By now you’ve heard a lot of buzz about the new wireless mobile technology called 5G (for 5th Generation) which promises blazing fast speeds and other benefits. Later this month the standards committee 3GPP will be finalizing the standard architecture specifications, paving the way for commercial rollouts and so it’s the perfect time to gaze into our crystal ball and predict some ways 5G will affect the television business.
BUILDING ON THE FACTS
If we’re predicting the future, let’s start with some facts. 5G is anticipated to offer significantly improved download data rates when compared with 4G LTE. 4G (without LTE enhancements) tops out at about 100 Mb/s in a perfect environment. I am sitting here in the shadow of a cell tower and getting 78Mb/s on my iPhone with a 4ms ping time. 5G is predicted to support 10Gb/s, or 100 times faster speeds with latency under 1ms. Even discounting for real-world scenarios, this is a significant step up and has many implications.
One major difference in the technology is the higher bandwidth will require higher frequency (millimeter wave band) which requires smaller and more frequent antenna placement and has a signal which is more easily disrupted. 4G signals can travel 10 miles or more from the tower; 5G cells are much smaller, measured in hundreds of feet, so many more transmitter sites will be needed, though they will be significantly smaller and can be located anywhere, even on a telephone pole. In a big win for the carriers (and for 5G fans, but not for local authorities), the FCC voted on March 22nd to not require local historical and environmental assessment reviews to help speed this process, clearing the road for deployment.
CRYSTAL BALL TIME
5G wireless technology is likely to impact the telecommunications industry in many ways – but will also have an impact on how we produce and distribute television:
- Faster Mobile FTP – Okay, so this one is simple. If you’ve ever been on the road with a crew who needed to shoot and send back raw materials or edited pieces to the station from a Starbucks WIFI, you know that it can take a while. It would not be today’s primary method for delivering a late-breaking news story. After 5G rolls out, tethering a phone will be become our primary method for non-live backhaul.
- Unbonded Cellular – The days of bonding three or more 4G LTE modems together to get the required bandwidth to deliver high quality are nearing their end. 5G will permit a single modem to do the work, reducing the size of the devices as well as minimizing the encoding latency. By the way, today’s modems are incompatible with 5G so if you are buying cellular bonding equipment now, you’d better plan on a shorter amortization cycle or find equipment that features a replaceable modem. Modems will be built directly into cameras – oh yeah, we’ve got that already, they’re called cell-phones!
- 16K Facetime – Speaking of cellular phones, they already have very high-resolution cameras and superfast processors. With 5G, the quality of our Skype calls with grandma may soon be better than today’s professional cameras and transmission systems. Smartphones are light, inexpensive and pervasive – equip them with a zoom lens (available for under $100) or simply ask your audience to shoot material for you. I am betting this will become the primary method of live newsgathering. (Don’t believe smartphones are good enough? Steven Soderbergh begs to differ.)
- REMI2 via Internet - There’s been a lot of buzz about producing sports remotely from a home-base located control room via REMI (REMote Integration). Imagine covering a concert or sporting event with five fixed position smartphones all live into the control room at the station or production center. Electronic cropping of the super-high-resolution video (check out Sony Hawkeye or MEVO for the concept) would provide panning and zooming. Almost zero cost for coverage.
- Cable Overlay – There are reasons why AT&T is bundling video with your cell subscription, why they are attempting to buy Time Warner, and why Verizon stopped rolling out its FiOS service to homes, but is expanding fiber to the telephone poles. Once deployed to an area, 5G provides AT&T, Verizon, and to a lesser extent T-Mobile/Sprint, with a potential nationwide cable network without having to pull cables into the home. Bet on the current MSOs to up the bandwidth of their cable-modems and transition their video offerings to IP to stay relevant. Oh, by the way, did I say QAM is dead? (actually, I did!)
TIMING – A DOSE OF REALITY
None of these things happen overnight and naysayers have valid points about the near-term prospects. Sprint released the first WiMAX (LTE) smartphone in the US in June of 2010, and even after eight years this month, LTE is only rolled out to 86.5 percent of the U.S. market. It takes a long time and a lot of money to build out all those towers, even if they are easier to install thanks to the FCC.
Verizon has announced 5G rollouts to fixed locations in five cities this year including Sacramento and Los Angeles. AT&T will launch in 12 cities with mobile coverage likely to be delivered through hot-spots. The first consumer 5G smartphones should start rolling out after Mobile World Congress in February 2019.
Another date to watch is the FCC’s first spectrum auction for 5G scheduled to begin in November. Enthusiasm among participants will indicate interest and the level of competition we can expect going forward. It may also set the stage for new, unexpected players to emerge.
5G is likely to enter our lives before this time next year and begin to have significant implications for our business. Now is the right time for broadcasters to start assessing their preparations, evaluating their impending purchases and workflows with an eye toward the 5G future.
Larry Thaler is the President of Positive Flux, a consulting firm that specializes in helping media companies take advantage of the rapid changes occurring in the industry. He can be reached via TV Technology.