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5G Perspective

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MORE GAMES, MORE ANGLES,

MORE GAMES, MORE ANGLES, BUT FEWER CAMERAS… CAN 5G REVOLUTIONISE LIVE SPORTS PRODUCTION? By: Eoin Connolly (Sports Pro Media) BT Sport staged a landmark trial using a 5G mobile network for remote production in November. SportsPro was at Wembley Stadium with key figures from the UK pay-TV broadcaster to find out how the technology will change the way live sport is delivered. Late November 2018, Wembley Stadium was the scene of yet another sporting landmark – albeit, this time, on an unlikely occasion. The 2018 EE Wembley Cup, a soccer match contested by social media influencers and retired stars, became the first live sports event ever to be carried over a 5G mobile network. Coverage of the game was made available to viewers on YouTube on Sunday 25th November. With the technology set to offer UK mobile users faster upload and download speeds as it rolls out across the country through 2019, the trial made use of a 5G test network set up within the national stadium, featuring a 3.4 GHz spectrum from the antenna and a 10 Gbps backhaul link. While those statistics may be a source of some excitement among industry specialists, BT Group-owned mobile network EE and pay-TV broadcaster BT Sport were more interested in demonstrating its capabilities in remote production and distribution for sports audiences. A few days earlier Chinese mobile technology manufacturer Huawei hosted EE and BT Sport’s briefer test event where they screened a 5G broadcast fronted by presenters Matt Smith and Abi Stephens between Wembley Stadium and the Global MBB Forum across London at the ExCeL. BT Sport chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh and director of mobile strategy Matt Stagg were on hand to oversee the trial and explain what the implications of the new developments could be for sports broadcasting. Why is BT Sport interested in 5G? To some extent, according to chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh, BT Sport’s interest in mobile remote production is driven by a wider commitment to harnessing technology – capitalising on its place in a broader BT Group with access to EE’s mobile networks as well as world class research and development. “We were the first 4K broadcasters in Europe for live sport; biggest producers of 4K in the world last year for live sport,” said Hindhaugh. “That was about picture quality, which makes you feel closer to the action. Then you start moving along and we introduced Dolby Atmos in 2017, which is 3D surround sound. And what that does is bring the sound of the stadium into your home. So all of a sudden you’ve got the best picture bringing you closer, the sound of the stadium coming into your home, taking you to the heart of sport. “Then we rolled out 360 o [angles in-game] and did the world’s biggest ever 360 o coverage for the Champions League final in 2017 - that was about PAGE 28

personalisation, that was about allowing you to select angles you wanted in a different way.” Remote production over mobile networks is another step in that journey, and 5G could have a profound impact on how live sport is broadcast at a range of venues – particularly smaller facilities without fibre networks already installed. “It’s equivalent to having the fibre but you get the mobility,” explained Stagg. “I see it that it will replace satellite comms for broadcasting once you have full coverage.” By using mobile networks rather than satellite networks for outside broadcasts, BT Sport will no longer require an extensive on-site technical presence for live coverage. Instead of outside broadcast and satellite trucks to process and transmit the live signal, it can be sent directly from cameras to the main broadcast hub – in BT Sport’s case, back at the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park in east London. The upshot of that is that full production teams will no longer need to be sent to site to oversee coverage. Instead, directors and other core staff can be based at the main production centre. One team could potentially manage several events in a day, with savings also made on travel and accommodation. It is also expected that this would make it easier to train junior staff, who would be exposed to more live broadcasts in a shorter time. “People are used to it; some people like going away,” said Stagg of the typical lifestyle of a production crew. “But the work-life balance is a big thing. We’re finding out...the more we scratch the surface, the more advantages there are – from the creative side, the cost side, staffing, wellbeing, all of that” Flexibility is another primary consideration. Remote production over mobile networks makes live coverage a likelier prospect at smaller grounds – say, in National League and Women’s Super League soccer, both of which are currently carried by BT Sport. A team including Smith was recently sent to cover a match between non-league sides Braintree Town and Bromley FC as part of an off-air 5G trial. Once at the venue, it also becomes easier to reorganise set-ups that are untethered to fibre and satellite networks. “We can see everything we’ve got here,” said Stagg, indicating the pitchside studio from which the broadcast had been made. “If we wanted to go and do the shot over there it would either be that you’d take the whole lot down or have another crew over there. Whereas with this, you’d just walk over. Obviously, you’re still tethered to the power but eventually it’ll be integrated into the camera.” BT Sport has already been experimenting with mobile production over existing 4G networks. “If we’d have known 4G was going to be able to be used for this, we would have everything we need,” said Stagg. “The big thing was that you can’t guarantee the bandwidth. It might work or it might not and for broadcast, a best effort is no effort at all.” The step up to 5G, however, will ensure that “broadcast-grade” delivery is possible. How will 5G affect the viewing experience? Fundamentally, Hindhaugh explains, the benefits of 5G will be evident at the production end. “On screen, they should see no difference, which is really important,” he said of the viewer at home. “But what it will enable me to do is to start showing more games in the leagues we have – and this isn’t about taking costs out, this is about distribution of that money to be able to do more so you can start covering more games.” Among BT Sport’s efforts in 4G so far was a trial whereby cameras were sent to every National League game at the end of last season, allowing every goal to be made available to the central production team at half-time – an unusual feat at that level of the game. “If you start thinking about the possibilities of that,” Hindhaugh said, “about getting highlights instantaneously from cameras at games you’re not actually covering, and then being able to turn around those highlights, wouldn’t it be fantastic if National League highlights were coming out at six, seven o’ clock in the evening on Saturdays? That’s what customers will start seeing.” Beyond that, the added mobility of camera positions promises further depth of coverage without adding to production costs or complexity. The 5G signal has been transmitted in trials via a large receiver but once the consumer networks are available, it will be possible to do so using the kind of mobile ‘dongles’ familiar to commuters and business travellers everywhere. PAGE 29