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Fifth generation harmony

The promise of 5G as a world-changing technology might seem like it is still a long way off, but the potential impact of gigabit mobile speeds on video consumption is already making waves. Rebecca Hawkes reports.

We might be forgiven if we thought the emergence of 5G would cure all of society’s ills, given the hype surrounding this next-generation mobile technology.

Indeed, 5G is set to usher in ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ (on a historical par with the introduction of steam engines, electricity and the Internet), Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri told the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month.

Furthermore, by 2035, 5G will enable a whopping US$12.3 trillion of global economic output, “nearly equivalent to US consumer spending in 2016 and more than the combined spending by consumers in China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France in 2016”, a recent IHS report for Qualcomm estimates.

Yet, despite the clamour about driverless cars and robotics, a tight definition of the technology and its conceivable impact remains elusive. A valiant attempt by Chinese technology giant Huawei is that with 5G’s introduction “any mobile app and any mobile service will be given the potential to connect to anything at any time – from people and communities to physical things, processes, content, working knowledge, timely pertinent information and goods”.

Transformative indeed, but we are still some way off this smart, networked utopia. Technical standards are still being agreed and, although field trials are under way, commercial deployments of 5G networks are not generally expected before 2020.

“It was not until eight years after the launch of 4G that the number of 3G subscribers globally peaked, so this is going to be a long journey,” warns Philip Kendall, executive director – wireless operator strategies at Strategy Analytics.

There has, however, been some recent progress. In early March, the technical specification body 3GPP introduced an intermediate milestone for one part of 5G, the non-standalone 5G New Radio (NR). This suggests completion by March 2018 paving the way for some commercial launches in 2019 – though a few 5G trials in the US and South Korea may morph into pilot services before then.

Will the revolution be televised?

With the massive global increase in mobile video streaming, 5G’s promise of greater capacity and swifter delivery is undeniably alluring.

The weekly share of time spent watching TV and video on mobile devices has grown by 85% in the six years to 2016, according to Ericsson, with average viewing times on mobile devices growing by more than 200 hours a year since 2012. Variations on how TV and video are consumed could signal even greater bandwidth pressure for existing 4G LTE networks.

Globally, over-the-top (OTT) networks are adding video subscribers at an impressive rate, high-quality 4K HD is drawing more admirers, and an emerging trend for immersive viewing using virtual or augmented reality is gathering pace.

YouTube and now Vimeo are enabling content creators to broadcast using high-resolution video in both 360-degree and standard video formats at a rate of 60 frames per second, while Google has introduced the Daydream mobile virtual reality (VR) platform – already offering Netflix VR and HBO Now VR apps, and an increasing range of compatible smartphones.

Enhanced smartphone screens demand more bandwidth, however, and the delivery of 4K VR could require a significant amount – with estimations of between 300-600Mbps per stream, depending on resolution, frame rates, compression levels and video properties.

This is where 5G could help. Optimists suggest 5G will increase network capacity by 1,000 times, with an increase of between 10 and 100 times the bandwidth for the end user (up to 1Gbps). Latency, which impacts the time between pressing play and seeing a video start to stream, could also be reduced to less than 3 milliseconds.

Fixed wireless access (FWA) could, says Ericsson, double the impact of a 5G deployment by addressing both mobile broadband and fixed broadband simultaneously. The 5G beams that serve mobile users outdoors during the day could be redirected to an FWA terminal when people return home.

The benefits of FWA would include rapid service roll out, lower roll out costs and lower operational expenditure compared with fibre-to-home and other wireline solutions.

Is 5G the panacea for convergence?

Infrastructure vendors and telecommunications operators are certainly hoping so, but some industry watchers offer a more pragmatic view of 5G’s potential.

“I think it is important not to get too carried away with 5G’s ability to solve all the industry’s problems,” warns Strategy Analytics’ Philip Kendall. “There are good business models for the early introduction of 5G services for fixed wireless access. And there is real potential also for linear TV on 5G as the use of beam forming with massive multiple input / multiple output (MIMO) and spatial diversity allows quality of service guarantee.”

Kendall adds that while no one is going to be ripping up fibre or cable: “there are going to be scenarios where 5G makes sense, linked to issues such as housing density, availability of a fibre node nearby, cost of pulling fibre directly to premises, etc.”

The most compelling arguments to embrace 5G technology will, in the medium term, come down to a cost versus coverage versus performance issue, says the analyst.

“There are well-developed broadband markets, e.g. Germany or Australia, where fixed LTE routers have a role to play in extending broadband reach. Those fixed LTE services are not delivering linear TV today and are really just about high-speed Internet and related use of streaming/subscription video services. What 5G has the potential to offer is that support for linear TV, but we just need to see how some of this year’s trials get on with that in the US.”

Testing the water

During a 5G demonstration in December, Verizon and Samsung successfully achieved multi-gigabit per second speeds at distances of up 1,500 feet. In the first half of 2017, Verizon will take millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum trials to the consumer. Partnering with Samsung and Ericsson it will offer free 5G TV and Internet trials to select customers in Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Bernardsville, New Jersey, Brockton, Massachusetts, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Sacramento, Seattle and Washington DC.

Meanwhile, competitor AT&T is set to begin 5G trials to deliver its Direct NOW TV service to subscribers in Austin, Texas, in partnership with Intel, Ericsson and Qualcomm. The operator recently disclosed that data on its mobile network has increased about 250,000% since 2007, with the majority being video traffic.

“The trials really are key to understanding how well 5G technology converts from the labs and limited field tests to real-world conditions, so seeing how well mmWave 5G networks can support very high levels of video traffic,” says Kendall. “Verizon already owns large blocks of mmWave spectrum, and so could move relatively quickly from trials to commercial services later this year.”

South Korea’s operators are also developing pre-standard 5G services for the PyeongChangWinter Olympics in February 2018. In December, telco KT Corporation said it had arrived at speeds of 2.5Gbps at both indoor and urban trials and expects to reach 5Gbps at PyeongChang.

Other collaborations include the demonstration by SK Telecom, Deutsche Telekom and Ericsson of the world’s first intercontinental 5G trial network, while in January, Singapore’s StarHub and Huawei claimed transit speeds of 35.15Gbps, in a 5G trial conducted using 2GHz at the e-band.

Around the world, announcements are coming thick and fast: those operators that aren’t yet conducting or planning 5G trials are certainly paying close attention.

While 5G TV looks set to represent a further stage in the convergence of media and communications, and wireless and fixed services, it remains to be seen how it affects the structure of the media value chain and the role of the players involved.

“Once the many technical challenges involved in delivering 5G-based TV services are resolved, and those networks have sufficient geographic reach to make TV services viable, the major issue for operators and service providers will be content rights,” says David Mercer, VP & principal analyst in Strategy Analytics’ Digital Consumer Practice.

“5G operators will have to decide to what extent they participate in the media business, and what sort of relationships they should build.”

Sound familiar?

If you want to learn more about the implications of a 5G enabled multi-platform TV experience, join us at TV Connect on Wednesday, 29 March 2017 at 12:15  for a panel session asking How is Multiplatform Driving the Industry Towards Convergence?