You need to have your head in the sand these days to avoid talk about the next-generation wireless technology commonly known as 5G.
Proponents of 5G technology tout its ability to create new jobs; spark the growth of “smart cities”; manage command, control and payload for unmanned aircraft systems; and enable significant innovations in health care, transportation and public safety. And while it might be easy to discount 5G as simply a wireless technology, there is significant potential opportunity here for broadcasters, too.
Broadcasters would be wise to educate themselves now about what 5G is and how it could affect the broadcast industry going forward.
5G principally refers to a wireless standard adopted by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (“3GPP”) in December 2017 known as 5G NR (“5G” because it is the fifth generation wireless standard and “NR” for “New Radio”), although some early 5G deployments rely on other 5G standards.
The Federal Communications Commission, for its part, appears fully committed to advancing 5G in the United States. Chairman Ajit Pai and other FCC commissioners regularly speak about the importance of winning the race to 5G, and the commission has backed its words with actions, taking a number of steps to make spectrum available for 5G applications and adopting new rules over the past year to streamline deployment of the potentially hundreds of thousands of small wireless facilities needed to take full advantage of 5G technologies.
The competition to be the “first to 5G” exists both at home and abroad. Here in the United States, wireless providers are vying to be the first to offer 5G, with trial launches already underway in some markets and the promise of nationwide 5G networks within the next few years. Meanwhile, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and others are battling to be the first country to deploy a commercially viable, large-scale 5G network, which comes not only with bragging rights and the direct benefits that come from deploying a next-generation technology, but also the opportunity to establish the features and implementations to be used worldwide, fueling equipment manufacturing and exports.
One of the features of the 5G NR standard is that it can operate on a wide variety of frequencies. 5G divides spectrum into two groups: FR1 (450 MHz – 6 GHz) and FR2 (24 GHz – 52 GHz) (millimeter wave spectrum). Today’s mainstream wireless networks operate on the low and mid-band spectrum associated with FR1, which travels greater distances and, particularly on the lower end of the frequency range (near existing broadcast spectrum), features stronger building penetration. Millimeter wave spectrum, meanwhile, is characterized by short wavelengths and large bands that can carry substantial amounts of data.
The use of millimeter wave spectrum as part of 5G networks has the potential to transform both how wireless providers deliver data and how Americans consume it. To take advantage of the benefits of millimeter wave spectrum, wireless carriers plan to deploy hundreds of thousands of new small cells — in many cases several per square mile. Networks utilizing this new infrastructure promise to offer more speed, more capacity and lower latency than existing networks. The FCC recently reached a milestone in the transition to next-generation wireless networks with the conclusion of Auction 101, the nation’s first auction of millimeter wave spectrum for the deployment of 5G services.
The wireless industry trade group CTIA has estimated that 5G networks, using millimeter wave technology, will generate a throughput 10 times faster than 4G: possibly reaching over 1 Gbps. 5G networks will also offer connection density up to 100 times greater than 4G, meaning more devices will be able to utilize the same frequencies. Finally, lower latency associated with 5G networks will allow for near real-time interactions, allowing wireless networks to fuel applications like virtual reality and remote medical services that are not possible today.
Wireless providers are adopting different approaches to 5G — dictated, in large part, by their existing spectrum holdings. T-Mobile is planning to rely heavily on the 600 MHz spectrum that it acquired in the recent TV Broadcast Incentive Auction for its initial 5G deployments, providing broad coverage and in-building penetration that is not possible with higher band spectrum. AT&T and Verizon, which hold licenses for large amounts of spectrum in the 28 GHz, 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands, are focused on launching 5G using their millimeter wave spectrum, which will require a substantial investment in dense infrastructure to achieve the speed and capacity benefits that come with millimeter wave deployments. Sprint’s 5G plans, meanwhile, center around using “massive MIMO” — the use of 64 transmitters and receivers in a single array — to optimize its existing 2.5 GHz spectrum.
While the wireless industry is working to deliver its next generation networks, broadcasters are undergoing a technological renaissance of their own. On the radio side, adoption of digital radio technology continues to expand as more broadcasters employ in-band on-channel digital transmissions and consumers and auto manufacturers increasingly embrace digital radio receivers. On the television side, meanwhile, ATSC 3.0 promises to allow broadcasters to make better use of their spectrum by utilizing IP-based delivery for both video and data content, increasing the usable bandwidth associated with each channel and allowing better interconnectivity with other IP-based systems.
For now, 5G and digital broadcast technologies are operating on parallel paths. But just as the internet has blurred the line between content creators and content distributors, emerging transmission technologies have the potential to blur the lines between wireless providers and broadcasters.
After all, even on existing 4G networks, wireless users consume a substantial amount of data to stream audio and video content. Meanwhile, emerging digital broadcast technologies may allow broadcasters to think about broadcasting less as an audio or video service and more as a service for delivering data, whether it be audio content, video content, or something else entirely. Put another way, just as 5G may enable increased use of traditional wireless spectrum for distribution of audio and video content, digital radio and ATSC 3.0 may enable the increased use of broadcast spectrum for distribution of data.
While there is likely to be increasing overlap between wireless and broadcasting in the future, the technologies are just as likely to emerge as complementary services as competing ones. Even as technology continues to expand the utility of wireless and broadcasting alike, each will offer its own strengths. While 5G has the potential to revolutionize the way consumers interact with information and with each other, emerging 5G networks are still built around a traditional one-to-one architecture that prioritizes customization and on-demand content delivery over a shared experience.
While it technically may be possible to broadcast content over 5G networks, not only would that require new equipment to reach devices like radios and TVs, but it would not seem to be the best use of 5G networks designed around densification. Nevertheless, streaming is likely to be a major consumer feature of 5G, and broadcasters should be prepared to take advantage of the increased bandwidth and low latency that 5G networks will offer.
Broadcasting’s greatest — and unique — strength, meanwhile, remains its ability to efficiently distribute content to many recipients at the same time. To the extent broadcasters attempt to expand their use of spectrum for data services, therefore, the most likely use cases are those intended to reach large audiences (e.g., software updates, music albums, TV shows, movies, etc.) and that require a wide geographic reach, including areas that can’t be reached readily or efficiently by small cells.
Importantly, 5G has the potential to transform and improve how broadcasters can operate behind the scenes, as well. Today, broadcasters increasingly rely on wireless networks for everything from uploading a news story from the field to transmitting entire remote broadcasts. 5G networks promise to enhance the reliability of existing wireless data transmissions while making them useful for more data-intensive applications, such as point-to-point links, that currently are frequently relegated to microwave, fiber or satellite.
The time is now for broadcasters to develop their plans for the 5G future. Although widespread availability of 5G services is not yet here, the promotion of 5G is already in overdrive, and broadcasters should begin planning now for how they can ensure that 5G is an asset rather than a liability. This may include steps such as expanding their streaming offerings to better compete against the plethora of services likely to take advantage of 5G networks in coming years and compete for space on the dashboard to updating capital planning budgets to account for purchases of 5G enabled hardware.
Broadcasters have repeatedly demonstrated remarkable dexterity in adapting to technological change. In the past 20 years alone, they have adapted to the rise of the internet as a content delivery medium to 3G and then 4G wireless services, not only meeting competition head on, but also utilizing new technologies to improve their own product, developing new broadcast standards from digital radio and IBOC on the radio side to DTV and ATSC 3.0 for television.
5G presents a potential opportunity to take things to another level, delivering performance that rivals the best wireline internet services with the flexibility of wireless connection. Consumer electronics companies, medical device manufacturers, city planners, automobile manufacturers and others are already planning for new and exciting ways to take advantage of 5G services, and broadcasters would be wise to be right beside them.
The author is a partner in the telecommunications, media and technology practice at Wiley Rein LLP. Wiley Rein Engineering Consultant Richard Engelman and Consulting Counsel Bruce A. Romano contributed to this commentary.
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