From 4G to 5G: BT Sport on Coronavirus Forcing the Evolution of Broadcasting With Mobile Tech

Broadcasters are working hard to get content onto TV screens despite the self-isolation that most of the world finds itself in today due to the spread of COVID-19. BT Sport is one of those broadcasters finding solutions through the use of everyday technology. At the weekend, BT Sport was able to make the most of its Group affiliation with mobile operator, EE, to use 4G to bring a program host and participants together from their respective homes.

BT Sport’s ‘Live: Early Kick Off’ programme, broadcast at 11am on Saturday 28 March, was pulled together using EE’s 4G mobile network. All the technology for the show was set up by engineers at the homes of each participant (with the engineers working in isolation), with 4G used for all connectivity.

All participants – Adam Lallana, Peter Crouch, Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Savage and Russell Martin – were then able to be filmed at home alone, while host Jake Humphrey was filmed with the help of a technical producer and a camera operator in case of technical issues, all working at a safe distance; for this coming Saturday’s show, he will have a technical director only.

The entire programme’s crew from Sunset+Vine and BT Sport – director, executive producer, vision mixer, PA, EVS operator, and sound and graphics operators – also all worked from their respective homes.

While last weekend’s show was pre-recorded, BT Sport confirmed with SVG Europe that it hopes that the next one will be live. The broadcaster also said this was the way the programme will be produced until the world returns to pre-COVID-19 ways.

Pursuing the possibilities of 4G

Obviously this is not the first time that 4G has been used to broadcast; the first time was in 2013. EE launched 4G a year before the other UK operators because it was able to refarm some of its spectrum. Only days after it first launched the network, Matt Stagg, director of mobile strategy and lead of EE strategy for delivering 4G and 5G networks for the media and broadcast industries, had an impromptu request for help from Sky News, which had trouble getting an OB near to St Mary’s Hospital where Prince William’s first child was being born at the time. He came up with a solution using a 4G dongle for the broadcaster so the reporter at the hospital could be filmed.

Comments Stagg: “And that was the first broadcast over 4G, with breaking news. That was where we saw 4G’s potential; that it makes economic sense to use it as you don’t need a truck.”

However, Stagg adds: “Since 4G was launched [it has been used by] sports broadcasters, breaking news, and outside broadcasts in areas where you couldn’t get a satellite truck or where it wasn’t commercially viable to send a satellite truck. So then you would bond lots of 4G into one of the bonding devices and you could combine that with many different technologies, almost to scrape enough bandwidth together to be able to create a mobile solution, but you were still reliant on the fact that it was a ‘best effort’ network, almost on a hope and a prayer that you didn’t have lots of other people in the area doing other things on the network. 4G is one network for consumer, business; everything.”

SVG Europe’s Heather McLean taking part in BT Group’s world first broadcast over 5G with remote production, speaking with BT Sport presenter, Matt Smith

Unexpected consequences of 5G

5G is the answer to those issues around 4G. When EE and BT Sport worked together to carry out the world’s first remote production over 5G, for the Wembley Cup in November 2018, the production confirmed two unexpected consequences of using 5G; that it increased possibilities for remote working and therefore people’s work-life balance, and also that it increased the creative options for the crew.

Stagg explains: “Why 5G cameras? Remote production on its own has a huge advantage moving forward to how we do things now. It’s not necessarily a cost thing; even if it was cost neutral, it would be still much better to do remote. It’s the ability to have a work-life balance.

“When one of our directors, Gemma [Knight], was asked at IBC when we did a demonstration of 5G remote production into our marquee what does [the use of 5G remote production] mean for her personally, she answered, “I get to have breakfast with my son every day”. I think that’s very powerful in terms of the work-life balance, and especially where we are at the moment [with COVID-19]; it’s already allowing us to rethink the way we do things. There is also the carbon footprint reduction that remote production provides us with.”

He continues: “For tier two or three sports, you can have a four camera production that looks like an eight camera production, because [5G cameras] are easy to move. The big things that came out of our initial trials – we began looking at remote production before 5G, on 4G – and I always love unintended consequences, was the creativity and flexibility it gave our directors to be able to send a camera wherever they wanted. To send it on the pitch where the players were warming up; to be able to do that with a tethered camera, even with a radio camera so it can move around is just not viable.

“The first time we did it, our director said, “We can just move them anywhere?”, “Yes”, “OK, so can you just drive it in a car and meet the team bus?”. And that was the first really big, massive change in which mobile-connected cameras really changed the way things can be done. It is a big change, technically and culturally.”

This creativity led to more unexpected results, says Stagg: “It has always been seen that we would have 5G cameras for where you didn’t have an OB, so really we thought it’s unlikely to be used in big stadiums which are all fibred up; it’s for places without fibre. But when we discovered the creative opportunities of 5G, we realised actually, this was going to be a technology for within stadiums, to have that freedom, have that untethered ability, to have flexible cameras that can go anywhere at any time at the drop of a hat.”

Stagg then had to begin thinking about how 5G cameras could work within a fixed, traditional, OB environment, with a fibre infrastructure from the pitch to the studio. Edge computing is the answer. It gives EE the capability to connect the 5G cameras from their broadcast 5G network to, “some compute power within that cell or stadium that enables us to break out that [5G] feed and then send that directly to either the OB or directly to the fibre infrastructure and everything goes back [to the studio] and everything is in time, because the low latency on 5G means it will have the same latency as the fibre”.

He goes on: “And that really, really will be a massive gamechanger to have that mix as you’ll have the creativity combined with the fixed fibre infrastructure so you have the best of both worlds. And that will be really, really interesting when we start to move along that route.”

Matt Stagg, BT Sport

Slicing networks versus reality

Network slicing will enable mobile operators to provide users with separate slices of network completely independent from the consumer network, however, that dream is still a long way off as first, mobile operators need to build out a true 5G network core. Currently, 5G networks are based on the 4G core.

To give broadcasters what they need today, EE is moving on. Stagg says: “We took a step back and said are we talking about network slicing, or are we talking about meeting the needs of an industry, a broadcaster that needs to use 5G for cameras? [The latter] doesn’t say what technology you need to use; what it actually says is we will get a request for guaranteed bandwidth, guaranteed latency, coverage in locations, and reliability. That doesn’t mean network slicing.

“Network slicing is still a way off because that demands the network and whole core network to be built. Our consumer network for 5G is built to roll out as quickly as possible, to enable that maximum bandwidth and lower latency for people to have a great experience. Some of these extra things that are required for vertical [industries] will be coming down the roadmap, but that doesn’t say there aren’t different ways of doing what is needed as we move there.”

Stagg notes that for broadcasters, it is about providing what they need, now: “For broadcast networks I have a three year roadmap and in the end it’s going to be a proper, integrated service with a complete wrap around of service level agreements and support. But actually what we can do now are a number of things on the way there. One thing might be we can prioritise certain traffic by building a virtual separate network; we have to be careful about net neutrality, but if we talk about specialist services, that’s ok to do. It might be that we have broadcasting packets that have prioritisation over others in certain situations. It might be that we look at private 5G networks; one of the big things we’re looking at now for stadiums is private networks, that don’t necessarily have to go through core technology. We may be able to use Edge computing, where we actually give Wembley or other stadiums a private 5G network in that’s used for the broadcasters in there.

“So there are a number of ways of delivering the requirements of the industry and meeting those KPIs in the most technically viable and commercially viable way. It may be network slicing in the end, but there are a number of ways we can increase capabilities and allow broadcasters to use the technology for remote production, untethered cameras, or in areas where trucks aren’t viable, including in tier two or three sports.”

However, is mobile technology cheaper than existing satellite use? Stagg comments: “One of the things we’ve always talked about is, if you’re going to use mobile technology, we need to work out if it’s cheaper than satellite bandwidth. Actually the cost isn’t comparable to how much it costs comparable to how much it costs for 100MBps on satellite versus the same on a mobile, over 4G and as we go to 5G. It’s actually all the infrastructure you need to get an hour of footage from a camera back to the studio. We’re not just talking satellite bandwidth; we’re talking the trucks, the crew, MOTs, parking them, all of that stuff is a massive problem.

“What happened with 5G is I’d say [broadcasting is] the best defined use case of 5G, other than it gives our consumers more bandwidth. The reason is we had a solution that needed one extra thing on 4G and that was the capability to give people something that wasn’t best effort. So that meant having a way of being able to do this. When 5G came in I lobbied with other mobile operators in media and entertainment globally, to say in the 5G standards is we need this capability.”

Next season and UEFA Euro 2020

5G technology will continue to be showcased with trials, demonstrations and broadcasts at Wembley Stadium, says Stagg. “At each stage of the evolution of 5G technology we will be testing at Wembley and other places. So BT Sport will be using 5G from next season, whenever next season is, in various places and in various sports.”

On the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament which is now postponed until 2021, Stagg says: “We were looking at everything we could do [for the broadcast of this competition]. One of the biggest things was the investment that we are already putting into Wembley and we will continue to make sure that everybody in that stadium has the best connectivity they can to do whatever they want whenever they want. So the number one priority is still to make that the world’s best connected stadium.”

5G is going to open up a lot of possibilities for both within stadiums and for viewers at home. Stagg comments on COVID-19 and how it is forcing people to change their viewing habits: “At the moment, whatever happens [with COVID-19] and however this plays out, a football fan wants to be in the stadium and that’s it. If you’re not in the stadium, you want to be with your friends in front of a big screen. That’s not going to happen now. So what you end up with is you’re watching it on your own, so how do we enhance that experience?

“One of them is using the BT Sport app as a second screen and being able to use the big screen apps that we’ve got. We at BT Sport should be able to leverage our assets to make things better for people when they can’t go out. We’ll all come out of this very differently. Some of the things that will [be created or] will happen to help people enjoy anything when they’re isolated; necessity drives invention and so I think we’ll come out of this [crisis] with things we’ll still use that will enhance people’s experiences when all of this has gone away.”

He continues on what we will see from BT Sport going forward: “We will have in and outside of stadiums the ability to have a full broadcast-grade network [over 5G]. If there’s [5G] coverage there’ll be no need to use satellite, and within stadiums we will have private 5G networks.”

Virtual and enhanced AR possibilities

5G will open up a world of virtual and enhanced possibilities, according to Stagg. He enthuses: “When you start to look inside stadiums, there’s a lot of technology that 5G brings to the stadium that isn’t necessarily broadcasting, [such as] augmented reality (AR) opportunities to enhance the stadium experience.

“When you look at season tickets holders only ever sat in one seat, it  might be quite nice if they could see a penalty taken from the other end for once, and to have some of that capability that we bring out already through uses of our app, like multiple 360 degree cameras and multiple camera angles; in the stadium today people don’t get that [because of lack of mobile network strength] but with 5G, they will. Long term we can use AR second screen to enhance their experience, and we can also use it for stadium security, communications, videos, for marshals, the ability to monitor where crowds are.

“The really interesting one is where we move into the new data we get from sensors. We’ll have sensors all over the place and [over the 5G network] you’ll be able to collate all that data and compute it within the stadium for real time analytics.”

He continues: “We are looking at how we can use technology when sport starts to come back on [after we are through the COVID-19 pandemic]. We are looking at everything we have as a Group [BT, BT Sport, EE] to try and make things as good as possible, and when everything’s back to normal, we have lots of innovations planned, not just football; MotoGP is a fantastic opportunity for us to be able to look at AR at home because there is so much information there.”

He draws a comparison between object-based broadcasting and the potential within AR: “When you look at object-based broadcasting, the more you see on screen, the smaller the screen gets. If you look at AR, you have your whole room to put things in. You have your big screen anchored to the wall, you have your volumetric holographic table with the [MotoGP] circuit over on one side, and you can talk to your friends even though they aren’t sat next to you. There are so many data points that will come back on MotoGP for you to be to use to enhance the experience. Some people just want to watch the start on the big screen but you can have every single thing about every driver, every camera, all the statistics, be able to see holographically where the drivers are, and you have a whole room to be able to do that.

“You can be sat in exactly the same room as someone and you could just have some different stuff to look at,” he continues. “I really think that’s a great way of bringing people closer together, even if they have a different way they want to watch sport. It’s being able to move from a one-to-many way of watching sport, as broadcasting’s always been, to a one-to-one experience, and that’s where we’re going. To bring that one-to-one experience to people without taking them out of that social aspect.”

Concluding, Stagg says: “People say AR will never take off; no one wants to do anything [other than the norm]. But immersive experiences have been going for years; my dad used to take a radio [with him to the football stadium] and listen to the commentary. That was the first augmented experience because you got more than you would have by just being there. The possibilities of AR are immense.”