth – like many spectators using their cellphones during a sporting event – which could adversely affect the quality of the media transport. But this problem could be overcome should dedicated 5G bandwidth come to fruition- more about this later.
Mobile technology can also be used as back-up link for more conventional remote production land-based or satellite connections, providing a more versatile and economical solution than traditional diverse routing over fixed connectivity. In fact, of the broadcasters polled in the Nevion survey, 42% thought the biggest benefit of 5G will be providing a cost-effective back-up for contribution links. 4G technology is already being used for that purpose in some deployments – typically for the transmission of a small number of feeds rather than all the feeds, but the extra bandwidth provided by 5G offers the prospect of using the technology to provide more back-up feeds, of higher a quality.
Some in the industry are now envisaging 5G providing the main link for remote production. However, this is a substantial leap in requirement, especially in the level of reliability and Quality of Service (QoS) expected, therefore unlikely to be a viable option for quite some time.
Key consideration for 5G in production
Deterministic data transfer
Live broadcast production has a combination of requirements for networks that exists in no other industry: very high volumes (video signals), ultra-low latency, and absolute reliability. While 5G promises higher bandwidth and lower latency than 4G, the typical enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) service is still inherently best-efforts connectivity and by design is oversubscribed with significant contention.
The asymmetry and best-efforts behavior of eMBB also make 5G less than ideal for some broadcast production, but for other applications, they may be acceptable. For example, where 5G is used as a backup connection for contribution, using eMBB may well be good enough, in the same way as the Internet, with its fluctuating bandwidth, can provide good enough connectivity as a backup.
One of the new exciting capabilities potentially offered by 5G is the ability to reserve dedicated bandwidth for specific applications. While this bandwidth slicing capability is not yet available, it would be a very attractive proposition for broadcasters, potentially providing the QoS required for real-time production.
The question is whether 5G carriers can be persuaded to provide a “custom slice” of bandwidth for broadcast applications, when other applications maybe be more lucrative. The commercial reality is that broadcast contribution or remote production alone are unlikely to offer service providers a sufficiently large potential market to make it worthwhile for them dedicate valuable bandwidth to broadcasters. However, combining forces with other ‘niche’ areas, such as emergency services, more generic dynamic event-based data requirements and maybe military applications, could make this approach viable. Ultimately, whether broadcasters get to use a dedicated slice of bandwidth for production will probably be down to pricing.
Timing and Security
Broadcasting has very stringent requirements in terms of timing to synchronize the signals from all the various sources. In an IP world, the industry has standardized around precision time protocol (PTP). The good news is that 5G specifications include time-synch and timing accuracy information which should potentially be tight enough to meet the requirements of broadcast production. It remains to be established whether that timing information can be extracted and made available in a manner that is suitable for consuming within production devices.
Currently, the EU-funded projects, in which Nevion is contributing to, 5G-VIRTUOSA and 5G-VINNI are leading the way in investigating how to handle timing in 5G, and it’s a case of watch this space. This is also true of security where the key focus areas are authentication of devices, encryption of content and secure control channels. There are both existing and emerging standards that can be applied to this area, but it remains to be seen which will reign supreme.
5G’s place in the broadcast value chain
We are only just scratching the surface of 5G and its exact place in the broadcast value chain is still to be determined, but initiatives like 5G-VINNI and 5G-VIRTUOSA will help uncover the true potential of the technology in live broadcast production. In the meantime, broadcasters should continue to test the technologies in their broadcast environments and work with the experts to ensure that when the time comes, they are ready to adopt it in whatever capacity that may be.