There's a new mobile broadcast technology called 5G Broadcast that experts say makes it possible for broadcasters to more efficiently deliver video and other media content to mobile devices and TV screens.
If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. The wireless industry has gone down this path before with technologies such as MediaFLO, LTE Broadcast and DVB-H. None of these technologies had widespread success. Qualcomm shuttered its MediaFLO unit in 2006. Dutch operator KPN, which offered a DVB-H service, cancelled it in 2011 due to lack of handset support. And Verizon, which was one of the few proponents of LTE Broadcast, ended its go90 streaming video service in 2018.
However, 5G Broadcast, which is part of the 3GPP Release 16 standard, has some key differences. For one, it isn't relying upon wireless operators to be the sole providers of the technology. Instead, other providers, such as media companies or broadcasters, are able to operate their own networks independently of the wireless operator using existing broadcast towers and broadcast spectrum in the UHF band, which broadcasters typically own or have access to. End users would be able to view that content via smartphones or other devices, such as a television or tablet.
"The previous attempts tried to turn the operator into a broadcaster," said Lorenzo Cassaccia, VP of technical standards at Qualcomm. "That only worked in a few countries where the cellular operator had the rights to transmit things like live sporting events."
Instead, Cassaccia said that 5G Broadcast should be compared to competitive standards like those from the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) in the US or the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) in Europe. One of the reasons the 3GPP made the 5G Broadcast standard applicable to broadcasters and media companies was because it wanted to make sure that this was a solution that was adoptable and there was market interest. According to Devaki, Chandramouli, head of North American standardization at Nokia, the 3GPP didn't want a repeat of its LTE Broadcast standard, also known as evolved multimedia broadcast multicast services (eMBMS), which didn't generate much interest from the market. "The 3GPP has limited time and resources so we have to prioritize the features," Chandramouli said. "We want to spend the effort on features that will eventually become a commercial reality."
Building the ecosystem
Cassaccia said he believes that some countries are more likely to use 5G Broadcast technology because the broadcasters already have licenses for UHF spectrum. And, in some cases, the wireless provider and the broadcasting company have the same parent company, making it easier to establish a business partnership.
But in the US, the FCC auctioned off UHF television spectrum in the 700MHz band in 2008. Most of those 700MHz licenses went to US wireless operators, and they used that spectrum to deploy 4G.
Nevertheless, Cassaccia envisions that some broadcasters and wireless providers will ink some sort of alliance because ultimately the broadcast content has to be received by a wireless device and that device will need a 5G Broadcast-compatible chipset.
He said that although broadcasters can string together a 5G Broadcast network using their broadcast towers, they must still have an end user device that has 5G Broadcast-equipped silicon to receive the broadcast signal. That's why Qualcomm is closely eying this area. "We want to see if there is enough momentum to make this feature a part of the silicon," he said.
But Qualcomm isn't the only champion of 5G Broadcast. The 5G Media Action Group (5G MAG), which is based in Geneva, Switzerland, includes members from technology companies, network operators, media groups and content companies. The group works with its members to collaborate on 5G solutions for the production and distribution of media content and services. Qualcomm is a member of 5G MAG as is Verizon and BT.
Jordi Gimenez, head of technology at 5G-MAG, said that the group is dedicated to working with the 3GPP on standards and makes sure that requirements for media applications are included in 3GPP standards. "We have trials of 5G Broadcast in Germany, Austria, Italy and France," he said.
The trial in Germany involves a consortium of companies, including Kathrein Broadcast GmbH, Porsche, Telekom Deutschland and Rohde & Schwarz, that have agreed to spend two years testing a service called 5G Media2Go. 5G Media2Go will use 5G Broadcast technology to provide media services in vehicles. The goal of the trial is to assess the viability of using 5G Broadcast to combine linear and non-linear content for consumption inside vehicles.
The trial uses two high-power transmitters from broadcast network sites in Stuttgart and Heilbronn, Germany, plus low-power transmitters at mobile network sites to create a single network. That network distributes linear TV programs using 5G Broadcast over UHF spectrum channel 40.
However, there are other trials as well. In Beijing, China, the country's National Radio and Television Administration is working on 5G field trials. The goal is to have a commercially deployed 5G Broadcast network in the country in time for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Cassaccia said that he hopes that the technology is commercially available in the next couple of years but admits that the biggest challenge is coming up with a business model. "There are business model and strategy questions that are being answered."
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.