DTT arrives on smartphones

5G Broadcast technology will make it possible to receive terrestrial digital television (DTT) on smartphones, even without a SIM card, so without tapping into mobile data. A small revolution still being tested.

Watching television on a mobile device (smartphone or tablet) is already possible thanks to various streaming services (see our practical sheet). But this solution requires an Internet connection, either Wi-Fi or via the 4G or 5G network. Which implies, in the latter case, to consume mobile data deducted from the plan. And, “incidentally”, to clutter the network with multiple bandwidth-intensive video streams (see our article). But another way is possible: 5G Broadcast. As its name suggests, this technology is based on a completely different principle: diffusion (broadcasting, in English). A “massive” broadcast, in digital, by hertzian waves (radioelectric), via a network of transmitting antennas, without going through the Internet. Exactly like digital radio (DAB and DAB+) and digital terrestrial television (better known as DTT). The difference compared to the streaming of video platforms? Data flows are pooled instead of individualized. Clearly, it is the same signal that is sent to all receivers in an area, which avoids saturating the network with countless streams by limiting traffic. In short, 5G Broadcast is a kind of mobile DTT.

5G Broadcast: a promising technology being tested

And the good news is that 5G Broadcast already exists! Its characteristics were defined in July 2020 in Release 16 of 3GPP, the body that governs mobile technologies worldwide and which regularly publishes technical specifications for players in the sector (operators, manufacturers, etc.). And while waiting to be deployed on a large scale, it is currently the subject of various experiments in the field, as reported by Les Échos, which attended a full-scale demonstration carried out by towerCast, a subsidiary of the NRJ group specializing in digital radio and television broadcasting. This is not the first test that the operator is carrying out: last May, it had already organized a live broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest 2022, in partnership with Rohde & Schwarz, specialists in transmission and media broadcasting technologies – , and Qualcomm, the giant of chips for mobile and wireless communication.

The objective of this – successful – experiment was to show the potential of 5G Broadcast. And, above all, its advantages over “classic” streaming. Indeed, in addition to the fact that it avoids cluttering the Internet with individual streams, this technology can operate in different modes, in particular in reception only, and, even more interestingly, without a SIM card, therefore without a telephone plan! And for good reason, despite the 5G name, it does not use the mobile communication network, but an autonomous broadcasting infrastructure of the High Power High Tower (HPHT) type operating on the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) band. In other words, a network of specific antennas (placed on “high points”) exploiting particular frequency bands. Exactly like DAB and TNT!

5G Broadcast: multiple uses and advantages

Also, as towerCast explains, 5G Broadcast is not just about streaming linear or live content. “For network operators and media content providers, it offers a new possibility of business models to deliver content or data to an unlimited number of viewers without affecting the ordinary 5G cellular mobile network. Terminals and the automotive sector lend themselves particularly well to this advancement aimed at the general public, while the SIM-free reception mode offers emergency services and national authorities safer means of broadcasting alert messages in the event of natural disasters or situations emergency”can we read in the press release of the company. “We are convinced that 5G Broadcast offers new prospects for the entire French television ecosystem. This new live experience, complementary to what we know today, will make it possible to expand the consumption of live content to a new, more mobile audience”, adds Hugues Martinet, CEO of towerCast. As we can see, 5G Broadcast has much greater potential than simple live linear television broadcasting – the old-fashioned way –, in particular by making it possible to transport voice and data, for applications embedded in vehicles, for example.

All is not yet won. On the one hand, it is necessary to free up frequencies dedicated to 5G Broadcast. A sensitive subject when you know that tapes are fiercely coveted by operators – like all the “pipes” used to disseminate data. The frequencies used for the demonstrations were authorized by only on an experimental and temporary basis. Then, you have to use compatible mobiles. More precisely, equipped with chips managing 5G Broadcast – the equivalent of DTT / DAB receivers. And if the smartphones used for the tests, obviously had special Qualcomm circuits, this is not at all the case with the models currently on sale in the trade, whether they are signed Apple, Samsung or other. Clearly, it will be necessary to convince the major manufacturers to adopt this technology to hope to see it become popular one day. Because without suitable receivers, the best transmitters will be useless…

5G Broadcast: the best alternative to streaming?

For now, towerCast and its partners are stepping up their efforts to convince other market players. By targeting the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris for more spectacular and more attractive life-size demonstrations. And it is to be hoped that the file will move forward rapidly in the coming years, because 5G Broadcast is really promising, in particular by allowing landline and mobile networks to be relieved of congestion to massively broadcast shared digital audio-video content. Unfortunately, it is not certain that the technical and “economic” arguments are sufficient to convince operators and consumers, especially when we see the success of individual on-demand services – whether streaming, transport even meal delivery. Many viewers watch live television via their Internet box when they could also do so, with the same quality and free of charge, via DTT – most often out of ignorance or laziness. And the sad story of digital radio – which has still not succeeded in gaining popularity even though it began in the mid-1980s… – does not give much hope in the face of the growing consumption of audio content on the podcast and streaming platforms.

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