To Infinity and Beyond: 5G, the next step in video evolution

While 5G has made headlines for years, actual deployment is finally approaching. With the first phase of specifications recently approved (Release-15), we hear more and more about new 5G implementations and pilot programs all over the world. By 2025 total data traffic generated by 5G connections is set to reach 955 Exabytes annually, generating a forecasted $300 billion in revenue. Understandably, these high stakes are setting the stage for a race to the top among mobile operators and vendors.

In the US, AT&T has recently announced it would launch its 5G network in the next few weeks. The UK mobile network EE, part of the BT Group, plans to upgrade 1,500 sites in sixteen UK cities to 5G during 2019. In Spain, Vodafone is rolling out 5G trials in collaboration with Chinese vendor Huawei, and already installed more than 30 antennas in major cities. In Scandinavia, Telenor recently launched the first 5G pilot in Kongsberg, Norway.

Once deployed, 5G connectivity is expected to make a major difference in our lives and the way we use and consume data. But before we discuss the implications of 5G, let’s review the history of mobile connectivity.

A brief history of (almost) five generations

The history of wireless communications dates back to 1895, when Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi performed the first successful radio system experiment, demonstrating the transmission of radio signals over a 2-kilometer distance. Many radio waves have passed through the air since. During the better half of the 20th century, wireless signals were used mainly for broadcast. It was only when Motorola scientist Martin Cooper invented the first handheld cellular mobile phone in 1973 that the mobile communications revolution began. The world’s first mobile network was introduced in 1979 in Japan by Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, followed by Nordic Mobile Telephone which launched its mobile network in Scandinavia in 1981, and by the first US mobile network Ameritech in 1983. These first-generation networks – 1G – were based on a technology called Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS), which used analog signals to enable voice communication.

The second generation, 2G, emerged in the 1980s and introduced a new technology: Global Systems for Mobile Communication (GSM). At this point, wireless communication finally entered the digital age, and allowed text, images, and multimedia messaging (MMS) on top of voice communication, as well as data transfer rates of up to 64 Kbps. Unlike the first generation, 2G utilized digital encryption, which provided better security. Proving to be more efficient, this technology allowed greater penetration levels, making cellular communications more popular than ever before.

In 2000, 3G wireless communications introduced video calls and data connection speeds of 0.2 to 2 Mbps. This enabled the use of web applications and brought the first smartphones into the world, forever changing our lives with on-the-go access to email, internet browsing, social media, and video streaming.

The standard for the fourth generation of wireless communications, which appeared in 2008, set the peak speed requirement for 4G service at 100 Mbps. As such, 4G networks are capable of handling more advanced multimedia services as well as high-quality video streaming. They offer reduced latency and higher data rates of up to 1 Gbps thanks to LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology.

LTE penetration rate chart

Although many networks have yet to deploy 4G, 5G is already set to take the world by storm in the coming years.

Along came 5G

The term 5G refers to a variety of technologies that intend to create ultra-fast wireless connectivity aiming at 20 Gbps, according to the IMT-2020 standard set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The standard refers to three types of services, each with different requirements that 5G is meant to support:

  • eMBB – Enhanced Mobile Broadband – greater capacity and faster connection for mobile devices and homes, supporting stable connections with high peak data rates. Initial 5G deployments are planned to focus on eMBB;
  • URLLC – Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications – low latency (1ms) connectivity for mission-critical applications including real-time control of devices, autonomous vehicles, etc. These services require low latency for small payload transmissions with very high reliability. URLLC implementation is expected to start at a later stage of 5G deployment, as URLLC standardization is due to be completed in Release-16, later in 2019;
  • MMTC – Massive Machine-Type Communications – Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity that supports a massive number of sporadically active connected devices that send small data payloads. As MMTC standardization is expected in Release-16, this type of service is not expected to be implemented in the next couple of years.

The worldwide commercial launch of 5G mobile services is expected by 2020. These services intend to deliver on the promise of super-fast internet by harnessing unutilized spectrum (under 6 GHz), and more so by using millimeter waves (above 6 GHz) for data transmission.

High frequencies, aka millimeter waves, open up a wide spectrum for higher bandwidth channels that accommodate extremely high speeds. The use of millimeter waves for consumer devices, however, will require significantly more base stations than needed when using lower frequencies, as millimeter wave connection ranges tend to be quite short and easily obstructed by even small objects. 5G will therefore necessitate a different architecture, using multiple smaller, low-power microcell base stations with Massive’ MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antennas which are able to send and receive more data simultaneously, connecting more users at the same time to the network while maintaining high throughput.

Nevertheless, 5G deployments require more than physical equipment. Using new parts of the spectrum means authorities need to distribute additional frequencies to operators. Governments around the world already plan to auction wave spectrums for 5G services as early as the first quarter of 2019. The US Federal Communications Commission very recently held its first high-band 5G spectrum auction. Spectrum allocations, however, are not complications-free; with many stakeholders vying for a piece of the pie, this process might take much longer than expected.

Though infrastructure is rapidly developing, some ask whether these networks are being built ahead of demand. By 2021 5G-capable smartphones are expected to account for only 15% of total worldwide shipments. This means that it will still take a few years and hardware buying cycles before the majority of consumers enjoy the benefits of limitless connectivity.

Fast forward to the 5G era – the end of data limits?

Whenever the 5G revolution reaches our devices, faster connections and limitless data will significantly affect viewing habits and will drive major changes in the content and broadcasting ecosystem. As video is predicted to account for 90% of all 5G traffic by 2028, the new connectivity era is bound to heavily affect broadcasters and content owners worldwide.

Mobile content consumption on the rise

The first and most obvious impact of 5G on viewing habits is the expected growth in mobile video consumption. With 4G, we saw a huge rise in mobile viewing, and by 2021 video is expected to account for 78% of all mobile data traffic. Accordingly, advertisers plan to spend $30bn on mobile video ads next year. Mobile devices already account for 58% of all videos watched globally, and with 57% YoY growth in mobile video plays, it’s no wonder industry players like Netflix are exploring mobile-only subscriptions.

5G is bound to significantly accelerate this growth and not only thanks to improved cellular coverage and connection speeds. Data caps have been constantly and linearly increasing over the years – from 1 GB a few years ago to 35 GB, 50 GB, and even 100 GB today. Data plans of our time are certainly generous, but not literally limitless, a term loosely used by quite a few carriers. With 5G however, lower costs per bit are expected to bring affordable and truly unlimited mobile data packages, better adapted to heavy media usage. Invalidating the congestion management excuse for capping data plans, many in the media industry expect 5G to finally give operators the chance to make good on their promise of “unlimited” data, putting an end to data plan caps.

A true chance for AR & VR

5G is not only about mobile. It is poised to provide home broadband connections incredible speeds and low latencies. These may finally give formats like VR their big break, with higher resolutions allowing users to benefit from a true-to-life, immersive experience. 5G is expected to help unlock AR & VR applications that create more than $140bn in cumulative revenues between 2021 and 2028. Earlier this month Huawei unveiled the first 8K VR live broadcast based on 5G networks in China, and this is only the beginning. Provided 5G delivers the predicted high bandwidth, low latency, and connection stability, many predict that eMBB will bring widespread adoption of VR broadcast across various industries including entertainment, retail, and wellness.

More live-streamed events on the horizon

The next generation of wireless communication may also impact content production, especially live event streaming. Minimal latency combined with dedicated bandwidth allocation (network slicing) allows content owners to remotely produce live broadcasts. This was recently demonstrated in the UK, when BT performed the first live broadcast with remote production over 5G. No longer required to ship technical teams and equipment to event locations, broadcasters will be able to produce more live content, covering additional live matches, award ceremonies, press conferences and other live events in numerous locations.

New broadcasting technology?

5G may increase use of Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast, or eMBMS, also known as LTE Broadcast. In use since 2014, eMBMS is a specification designed to provide efficient delivery of broadcast and multicast services over the LTE network. As it takes a significant part of a base station bandwidth, it has mostly been used for local broadcasting to multiple devices in geographical proximity (to spectators in a stadium during a game, for example). As the 5G Release-15 only addresses unicast communications, the specifications for eMBMS are still not defined. This, however, does not keep broadcasters from experimenting with the technology. Earlier this year the German broadcast technology institute IRT announced its 5G Today project to test 5G FeMBMS (Further evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service) in the Bavarian Oberland region.

While the magnitude of its revolutionary effect remains to be seen, 5G brings exciting new opportunities for the broadcasting and publishing industry. Here at Streamroot, we look forward to experimenting with this technology to take mobile content delivery capacity even further. And while we are excited to see how this new generation of connectivity will cater to audiences’ growing appetite for mobile video, our distributed delivery technology already helps broadcasters around the world infinitely increase their streaming capacity to desktops, mobile devices, and smart TVs. If you’d like to learn more about our content delivery solutions for mobile devices, please fill in the form below; we’d be happy to tell you all about it.

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