Broadcasters Go Private With 5G
The 5G wireless communications standard has been hailed by carriers as having the power to transform a variety of industries due to its high capacity and low latency. But four years after the first mobile 5G networks rolled out, the impact on the television business has been more evolutionary than transformative. Stations and networks have gradually adopted 5G as carriers like T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T have built out their networks and improved 5G coverage.
Broadcasters are now making active use of 5G in everyday production operations, usually alongside LTE in contribution feeds sent with bonded cellular systems. But the most exciting production applications to date for 5G have actually used private 5G networks that broadcasters have set up themselves for big-event coverage, as described by executives from Sinclair, the BBC and Fox who gathered last week for the TVNewsCheck webinar “5G and Television Production,” moderated by this reporter.
The BBC had a high-profile use of 5G earlier this month when it set up its own private 5G network to help support coverage of the Coronation of King Charles III, for both itself and up to 15 different international broadcasters including CBS, CNN and Fox. While the BBC has a bevy of bonded cellular devices from vendors like LiveU and Mobile Viewpoint, those devices aren’t reliable for large events when cellular networks get congested from the sheer number of smartphone users looking to connect to talk, text or post to social media, said Ian Wagdin, senior technology transfer manager for the BBC.
“We’ve been looking for a while at the use of 5G, specifically non-public networks, standalone networks,” Wagdin said. “By deploying our own private 5G network, we were able to ensure that news customers from around the world were able to go live with guaranteed bandwidth, even at the most congested times for the public networks.”
As Wagdin explained, the U.K. has a different spectrum arrangement for 5G than the U.S. Broadcasters are able to get access to a band of shared spectrum, isolated from the spectrum in which wireless carriers operate their networks. A broadcaster can secure a chunk of this spectrum to operate a private network after paying for a temporary license from Ofcom, the U.K. communications regulator.
For the coronation, the BBC had a total of 80 megahertz (MHz) of mid-band spectrum which it broke into two 40 MHz carriers. It split that capacity among eight different 5G cells it erected up and down The Mall, the road in central London that leads to Buckingham Palace.
The private 5G network was able to be tuned to provide greater uplink capacity than downlink capacity. That is the opposite of public 5G networks, which are optimized for downloads.
“Basically, the way 5G works is you get a time slice to transmit, and a time slice to receive,” Wagdin explained. “And most of the time in the public networks that is tuned for downlink, i.e., there are more transmit slots. We took that and turned it on its head, so we had twice as much bandwidth coming up than we needed. We also had more antennas on the receive side than we did on the transmit side. So that meant we had a lot of bandwidth available to us. Over the whole radio network we had about a gigabit per second, and then we brought that into a 500 Mbps backhaul.”
While using a new technology can often require tweaks to the workflow that present a barrier to adoption, that wasn’t the case with the BBC’s private 5G system.
“What was great for the news broadcasters was they just turned up with their existing technologies, their LiveU kit or their Mobile Viewpoint kit, we also had people using MiFi devices, and as long as they had the right modem and we gave them a SIM card, they could plug into that,” Wagdin said. “The workflow for them was exactly the same as if they were using the public network. So we didn’t have to train camera operators to do anything different.”
Fox Sports has been testing applications using 5G public networks for several years, said Brad Cheney, VP, field operations and engineering for Fox Sports, first bringing back wireless camera feeds for a single camera or a live shot using bonded systems. Late last year it starting doing actual game transmissions on bonded systems as well, with 5G sometimes even being the primary feed as opposed to just a backup to fiber.
“The beauty of the bonded units we’re all using right now is that you have the ability to have a couple 5G modems inside with a couple 4Gs, and you’re able to find the spot that gets you the right thing to really leverage that 5G coverage,” Cheney said. “Especially in sports, with the amount of remote workflows we do and things that we term ‘home run’ productions — sending multiple camera feeds back to our network centers to produce an event — it’s really important that we’re getting huge upload speeds.”
In the last 18 to 24 months in the U.S., Fox has seen upload speeds “turn the corner” as the carriers have built out their networks, Cheney said, with the ability to transmit at 60 or 70 Mbps on a single modem.
The amount of available 5G upload bandwidth is likely to diminish over time as more consumers upgrade their phones and hop on the 5G network. But for now, said Cheney, it has given Fox a lot of capability in both a backup and primary transmission role, “for getting the right amount of feeds to our network centers as easily as possible. That’s been the beauty of it.”
Fox has also experimented with private 5G in the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum, licensing it from the FCC on a temporary basis for a few days, building up a private network, and using it for communications systems at big events.
“The Super Bowl was a giant test case for us,” Cheney said. “We had over 75 beltpacks communicating across a very large area with a very limited amount of antennas, which was very nice because we were able to get them high up in the air and with very low bandwidth utilization.
“It gave us a lot more capability than we had been used to,” he continued. “In a lot of cases, you give a producer or technician a beltpack that has the ability to communicate back and forth on a comms system, and you say, ‘Oh by the way, you can kind of go wherever you want.’ With two antennas inside State Farm and a big tower outside, we were able to cover the entire grounds, which is something we were never able to do before from that aspect.”
Sinclair is using 5G alongside LTE in its bonded-cellular contribution systems, with a fairly equal split of traffic between Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T, said Ernie Ensign, Sinclair senior director, news technology.
Sinclair doesn’t have “a lot of visibility on how the traffic is diverted and what’s 5G and what’s 4G,” Ensign said, and is thus taking a measured approach in upgrading the several hundred LiveU backpack units its news crews use in the field. The station group is adding two additional modems into the bonded backpacks, for a total of eight, with two of those being 5G.
“We just never know what’s going to have the best bandwidth in a given area,” Ensign said. “The future phase of where this needs to move is towards more of an e-SIM type of a process, where it’s provider-agnostic and the devices latch onto whatever carrier has the best signal and bandwidth in a given area.”
In Sinclair’s traditional newsgathering workflows, Sinclair crews would gather news for several hours, edit packages in the field, and then send content back to the station via the bonded units. To enable more content to get published from more locations at a higher rate of speed, Sinclair recently formed a partnership with Sony, Marquis Broadcast and Avid. The companies are exploring how to use 5G transmission and public cloud technology in combination with Sinclair’s legacy newsroom computer and editing systems.
“We really need to move to a paradigm where we’re publishing content as it’s being gathered,” Ensign said.
Sinclair has six pilot stations, and all of the field cameras at those stations are connected to 5G mobile hotspots. That allows Sinclair to send story metadata from the newsroom computer system out to the cameras. Photographers then select the story they’re working on, and as they shoot, those completed files are transferred in the background at proxy resolution over 5G to the Sony “C3 Portal” cloud (which runs on Amazon Web Services). Through Marquis’ software integration with Avid, the video can start to be edited in Media Composer while it is still being recorded.
The finished package in proxy-quality video is fine for “smaller screens” such as Web and mobile streaming, says Ensign. But the eventual goal for the Marquis/Avid/Sony solution is to pull the relevant full-resolution video from the camera, transmit it over 5G and replace it directly on the timeline for broadcast quality-air. Since only about 10% of what gets shot in the field actually gets used in the final edit of a package, that two-step process would dramatically cut down on the amount of 5G bandwidth needed for the camera-to-cloud-to-ground workflow.
The 5G speeds Sinclair has seen in early testing can be inconsistent, but the broadcaster is regularly seeing 70 megabits per second up to 100 megabits per second, Ensign said, which allows Sinclair to “push a lot of content through.”
And, he added: “As the compression schemes get better for the cameras and we’re building modems directly into the cameras, I think we’ll continue to see improvements on the process in the future.”
While Sinclair isn’t editing any news in the cloud today, Ensign does see the company heading in that direction. And he considers the Sony/Marquis/Avid 5G project to be “Phase One of that.”
“As you move your edit systems to the cloud, you’re simply going to be taking the camera content and pushing it from the ground directly into the edit systems in the cloud in the future,” Ensign said.
Beyond building a private 5G network, there are several features of public 5G that could provide broadcasters with better speeds and reliability in the future. One is network slicing, where a carrier could “slice” off a dedicated chunk of bandwidth for an enterprise customer to guarantee a certain number of megabits per second.
Fox enjoyed this capability in 2019 and 2022 when covering the “Field of Dreams” MLB game in rural Iowa, as T-Mobile wasn’t yet lit up with public 5G in that area. T-Mobile was able to provide Fox with a significant amount of low-band bandwidth to pull live 5G feeds from two drone-mounted cameras, which Cheney said worked very well and provided “great coverage.”
Providing slicing on an everyday basis within currently operational public 5G spectrum is more complicated. Many of today’s 5G networks are using 5G only to transmit from the radio down to a user’s device and are still relying on a 4G/LTE network core to route traffic instead of a true “standalone” 5G core.
“Those are called non-standalone networks,” Wagdin explained. “So even if you’re in isolated spectrum you’re still fighting for contention within the core quite a lot of the time.”
True network slicing isn’t available without a standalone 5G core, which may be five to 10 years away in many areas. And even if network slicing is available, whether broadcasters would be able to afford a dedicated slice across a carrier’s entire coverage footprint is debatable.
According to Wagdin, a more realistic alternative may be network prioritization. A broadcaster could communicate with a carrier to let them know their device is using a particular 5G cell site and to prioritize traffic coming from that cell, in exchange for a fee. Prioritization can be performed with a non-standalone core, but the commercial details of securing it still need to be worked out.
Sinclair will do “a little bit of both” when it comes to 5G slicing and prioritization in the future, Ensign said. He noted that T-Mobile just lit up network slicing in northern Virginia, close to Sinclair’s Washington, D.C., stations, and said the group planned to do some real-world testing of slicing with T-Mobile soon.
But both he and Cheney agreed that prioritization probably makes the most sense in the long term.
“With or without network slicing, it really comes down to prioritization and being able to identify field devices where we’re trying to get camera content in, whether it’s a file or a stream,” Ensign said. “There is certainly interest there from us if it can help us acquire content from the field faster. There are still questions over how it’s going to be monetized and how practical it will be to pay for some of that. But from a technical standpoint, I think we’re going to go down that road and see what some of the benefits are.”