5G trials hot up – but what does it mean for DTT infrastructure?

While the business benefits and standards are still being thrashed out, the 5G mobile network is currently receiving its first public trial in Europe.

5G trials in London
5G trials in London

Led by Arqiva, the central London trial is testing the performance of Samsung base stations in delivering data over the 28GHz spectrum licensed by Arqiva to business and residential premises. The idea is that 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) such as this will have significant cost and performance advantages over alternate means of delivering ultra-fast broadband using ‘last mile’ fibre-optic cable.

1Gbps downlinks

Arqiva has reported establishing a stable two-way mmWave link with downlink speeds of around 1Gb per second. Just to give an idea of this level of performance, it would allow for the simultaneous streaming of more than 25 UHD 4K TV channels.

Though only a proof of concept at this stage, mobile operators, fixed broadband providers, broadcasters and media companies are interested.

A final 5G standard is on track to be passed by the ITU in mid-2020. According to analyst Ovum, more than 50 operators will be offering 5G services in 30 countries by the end of 2021.

Powering growth in mobile video streaming

Since Arqiva operates the UK’s broadcast TV network and most of the country’s radio transmitters, together with renting 8,000 sites on which mobile operators EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone install their own signalling equipment, the company is betting that 5G FWA will power huge growth in demand for mobile video streaming – and eventually replace digital terrestrial transmission (DTT) in the home.

A mobile network does not however spell the end of physical infrastructure. On the contrary, among the as yet undetermined costs of 5G rollout are wireless base stations which the 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership (a consortium of manufacturers and telco operators led by the EU Commission) reckons will need very dense deployments of links to connect over 7 trillion wireless devices serving over 7 billion people worldwide.

Base stations every 150 metres

Most research is concentrating on Massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple output), a technology that uses antennas located at both the transmitter and receiver and incorporated into wireless standards including 802.11ac (Wi-Fi), HSPA+, WiMAX, and LTE. There are calculations that this means installing a base station every 150 metres.

The most efficient model, it has been suggested, is a 'high tower – high power' approach on which current broadcast networks are built.

Over and above physical antenna, if 5G is used as a terrestrial substitute, it would likely require upgraded TVs and set top boxes. It is also theorised that a 5G broadcast would compete with other data connections for bandwidth, unless it had a dedicated bandwidth assignment.

With video over mobile forecast by almost everyone to multiply exponentially in the next five years to represent 70-80% of all traffic by 2021 something, somewhere has got to give. Mobile spectrum is only finite after all.

East Asian trials

While the Arqiva test will be eyed with interest it is operators in East Asia that are leading the charge to 5G with major public trials being timed to coincide with sports events. Japan will feature 5G at the 2019 Rugby World Cup and at the Tokyo Olympics the following year.

The technology will take another leap forward at the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. Before that, though, in February the spotlight will be on PyeongChang, South Korea, host of the 2018 Winter Games.

5G Media Initiative

In June 2017, the 3G Partnership Project (3GPP) international standardisation body finalised Release 14, which supports critical prerequisites for broadcast content delivery in large-cell 4G and 5G networks. At their third conference in Munich, the 5G Media Initiative, a special-interest group made up of leading corporations and organisations, announced that with these enhancements, Release 14 offers characteristics that approximate those enjoyed with classical terrestrial broadcast methods.

With Release 14 finalised, implementation in devices, services and networks can be started. The extensions to the 3GPP standard include numerous improvements to the existing evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast System (eMBMS). These improvements provide the technical framework for economical program delivery and unrestricted access to TV programs.

The first version of the new 5G standard is expected to be available by 2018, after which it will be continually enhanced to become a universal system for high-bandwidth data applications. Starting in 2020, additional enhancements for broadcast applications are expected as part of 5G; these could be available by 2025 as popular broadcast services for the mass market.

Posted by Adrian Pennington, technology journalist. 23rd October 2017.