SVGE Audio Group Meeting: 5G Is Next Inflection Point for Broadcast Sports

Presenters, panelists, attendees discuss audio production, workflows, and more

Presented by SVG Europe, SVG, and the DTV Audio Group, SVGE’s Zoom event last week focused on what is widely considered the next inflection point in sports production and examined 5G audio production, workflows, use cases, and standards development.

Presenting were Ian Wagdin, senior technology transfer manager, BBC Research and Development, and Dr. María-Dolores (Lola) Pérez Guirao, spectrum policy and standards manager, Pro Audio – Portfolio Management, Sennheiser. On the panel were Mario Reis, director, telecommunications, Olympic Broadcasting Services; Matt Stagg, director, mobile strategy, BT Sport; Tom Sahara, media technologist and advisor, chairman emeritus, SVG; and Jackie Green, director, Nexonic Design.

5G is already becoming integral to broadcast production in Europe and Asia. In the U.S., its presence is somewhat hazier, with the term 5G having been commandeered by mobile-provider marketing departments, but, as cloud-based production increasingly becomes the norm, 5G will inevitably be a major part of U.S. infrastructure.

Some panelists and contributors had this to say in response to questions about 5G:

CP Communications’ Henry Cohen: “[5G is] not going to be the solution to spectrum shortage, but it will be another tool in the toolbox.”

As Tom Sahara noted during the panel, “5G is looked at as the holy grail by many.” In your opinion, is 5G the solution for spectrum problems? Why (or why not)?
Henry Cohen
, senior RF systems design engineer, CP Communications: It’s not going to be the solution to spectrum shortage, but it will be another tool in the toolbox, potentially a powerful one. As Jackie [Green] so aptly pointed out, the creative teams are demanding so many wireless elements, no single frequency band or technology is going to be the answer; it’s going to be a combination based on deployment scenarios for the various wireless elements.

Joel Guilbert, technology development manager, Dale Pro Audio: While mm wave and other 5G spectral technologies are great advances, for simple RF mic transmission, the penetration of 5-600 MHz using our existing complement of antennas and best RF practices will be hard to replace. It will require educating new users on the advantages of the new systems.

David Missall, insights manager consultants and technical application engineer manager, BizCom, Sennheiser: It’s too early to tell if the wireless-microphone–manufacturing business case will align with the technology and support needed from the cellular companies and, at the same time, exceeding the needs of the broadcast customer. If we do go in this direction, it should bring an improved level of quality, service, and feature set to the industry. The potential is there, but a lot of alignment [needs] to be done.

Jackie Green, director, Nexonic Design: 5G is not the ultimate solution for spectrum problems. The race to be able to claim “first in 5G” is one of the reasons so much spectrum is being auctioned or repurposed. However, the technologies and concepts behind 5G are very important to our own wireless-audio needs. 5G-device density is exploding while still maintaining effective performance despite a finite amount of spectrum.

Those same tools need to be employed for our own products for two reasons: 1) eventually, we won’t have any uncompromised spectrum available for use, and 2) workflows and production processes are evolving, becoming more automated, becoming more integrated, and becoming more efficient. Where work product used to be a reasonably closed loop in a very specific location, we have already migrated into an expanded loop and, sometimes, a completely open loop over many various locations.

We won’t have spectrum to operate the old way, but we also won’t want to operate that way once the flexibility and operational efficiency drive a better creative product. One more point about 5G: it’s a step on the way to even bigger and more impressive accomplishments. But it’s still only a step, not the destination.

Tom Sahara also pointed out, “There’s a focus on the management side of media companies to explore 5G, [but it] creates problems for engineering teams to figure out how to get there.” Are the business case and engineering case lining up at this point? What does management expect 5G to do, and what are the engineering challenges it faces?
Not being at that level of management, I don’t really know what their expectations are, other than generically far too optimistic, thinking it’s the great technological panacea at low dollars. Definitely a recipe for disappointment. That said, management’s interest in 5G technology, I think, is great insofar as it provides time and budget resources for engineering departments to dig deep into its capabilities, discuss with carriers and OEMs, form cohesive industry working groups, and manage management’s expectations.

Guilbert: It would be great for both parties to be on the same page, but, traditionally, the broadcaster isn’t overtly looking for ways to spend money, which the media companies’ demands currently would require.

Missall: There has been years of buildup to the advantages and potential of 5G, so management expectation can suggest, “Just do it, it’s going to be great.” But the reality is, a lot of design and, most important, collaboration with the cellular industry has to take a place. Wireless-microphone 5G access for the cellular industry is not a priority. The conversations have to get to a deeper level to set expectations and a roadmap. Decisions and insight have to be found on codecs, security, encryption, scalability, support, to name a few.

Nexonic Design’s Jackie Green: “5G is a step on the way to even bigger and more impressive accomplishments. But it’s still only a step, not the destination.”

Green: In terms of the business case and engineering case lining up, not yet, but, this last year, we were forced into an accelerated acceptance of some changes. Both management and technical staff had no choice but to operate differently. In an industry which counts on the highest quality and reliability, change is a difficult concept. Acceptance of the spectrum crunch has been especially difficult. I think (and hope) that the last year may have helped some realize that there are new technologies and new methods that can actually step in and support creative production with quality and features that viewers/listeners appreciate. I believe the door has just been opened to the awareness of other possibilities.

That’s a first step. Then, two more things have to happen: management must learn that, by upgrading their wireless tools, they will actually be able to operate more flexibly, more reliably, and more cost-effectively; and, second, 5G supporting technology will be developed and refined for other mass-market applications, and those developments will also be exactly what we need to effectively build our products to the performance levels we require. My prediction is, alignment will start happening in a way we can see in 2024.

How can the broadcast and cellular industries best coordinate?
Cohen: I don’t have a definitive answer, but I would say it has to start with a deep understanding by each party as to the other’s technical requirements, capabilities and limitations, and business models (ROI, among other things). If broadcast/entertainment is too small a revenue stream for cellular, we’re nothing more than an irritant; if cellular can’t respond fast enough for us or provide the capacity and QoS we need, at best it’s frustrating for all and a waste of time. At worst, it’s a crash-and-burn.

Dale Pro Audio’s Joel Guilbert: “Having technical sources from [the broadcast and cellular] sides discussing relevant needs is going to realistically accomplish so much more in a smaller amount of time.”

Guilbert: The recent example of T-Mobile’s outreach to the broadcast community is a great one to build on. Having technical sources from both sides discussing relevant needs is going to realistically accomplish so much more in a smaller amount of time than translating technical requirements through other parties. Let marketing do marketing.

Missall: Interoperability between service providers, manufacturers, broadcast media, and the cellular industry is more important than ever. Closer collaboration between these groups is needed to find solutions and deliver the customer a good product on all levels.

Green: Those who think it should be used will probably expect it to do everything. After all, 5G isn’t one specific thing, and I think there is just a vague idea about 5G being important from a technology standpoint but not what it will accomplish. Remember when everything had to have the label “digital” on it? It’s not so different.

The good news is, most people are experiencing the gradual synthesis of their daily lives with the very tools that 5G and beyond are bringing. We are all consuming the work products of 20-plus years of development and innovation without even realizing what is involved. We don’t see how rapidly the R&D and standards people are working to resolve and evolve operational requirements while staying ahead of what is predicted to be a trillion-dollar industry for Wi-Fi alone by 2025.

The engineering challenge will be working with these companies and standards bodies to find a way to participate and introduce the concepts of our performance requirements in ways that can be integrated into what is being built. I don’t even think it’s a question of “if” we adopt and participate. If there are trillions of consumer wireless devices in the U.S. alone, we are not going to hold on to our old ways of operating. I said there is a wave coming, but it’s probably more like a tsunami.

Participating in global communications and radio forums is important. I really like that SVG invited T-Mobile to participate in spectrum discussions and that T-Mobile participated in a meaningful way. Participating on IEEE technical groups is a good idea as well. Continuous dialog and information-sharing must take place between all the industries involved. I can tell you from my own direct experience that the requirements behind real-time full audio performance are not well-understood. We must participate and educate. I have found that most are very interested and receptive.

In your opinion, what has to happen to make 5G happen for sports production?
Lots of things.

For public networks:

  • Carriers need to have real 5G air interface in the areas of all major venues, including DAS deployments. And plenty of spectrum in which 5G is deployed.
  • Broadcast/entertainment subscriber units would need to have some level of QoS prioritization on the network.
  • There has to be the high-bandwidth backhaul from the cell tower to the public internet.

For non-public networks:

  • True 5G base-station infrastructure has to be available as COTS at “reasonable” pricing.
  • Broadcast/entertainment would need some level of spectrum priority.

In general:

  • Infrastructure (whether public or non), the video/audio subscriber units and the available spectrum must in fact be capable of the kind of throughputs required for the signal qualities we want to transmit to the consumer.

The gap, I believe, that exists between what entertainment/sports production requires and what cellular chipset manufacturers (and, by extension, the OEMs and carriers) can provide performance-wise needs better understanding by both sides.

Guilbert: Simply put, solid available bandwidth at a reasonable cost.

Green: Clearly, we need the two steps listed in aligning business case with engineering case. More specifically, as related to our own industry, we must watch and participate in the development of details around edge computing. AI, cognitive beacons, spectrum management, deterministic prioritization, and optimizing for appropriate performance by selecting different wireless technologies or different frequency bands are all being worked on right now.

My phone has the phone part but also Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth, and UWB. It operates over a huge range of frequencies. Samsung’s concept of “Intelligent Human Edge” is where everything is headed now. Sports production could happen now via 5G, but, for the product to be built, I think we need to look at higher spectrum where there are much larger amounts of bandwidth. Bandwidth is key to almost all our performance needs, including containing latency.

My short list of wants is:

  • Higher-spectrum operation for wide enough bandwidth (500 MHz UWB, 320 MHz WIFI and mm-Wave)
  • Intelligent carrier aggregation
  • Network structures that prioritize ultra-reliable low-latency audio traffic
  • Time-sync precision well under 10 ppm
  • Smart management of local spectrum via AI/cognitive master (preferably in communication with AFC, automated frequency coordination database) aligned with the same configuration and management structure on the entire network chain.

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