Time To Look Ahead with Real 5G And Prepare for The Big TV Switch Off!

By Paolo Pescatore, Founder, TMT Analyst at PP Foresight.

Ahead of the NAB Show in Las Vegas, all eyes have been on developments in next generation telecom networks to help create, distribute and drive new content experiences.

For now 5G has failed to live up to initial expectations. The telecoms industry continues to do a good job of overhyping any new generation of network or any technology for that matter. In large part driven by suppliers to sell new kit.

Sure, timing of the pandemic didn’t help. Consumer behavioural patterns changed significantly and there was greater reliance on fixed line connectivity. Nevertheless, users are steadily replacing their smartphones which in most cases now support 5G. This in turn is driving 5G upgrades and one that telcos need to help reduce their costs and switch off legacy networks. Moves that help meet environmental sustainability objectives.

We are still at an early phase of 5G rollout and the promise of true 5G is yet to be realised. Some countries have yet to launch 5G, while in many markets launches have focussed on a non-standalone approach. This means the 5G radio is still reliant on the existing 4G LTE core network; not providing the full merits of a true 5G end to end network. More telcos will make strides to launch 5G Standalone this year.

At this year’s MWC in Barcelona, it was refreshing to see a reality check on 5G (to a large degree). Greater focus was placed on 5G standalone. Ultimately this opens up new use cases in the enterprise segment who demand ultra-low latency and fast dedicated connections for their connectivity needs. All of these latest developments place the industry on a path towards a true 5G experience. 

Slow progress is being made with 5G millimeter wave (mmWave). Most spectrum in Europe has been awarded in the mid band (sub-7GHz); whereas mmWave, is the band of radio frequencies between 24-100GHz. In theory this spectrum would be ideal to ease congestion in capacity demanding areas, locations like stadiums as underlined by Verizon’s deployment in more than 60 NFL stadiums across the United States. This partnership with the NFL helps provide a range of immersive experiences as well as robust connectivity. I was fortunate to experience speeds of up to 4 Gbps in Las Vegas and at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami for the inaugural F1 race. Extremely impressive to get a signal, maintain a connection and access a range of bandwidth hungry applications like simultaneous video streams.

In fact, mmWave is being positioned as the “best” of 5G, a topic that will emerge as a strong theme throughout 2023 and beyond as telcos rollout 5G standalone.

Beyond the promise of faster download speeds, interest in mmWave is growing in part due to faster uplink speeds. There are some interesting use cases emerging including media production companies who will be on location filming for a new show and will be able to upload clips for editing and clipping in real time.

We are also seeing greater moves towards more functions being pushed into the cloud and processes virtualised. It is surprising not to see more traditional broadcasters take the leap of faith into this brave, bold new world. While they have been slow, the need to pivot is in the air due to numerous and critical factors; aging systems, reducing physical footprint, more sustainable and remote operations and cost savings. Change is happening as emphasised by ITV and Channel 4’s terrestrial Freeview channels moving to cloud-based processing (with BT’s VENA broadcast network). Subsequently, the UK’s Independent Television News (ITN) announced similar plans to move its workflows to the cloud with Amazon Web Services (AWS).

These initiatives are a major step forward for the TV industry. Undoubtedly a theme that will feature at the NAB Show. Expect to see the usual buzzwords including cloud, automation, virtualisation, orchestration and private networks to be prominent throughout the week. Many established providers are faced with traditional revenue decline. The last barriers of changing existing culture and embracing new ways of working are finally coming down.

Furthermore, these latest network technology developments can finally kickstart the long-awaited acceleration of the media industry transformation. I still reiterate this belief that 5G coupled with fibre backhaul (10 Gbps) will radically change the way content is created, produced, distributed and consumed. All providers need to embrace 5G especially broadcasters if they want to stay relevant in this new IP end-to-end driven world. Combined with the cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G has a lot to offer the media industry.

AI is still everywhere. However, it feels like it has stalled and not really delivered on the initial promise. The euphoria around ChatGPT has reignited interest and is a wake-up call for big tech. Therefore expect this area to heat up and represent a hot bed for innovation.

The long-awaited arrival of these new network technologies is driving innovation. All processes and workflows need to be redesigned as users’ insatiable appetite for data is showing no signs of easing up. Anything that requires large file sizes, need for speed and low latency is set to see significant improvements in the overall user experience

Gaming as an application featured prominently at MWC with solution providers like Ericsson leveraging network assets such as 5G Standalone and network slicing. The topic of 5G broadcast keeps popping up. Rohde & Schwarz along with Academy of Broadcasting Science (ABS) under China’s National Radio and Television Administration, and Qualcomm Technologies used the event to showcase 5G Emergency Broadcast, Interactive Broadcast and others.

Broadcast industry as a vertical along with many others is set to be radically transformed. It is encouraging to see numerous telcos actively working closely to bring novel services, features and solutions to markets. New use cases are emerging across all industries. Many are now taking a collaborative approach with a greater emphasis on sports.

At MWC, Verizon Business showcased Coach-to-Coach Communications. A managed Private Wireless Solution across each of the 30 NFL stadiums providing support for coach-to-coach communications on the field and provides the NFL with speed, security and reliability for critical operations.

It is encouraging to see developments in making sport more accessible. Also, at MWC, Orange in partnership with Touch2See showcased a tablet with a magnetic disc to mirror the movements of the ball and players during a football match across the pitch in real time. The user can follow using touch and, thanks to the low latency of 5G and the data processing power of edge computing, Touch2See provides an alternative to traditional audio description devices where there’s often a delay. It allows visually impaired fans to access and enjoy major sporting events more easily. We can expect to see progress made and available ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup or the next Paris Olympics in 2024.

It is apparent that every new generation is coming round far more quickly than key stakeholders would like. Therefore, it does feel a bit too early to be thinking about 6G when 5G is still not widely available.

However, it is important to consider what 6G should be and have an open collaborative approach towards framework and standards. We should not underestimate the sheer work needed with the transition towards 5G (roadmap including mmWave) and providing much needed coverage in many unconnected areas. For this reason 4G will still play a crucial role in the short to medium term.

We cannot ignore the volume of devices that will be connected, exponential growth in data traffic, ongoing changing consumer behaviours as well as the arrival of whatever the metaverse will look like in years to come (massively overhyped right now). There is a lack of consumer appetite to fork out so much money for a clunky device without a strong content offering. While the enterprise segment might seem appealing, they remain unconvinced and are cutting back on costs. This is by far a longer-term opportunity which requires huge investment.

The media industry needs to start thinking and preparing for the great big TV switch off. While no date has been set, we are clearly heading for a streaming future. More and more spectrum is being allocated to mobile operators. All eyes will be on the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC-23) in Dubai which will discuss how future frequencies should be reallocated and represent a key technical aspect of future airwaves including 6G and beyond.

With significant developments happening in both fixed (from copper to fibre) and mobile 5G to 6G, then an Internet delivery future is not that far away. Taking the UK as an example, Freeview multiplex licences are due to expire in 2034 and the Astra satellites that carry Sky and Freesat are due to reach their end of life between 2027 and 2029; Sky’s contract with SES currently runs until 2028. The main UK free-to-air broadcasters have their own contracts with SES, so could continue to provide a service to Freesat users. A move that is unlikely to make financial sense. The arrival of Sky Glass gives us a sense of the company’s own thinking of the future.

For sure, the BBC will likely want to continue operating terrestrial services for longer to ensure everyone receives coverage and to ensure enough time for a seamless handover to IP based delivery. Therefore any decision by the WRC on spectrum maybe pushed back for a couple of years. Ultimately a decision needs to be taken with a date set not only for the UK, other countries as well. Subsequently, the relevant industries including media and telco must work collaboratively to ensure efficient delivery of streaming services over converged networks.


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