European broadcasters scramble to profit from 5G

The EBU has finally decided to embrace cellular broadcasting technology as part of its future, but this agreement may have come ten years too late to make it relevant to cellular operators. Speaking at a Hungarian broadcasting event, the EBU’s media director, Jean Philip de Tender, called for broadcasters to finally cooperate with cellular MNOs in order to advance the delivery of free-to-air (FTA) TV. At Faultline, we think such cooperation is unlikely – the cellular industry has little incentive.

De Tender announced that the EBU is pushing for “a 5G broadcast mode that allows the reception of FTA 5G services on any 5G device without needing a specific SIM card.” This seems likely to be the next stage of eMBMS, which currently operates under the name LTE Broadcast, or more correctly, LTE multicast.

We have previously noted how successive attempts to launch mobile broadcast over cellular have never got far off the ground. In short, DVB Handheld (DVB-H) was published as an ETSI standard in 2004 but failed in part due to the cost of upgrading the infrastructure and implementing DVB-H stacks in devices. Qualcomm’s MediaFLO technology used a dedicated wireless network, designed to avoid taxing cellular operators’ infrastructure, while offering higher quality pictures. This too foundered on the costs involved, compounded again by lack of consumer demand or a compelling use case.

Then the 3GPP came out with Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (MBMS), extending 3G UMTS network capabilities to support point-to-multipoint (PMP) distribution. This only gained interest from operators when the evolved version eMBMS came along and transmissions were delivered over an LTE network, giving birth to LTE Broadcast (LTE-B). The first live tests were conducted in Europe in 2014.

eMBMS had several perceived advantages over those earlier technologies, primarily being integrated with existing 4G/LTE networks so that no major enhancements were required. It also had what seemed like a compelling use case – instant replays to large numbers of users in and around stadiums at live sporting events, or, push VoD, where assets would be cached on the device for later playback – yet these never took off. There was never enough demand for such simultaneous access to content in stadia, while push VoD to mobile devices was handicapped by lukewarm consumer acceptance combined with lack of on-board storage.

Around this time, bodies such as the EBU remained staunchly opposed to LTE Broadcast, instead championing the reliability and accessibility of DTT networks. As such, mobile linear TV services over eMBMS did not scale sufficiently to justify investments in the additional infrastructure, further accommodating the rise of OTT services.

5G broadcasting is certainly possible – the South Korean firm SK Telecom completed the first live TV broadcast over the network in January this year. However, eMBMS is still not fully aligned to 5G and this has been postponed until at least 2020.

De Tender’s speech, calling for European broadcasters to establish themselves on 5G services, confirms a change of heart within the EBU. Nonetheless, this reevaluation of cellular broadcasting has likely come too late to save the EBU’s members from obsolescence in the face of OTT, which is accessible from a wide range of devices.

The same cannot be said of cellular broadcasting. In the five years since the launch of LTE-B, only a minority of video devices are compatible. In late 2018, there were just over 30 phone models which supported eMBMS, with 45 devices in total supporting the technology when including smart projectors, tablets, datacards, and LTE Hotspots.

Indian MNO Reliance Jio, which serves 340 million mobile subscribers, attempted to push LTE-B on its network. Yet the company was plagued by a lack of middleware required to connect the chipset with the LTE-B software, notably in iPhones. Processors that are compatible with LTE-B – such as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon – were deemed to be too expensive.

Apple’s consistent refusal to include any eMBMS hardware in their devices could prove another problem for the EBU. Although European shipments of iPhones appear to be falling – down 17% from 7.7 million units to 6.4 million between Q2 2018 and Q2 this year – they still retain their third place in European market share, behind Samsung and Huawei. 5G broadcast will be far less attractive for consumers without the aspirational brand on board.

De Tender himself admitted that, “The question before us today is whether we can persuade standards groups to do so, and the network operators and handset makers to include this in their thinking.” Considering the slow roll-out of eMBMS-compatible devices, we think the EBU will struggle to make their case.

Certainly, the landscape surrounding eMBMS has undergone some significant changes since 2014. With support for HPHT (High Power High Tower) combined with dynamic re-allocation of downstream bandwidth between broadcast and unicast operation, eMBMS is now better placed to support converged mobile/broadcast services. The MBMS Operation On Demand (MOOD) mechanism allows dynamic switching from unicast delivery to multicast when the number of devices accessing the same content within a given cell exceeds a defined threshold.

Perhaps most significant is the transition of the 700 MHz spectrum from DTT to mobile broadband, which in the European Union must be finished by 2022 at the latest. This is driving broadcasters towards mobile TV as an alternative to DTT. It is notable that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), along with several of its members, played a significant role in development of the latest enhancements to eMBMS, including the HTHP overlay model.

De Tender told the event that the EBU is working to create an alliance of companies to work on using 5G for broadcast delivery. One likely member is Austrian broadcaster ORF, which has announced plans to trial 5G broadcasting in early 2020.

However, this all takes place amid the inevitable decline of traditional broadcasting. As our recent report on global sports rights explores in depth, live sports coverage is the last bastion of legitimacy and relevance for broadcasters. While broadcasters retain majority hold of the sector for the moment, internet giants are aggressively muscling in as sports leagues stoke up bidding with threats of Direct To Consumer (D2C) streaming.

Broadcasters who are only now accepting the necessity of cellular are too late to capitalize on it.