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The Challenge and Opportunity of 5G

03 October 2019
The Challenge and Opportunity of 5G

Jean Philip De Tender, EBU Media Director, addresses delegates at Media2020, Bucharest

I’m Jean Philip De Tender, Director of Media at the European Broadcasting Union. Many thanks for inviting me to speak today.

I am an avid reader and over the summer picked Satya Nadella’s “Hit Refresh” to read more about the future of technology. Nadella is the CEO of Microsoft, but what struck me is that – although he is in the business to make profit – he makes decisions based on how they potentially impact society in a positive way. Does that sound familiar?

“Technologies come and go, so you need to be able to both ask and answer the question: What do you do as a company, why do you exist?”, says Nadella.

My main intention is similar: to look at the potential impact that 5G may have on public service broadcasters - and on society. It is important to reflect on this today. There is a saying that ‘technology evolution is too important to be left to engineers alone’. This is the case with 5G. 

What is 5G?

5G is one of the series of what are called, at least in management schools, “transformative technologies”. The others include ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘the Cloud’, and ‘the Internet of Things’. These are said to be shaping tomorrow’s world, singly or together. 

In the simplest terms, 5G is a collection of tools that should allow ‘higher speed’ internet to be available by ‘wireless’ rather than by cables and phone lines brought into the home or office.  

The claims are that it will dramatically increase the available speed of internet for devices ‘on the move’, and that pro-rata network costs for them will be much lower.

There are many ideas for using it in combination with the other transformative technologies to make the world a better place to live.

There are hopes that it will be introduced in the coming decade, and that the technical standards will shortly be finalized.

It will be used for carrying media content – and, indeed, that could be the largest use of 5G. 

But we need to recognize that we may be entering the land of ‘inflated expectations’. There are many examples of where the dreams of the laboratory have not come true in the cold light of economics and public demand.

Media technology is successful not just because the ideas are good, but because it is affordable, easy to use, ubiquitous, and carries new things that people want and are willing to pay for. To a degree these are areas still unknown for 5G.

Having said that, it is likely that 5G will happen over the coming years, and it needs to be taken seriously by Public Service Broadcasters.

What could be the general impact of 5G on society?

In terms of general impact, there are many ideas about the uses that can be made of ‘very high-speed low-cost wireless internet’. It will provide the internet speeds and more, that high speed home networks already do, but this time not tied to wires into the home or a wifi network. This is its main strength. It can be accessed anywhere there is coverage by a 5G transmitter.   

One of the most cutting-edge ideas is using the combination of transformative technologies for self-driving cars or ‘autonomous vehicles’ The vehicle can ‘talk’ to other cars and lorries near it, without our being aware of it, and at the same time, get information about road conditions. These are all taken into account by the vehicle. Maybe everyone in the vehicle will spend their time watching television rather than the road.  Who knows?

Another idea is to use it to tell your doctor at each moment whether you are completely healthy, or whether something needs fixing.  

However widely used social networks are today, making them capable of carrying more elaborate content will surely increase their use. Whatever the social effects are today, they may be more strongly felt in a 5G world. Do social networks increase polarization of views, and create divisions in society?  I can’t answer that definitively, but if they do, these may increase. 

It may also increase the divisions between information ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, and widen the gap between the ‘media literate’ and ‘media illiterate.’

5G and its transformative friends may also increase world ‘media technology hegemony’.  If - for example - all the hardware comes out of Shenzhen in China, and all the software comes from Silicon Valley.

Looked at for society overall, there are a series of ‘risks’ and ‘opportunities’ associated with 5G. In practice, we will have to face up to them, and meet them head-on, because the evolution of technology is not something that can be switched on or off at will

And what would be the impact on our specific business, media?

There are three ways that media is delivered to consumers today: broadcast, internet, or the combination of these two, hybrid broadcast-broadband. Broadcasters use all three.  Each of these methods has its own advantages and characteristics. The new generation of ‘Over-The-Top’ providers for example, like Netflix, use internet alone.  

There is a fundamental difference between broadcast and internet.  

Broadcasting is essentially ‘spraying out’ media content from a TV mast. Everyone within range can pick it out of the air.

There is no limit to the number of people who can receive it at the same time, provided they are within range. They all get the same image and sound that comes out of the transmitter. There is also no way that the content provider can know who is using or watching their content.  Accessing the content is entirely ‘anonymous’, maintaining personal privacy.   

Broadcasting uses ‘unaddressed content’, whereby the only way to find out what is happening to the content is to make audience research surveys. 

Internet delivery is normally different. A user requests some item of content, and his receiver, whatever it is, gives his electronic address to the content provider, who then sends him or her specifically the content.

The content provider knows exactly who is watching his content because he has to know where to send it to. There are ways to fool the system, but for the most part this is what happens. The content provider now can gather ‘big data’ from all users and use this to influence his media content. Internet is based on ‘user addressed content’

There are advantages for both ‘addressed’ and ‘unaddressed’ content.  

Unaddressed content (i.e broadcast) is simple to access and can be seen as a social benefit protecting privacy.  It also does not ‘exclude’ those who have no internet connections.   Another advantage is, that if and when there are national emergencies, the internet can, and often does, collapse. The broadcast carries on - and becomes the only way to inform the public.  Broadcasting can be seen as an important national asset that needs to be preserved. 

Addressed content (i.e internet) can provide a personalized service, with content that can be watched whenever convenient. It can tell the content provider what and when you are watching. It can tell them the kind of things you like to watch, so the system can offer advice about things you might not want to miss. It can also provide (at least theoretically) an infinitely large choice of content.   

The other important distinction is between the two types of content stream. 

The first is ‘linear content’ – content where one show follows another according to a schedule that the user cannot change. 

The second is ‘non-linear content’- content where you make the choice of what show to see at any time.  

5G may bring more immersive media experiences

5G can do more than is possible today. If it were to prove attractive to consumers, part of the benefit of 5G could be to increase the potential image and sound quality that could be delivered to the public.

There are image and sound standards available now that will make the viewing experience progressively more real, or more ‘immersive’ (to use the jargon). Today’s HDTV pictures have about one-to-two million pixels.  The first generation ultra-high definition television images have 8 million pixel images, and the waiting in the wings, second generation UHDTV has 32 million pixel images.  

For sound quality, there are standards that could be used to give the user the feeling that he is covered with sound ‘top-to-bottom’, ‘side-to-side’, and ‘back-to-front’, as he or she is in real life. This is ‘Next Generation Audio’. 

Both of these improvements to sound and vision would be technically more possible with 5G delivery, and they will be less possible without it.  One of the reasons for ‘rolling out’ 5G may be in order to provide these future steps in the experience of television and radio.   

5G may also allow the delivery of ‘Virtual Reality’, although there are those who suspect this is one of the ‘inflated expectation’ technologies. 

Providing content for 5G services.

Our public service broadcasts today serve many purposes, including creating social cohesion by offering a ‘shared viewing experience’.

They are also, to some extent, guardians of the national identity. They are also often keepers of the national arts and languages. They are mandated to provide a ‘universal service’ which is inclusive of the whole population.  They are usually essentially national or regional services.  

Internet services can be delivered from any of the four corners of the world, and while there are exceptions, they incline towards international’ services, using what is judged to be internationally attractive content.

There is nothing wrong with this, but could we wonder if a world full of international-production-line media content will be as rich a heritage for our children as a range of media content reflecting different national and local cultures? 

It is also true that, for better or worse, internet ideas, applications and content often come from the west coast of the United States, where there are giants such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, and others. We could ask if this is a healthy situation, and whether it may amount now or in the future to a form of media imperialism.   

In a 5G world where international-sourced internet becomes more available and lower cost, there may be the risk of national broadcasters being dwarfed by the giant US companies.  This should concern us.  

Public Service Broadcasters have a role to play.

There are still many unknowns about 5G. Will the costs justify the step for the consumer and the network providers? It may be a world of lower ‘network’ costs but higher ‘terminal’ costs. There will be a challenge in making 5G both workable and affordable.  

But equally, there is an increasing demand for mobile data, and mobile traffic continues to grow.

The capacity of 5G to provide what the public appears to want more and more of, means that we have to take it seriously. There is a real chance that 5G will become a popular delivery medium. 

In this case, how far should public service broadcasters ‘join the bandwagon’?   

There are variations in opinion among EBU Members, but there is a general acceptance that if 5G does become a popular medium, public service broadcasters need to be there. 

Our mission is to provide a universal system for the whole population, and if an important part of the population is using 5G terminals, we have to provide them with our content. 

To summarize we believe that public service broadcasters should be present on all significant delivery platforms

This is just as we did in the past with satellites, cable, IPTV, and normal internet. We have to take our content to where the public finds it convenient to discover it.

But our feeling at EBU Headquarters, both in my Media Department and with our friends in the Technology Department, is that we must try to influence the technical standards for 5G, so that it can 

be used, not only for delivering  internet video on demand services for which the user pays, but it should also enable a  ‘5G-BROADCAST’  ‘mode’ that allows the reception of free to air services.

That is to say, it should be possible to receive free-to-air 5G services on any 5G device without needing a specific SIM card.

If this is done, the user would be able to enjoy high speed connections for both the conventional internet services and the equivalent of both linear broadcast and non-linear services, on the same mobile terminal.  We could watch free-to-air TV channels on any terminal, including smart phone. If we can achieve this, we will have a ‘win-win’ situation for service providers and users. 

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.

The EBU and other Members have been involved in a series of experiments on using 5G for broadcast delivery, so we know it can be done, and we are creating an alliance of companies to work on this.  

Please if you can, convince your colleagues to support this initiative. My key message today is simple:   Public Service Broadcasters’ policy should work to allow them to be present on all ‘significant platforms’, and this will probably mean being present on 5G services.  With your help, we can make this happen, and keep the advantages for users of free-to-air services as well as those of other delivery means

Thank you for your kind attention. 


Relevant links and documents


Jo Waters

Head of Content Communications

Relevant Links