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Connectivity at Wembley: 5G for the cup

  • 12 minute read
  • Published by Simon Rockman on 7 Sep 2020
  • Last modified 2 Sep 2020
The famous stadium in North West London will have the most advanced 5G connections in the world, due to EE and BT Sport. But that’s only the beginning of what’s possible for sporting events, BT Sport’s Director of Mobile Strategy Matt Stagg tells Heather McLean.

British mobile operator EE has sponsored Wembley Stadium since 2014. When it took on that sponsorship, it committed to making Wembley the most connected stadium in the world. 

This ensures visitors to the stadium have the highest level of connectivity possible so that they are able to use the internet however they wish – something that does not happen often within UK football stadiums. But more than that, all new stadium technology that EE and its bedfellows in the BT Group come up with, including BT Sport, is trialled within the hallowed stands in North West London.

Beyond the consumer, EE began experimenting with ways in which the network could be used within vertical industries; as consumers rapidly realised that 4G meant they could go online more, watch more, stream more, and upload more, news and sports broadcasters were next. 

The first broadcasting demonstration at Wembley Stadium carried out by EE was of LTE electronic Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (eMBMS), also known as LTE Broadcast, with BBC Research & Development on 30 May 2015, at the FA Cup Final. Matt Stagg, (right), director of mobile strategy at BT Sport and lead of EE’s strategy for delivering 4G and 5G networks for the media and broadcast industries, is a member of the UK5G Creative Industries working group. He says: “We were actually ready to launch [LTE Broadcast] at that point. It was seen as a global showcase for how we should be using one-to-many technologies.” 

However, the technology was not launched as there were not enough handsets available or within manufacturers’ roadmaps that supported LTE Broadcast. This led to the creation of the LTE Alliance, including founding member EE, to lobby mobile-phone handset manufacturers to make their devices compliant. 

While some major handset manufacturers were still slow to support LTE Broadcast, EE transitioned its investment into 5G. 

The new mobile technology could solve some of the problems that LTE Broadcast posed for 4G, particularly around the management of a large number of people watching the same content concurrently.

From best effort 4G 

However, 4G was always a ‘best effort’ network for uses such as sports broadcasting. 5G is the answer, says Stagg: “I’d say broadcasting is the best defined use case of 5G, other than it gives our consumers more bandwidth. The reason is we had a solution that needed one extra thing on 4G and that was the capability to give people something that wasn’t best effort. So that meant having a way of being able to do this. 

When 5G came in at pre-standardisation I lobbied with other mobile operators in media and entertainment globally to say that in the 5G standards, we need this capability.”

Network slicing on 5G will give broadcasters further control over how they use the technology for live transmission from the likes of Wembley Stadium, as it guarantees the broadcaster bandwidth and latency. 

It is still some way off, however.  In the meantime, EE is looking at how to give broadcasters what they need to be able to use 5G effectively.

Stagg says: “For broadcast networks I have a three-year roadmap, and in the end it’s going to be a proper, integrated service with a complete wrap-around of service-level agreements and support. But actually what we can do now are a number of things on the way there. 

“It might be that we look at private 5G networks; one of the big things we’re looking at now for stadiums is private networks that don’t necessarily have to go through our core technology. We may be able to use Edge computing, where we actually give Wembley or other stadiums a private 5G network that’s used for the broadcasters in there.”

He continues: “There are a number of ways of delivering the requirements of the industry and meeting those key performance indicators in the most technically viable and commercially viable way. It may be network slicing in the end, but there are a number of ways we can increase capabilities and allow broadcasters to use the technology for remote production, untethered cameras, or in areas where trucks aren’t viable, including in tier two or three sports.”

EE’s first 5G demonstration at Wembley was carried out using pre-standard 5G technology. Stagg says: “We did 5G demonstrations. It was one of the first places we put pre-standard 5G in. Then we did the world’s first remote production over 5G for the Wembley Cup.”

For the Wembley Cup in November 2018, EE began by carrying out a successful live broadcast over 5G using remote production to deliver a two-way transmission from Wembley Stadium to London’s ExCeL exhibition centre. The production for the live transmission was carried out remotely at BT Sport’s base in Stratford, East London.

To showcase the capabilities of 5G for sports broadcasting, BT Sport organised a live conversation using the technology. Jamie Hindhaugh, chief operating officer at BT Sport, and BT Sport presenter Abi Stephens, spoke live over 5G from ExCeL in East London to Stagg who was at Wembley with Matt Smith, BT Sport presenter. 

The transmission used EE’s 5G test network in the stadium, plus a first-generation 5G encoded dongle from Huawei. The test network used EE’s 3.4GHz spectrum from its 5G antenna in the stadium, connected to a 10Gbps backhaul link. With a throughput of 75MBps at Wembley, feeds from three cameras using 5G at 25MBps each were relayed through the Huawei 5G encoder to the 5G cell in the stadium. 

From there the transmission was passed onto the EE backhaul network, and from there to the internet. This showcase led to the EE Wembley Cup held on 25 November 2018 becoming the first sporting event to be broadcast live using BT Sport and EE’s 5G remote production. This match, recognised by the Football Association (FA), featured YouTube’s biggest footballers alongside international football legends. The match was delivered over EE’s 5G network live from Wembley Stadium and was shown live on the channel of YouTube star Spencer Owen.

Creative streak

What EE and BT Sport noticed about 5G at this point was the creativity enabled by the technology. Stagg remembers: “The first time we used cameras with 5G, our director said, ‘We can just move them anywhere?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘OK, so can you just drive it in a car and meet the team bus?’ And that was the first really big, massive change in which mobile-connected cameras really changed the way things can be done. It is a big change, technically and culturally. 

 “The big things that came out of our initial trials – we began looking at remote production before 5G, on 4G – were the creativity and flexibility it gave our directors to be able to send a camera wherever they wanted; to send it on the pitch where the players were warming up. To be able to do that with a tethered camera, even with a radio camera so it can move around, is just not viable.”

This creativity led to more unexpected results, says Stagg: “It has always been seen that we would have 5G cameras for where 

you didn’t have an outside broadcast, so really we thought it’s unlikely to be used in big stadiums which are all fibred up; it’s for places without fibre. But when we discovered the creative opportunities of 5G, we realised that actually, this was going to be a technology for within stadiums, to have that freedom, have that untethered ability, to have flexible cameras that can go anywhere at any time at the drop of a hat.”

 Making 5G a reality 

Stagg then had to begin thinking about how 5G cameras could work within a fixed, traditional, outside broadcast (OB) environment, with a fibre infrastructure from the pitch to the studio. Edge computing was the answer. It gave EE the capability to connect the 5G cameras from their broadcast 5G network to, as Stagg puts it, “some compute power within that cell or stadium that enables us to break out that feed and then send that directly to either the OB or directly 

to the fibre infrastructure. And everything goes back to the studio and everything is in time, because the low latency on 5G means it will have the same latency as the fibre.” 

He goes on: “And that really, really will be a massive gamechanger to have that mix, as you’ll have the creativity combined with the fixed-fibre infrastructure, so you have the best of both worlds. And that will be really, really interesting when we start to move along that route.” 

EE has shown the uses of 5G other than at Wembley. Last September, EE and BT Sport brought live feeds from three stadiums in the UK –Stamford Bridge in West London, the Emirates Stadium in North London, and the Etihad Stadium in Manchester - to the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam. The feeds displayed FA Women’s Super League matches that were being played at the stadiums by Chelsea FC, Arsenal FC and Manchester City FC. Reporters at each stadium were connected over EE’s 5G consumer network via BT Sport’s production hub in Stratford, East London, then the feeds were channelled out to the broadcaster’s OB van at the IBC where reporters and guests viewed the world-first, live four-way broadcast. 

Stagg notes: “People ask why 5G cameras? Remote production on its own has a huge advantage moving forward to how we do things now. It’s not necessarily a cost thing; even if it was cost neutral, it would still be much better to do remote. It’s the ability to have a work-life balance. When we did a demonstration of 5G remote production into our marquee at IBC, one of our directors, Gemma Knight, was asked what did it mean for her personally; she answered: “I get to have breakfast with my son every day.” I think that’s very powerful in terms of the work-life balance, and especially where we are at the moment with COVID-19. It’s already allowing us to rethink the way we do things. There is also the carbon footprint reduction that remote production provides us with.”

Looking ahead to Euro 2021

More was expected from EE and BT Sport at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Euro 2020 tournament; however, that event has been postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. EE and BT Sport’s plans for Euro 2020 have been put on hold, and the focus has moved to continuing to make sure that Wembley Stadium remains connected with all the bells and whistles EE can throw at it. Stagg says: “We were looking at everything we could do at Euro 2020. One of the biggest things was the investment that we are already putting into Wembley, and we will continue to make sure that everybody in that stadium has the best connectivity they can to do whatever they want whenever they want. So the number one priority is still to make that the world’s best connected stadium.”

Going forward, EE will continue to work on 5G within the stands of Wembley Stadium. Stagg says: “At each stage of the evolution of the 5G technology we will be testing it at Wembley and other places. BT Sport will be using 5G from next season, whenever next season is, in various places and in various sports.

“We will have, inside and outside of stadiums, the ability to have a full broadcast-grade network. If there’s 5G coverage, there’ll be no need to use satellite, and within stadiums we will have private 5G networks.”

The possibilities for the future in stadiums are exciting, says Stagg: “When you start to look inside stadiums, there’s a lot of technology that 5G brings to the experience.”

For instance, he is excited about augmented reality (AR). “You have AR opportunities to enhance the stadium experience,” he says. “When you look at season-ticket holders only ever sat in one seat, it might be quite nice if they could see a penalty taken from the other end for once, and to have some of that capability that we bring out already through uses of our app, like multiple 360-degree cameras and multiple camera angles. In the stadium today people don’t get that [because of lack of mobile network strength] but with 5G, they will. 

“They’ll be able to access the BT Sport app when they’re in the stadium because there will be enough connectivity. Long term we can use AR second screen to enhance their experience, and we can also use it for stadium security, communications, videos, and for marshals, with the ability to monitor where crowds are. The really interesting one is where we move into the new data we get from sensors. We’ll have sensors all over the place and [over the 5G network] you’ll be able to collate all that data and compute it within the stadium for real-time analytics.” 

Reflecting on the circumstances in which the UK finds itself today because of the spread of COVID-19, along with the rest of the world, Stagg concludes: “We are looking at how we can use technology when sport starts to come back on. We are looking at everything we have as a group - BT, BT Sport, EE - to try and make things as good as possible, and when everything’s back to normal, we have lots of innovations planned, not just for football.”  

Heather McLeanWritten by Heather McLean, Freelance Editor & Reporter

This article was first published in Issue 3 - UK5G Innovation Briefing - which you can access here.

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