Orange spurns slicing and opts for Cisco private 5G at Olympics

Using Samsung S24 smartphones as cameras, along with core and RAN gear from Cisco, Orange says it will capture footage that traditional systems would not.

Iain Morris, International Editor

July 10, 2024

5 Min Read
Athletes in front of Eiffel Tower
(Source: Paris 2024)

Olympic ceremonies are a glorious opportunity for host cities to flaunt themselves before an international TV audience of billions, and the Paris organizers are in a showy mood. On July 26, the Seine will become a watery parade of boats, each bringing sportspeople for a specific country downriver. Thousands of spectators will crowd the banks, while onboard cameras will make armchair viewers feel as if they are seated next to the athletes.

But what the official website doesn't say is that the cameras provided will be smartphones. Three years since 5G had a disappointing catwalk at the Tokyo Olympics, the mobile technology will play a bigger role in sports broadcasting than it ever has. Orange, the French operator charged with providing the telecom infrastructure and services for the Paris Olympics, has built a "private" 5G network, separate from its public one, along a 6km stretch of the Seine to convey smartphone boat footage to the TV production center. The same technology is also being deployed at several venues, including the Stade de France, Arena Bercy and Paris La Défense Arena.

The boat footage would be impossible to capture with traditional broadcast systems, including the cameras normally used at these events, insisted Bertrand Rojat, the chief marketing and innovation officer for Orange Events, on a call with reporters this week. "If you want to have live images from the athletes, you need to have cameras on the boats," he said. "It's just not possible with regular cameras. It's too heavy, too expensive, too difficult to deploy."

It would perhaps be an even bigger challenge at the Marina de Marseille, where sailing takes place. Besides using private 5G for Paris events, Orange is installing cell antennas on sailing vessels off the south coast to screen competitors as they race for gold. During the Paris opening ceremony, some 200 smartphone cameras on boats will be linked to Orange's private 5G network, said Rojat.

'Fully separate network'

The network Orange has built uses the "standalone" (SA) version of 5G, meaning there is not just a new radio network but also a successor to the 4G "core," the software-based control center of the entire system. With network slicing, a much-publicized feature of 5G SA, operators can reserve part of a public network for private use, attaching performance guarantees to this virtual slice. Yet the private network in this case really is a separate physical thing.

"It is a fully private network, so it is a dedicated infrastructure which runs alongside the commercial network," said Rojat, explaining why Orange preferred this to network slicing on public 5G. "We are using different frequencies, we are using different infrastructure, just to make sure we can on one side provide the quality of service required for the public and on the other side we can meet what is required for TV broadcast."

Those requirements include low latency, a measure in milliseconds of the roundtrip journey time for a data signal on the network. Along with slicing, this has been heavily promoted by 5G vendors as an attraction of 5G SA technology. Orange also needed sufficient capacity for the uploading of ultra-high-definition content to the production center. "This is why it is a fully separate network," said Rojat. "We are using the full scope of what a 5G standalone network can provide, where we prioritize also the uplink."

Orange relies mainly on Nordic vendors Ericsson and Nokia for its public 5G network in France. But it sought alternatives for the private 5G. All network equipment, covering both the core and the radio access network, comes from US-headquartered Cisco, known mainly in mobile for providing core network products to operators like Vodafone in the UK and Rakuten in Japan. The hardware for this features Intel's chips, said Orange.

As for the smartphones used to shoot footage, Orange is relying exclusively on the Samsung S24. That model is not only compatible with 5G SA technology but also has "an advanced software configuration to handle the video streaming with high quality, including HDR," according to an Orange spokesperson answering follow-up questions by email.

The French don't Wi-Fi

Meanwhile, the public 5G network is also being strengthened to cope with an Olympics that will comprise 878 sports events (up to 35 of which may be taking place at one time) and host 13.5 million ticket holders. Around 50 mobile connectivity units, as Rojat calls them, have been rolled out at major sports venues. A "dynamic mechanism" trialed at last year's Rugby World Cup, which also took place in France, allows Orange to optimize spectrum use and boost capacity, said Rojat.

Orange talks somewhat dismissively about Wi-Fi, seen by other technology companies as the main option for smartphone data use at sports events. "In France, we don't use Wi-Fi. We use mobile networks," said Rojat. "We are deploying Wi-Fi, but it is for media, for the organizing committee, for all the technical staff. It is a B2B Wi-Fi network. For the public, this is why we have enhanced all our mobile coverage." While removable equipment has been deployed at temporary venues, the Stade de France and other permanent fixtures will enjoy a lasting upgrade.

Underpinning all that is a 60-site Internet Protocol network with a total capacity of 100 gigabits per second. It features about 100,000 "Internet plugs," said Rojat, to connect journalists, cash machines, control systems for ticketing and so on. The Wi-Fi system on top of this, meanwhile, is to sprawl across 10,000 access points. Orange, importantly, can also control, manage and set up the IP network remotely. "That is for us a very big step forward," said Rojat.

Orange would not say how much all this has cost, but the investments do not appear to have had a major impact on headline capital expenditure. In France, last year, that fell about 10%, on a comparable basis, to about €3 billion (US$3.3 billion), largely because Orange cut spending on fixed broadband after "major investments made in recent years." Group capex rose 2.5% year-over-year for the recent first quarter, to nearly €1.6 billion ($1.7 billion).

The telco is, nevertheless, under the pressure of an individual competitor without any teammates to offer support. "We will be the sole operator to deliver all the telecommunication services, where for example in Tokyo there were five operators," said Rojat. "It is on one side a big responsibility." Two weeks from now, a few billion people will be watching.

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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