Bringing Broadcast to Mobile

Michele Zarri, Technical Director, GSMA
New technologies can make mass content delivery cost-effective

michele-zarri-technical-directorAlthough mobile networks were originally developed for one-to-one communications, they have become important conduits for entertainment, information and software. People really value the ability to watch a video on the bus, download a presentation in a taxi or update an app in the park. But conventional mobile broadband networks aren’t designed to meet the growing demand to deliver the same content to large numbers of people in the same place at the same time.

For example, hundreds of football fans in a stadium may try and watch a replay of a goal simultaneously, while scores of business people arriving at a conference may all attempt to download the event app. Moreover, a government agency may urgently need to send out a weather or health warning to all the people in a particular town. In the many countries with sparse fixed telecoms networks and Wi-Fi, mobile networks are often the only way consumers can gain access to certain content.

Even with the ongoing improvements in 4G’s spectral efficiencies, conventional mobile broadband networks can’t deliver high-speed connectivity to large numbers of people in the same cell at the same time. But mobile operators don’t have to rely solely on standard point-to-point mobile links. Instead, they can adapt their LTE networks to support broadcasts or multicasts (broadcasts that only serve authorised devices).

For example, Evolved Multimedia Broadcast/Multicast Service (eMBMS) technology enables mobile operators to broadcast or multicast services over LTE networks spanning multiple cells. This technology could be used to deliver live coverage of sports events and concerts, software and app updates, and popular on-demand content, such as hit drama series and blockbuster movies.

In cases where demand for the content is very localised, such as inside a sports arena, operators may also use single cell point to multipoint (SC-PTM) technology to multicast services in a single cell over LTE. Moreover, mobile edge computing (MEC) can be used to adequately format the relevant content near the network edge, optimising its transmission.

The business case for broadcast
Mobile operators could use broadcast technologies to provide a dedicated content delivery service for media companies and games developers. Or they could use the technologies to enhance their own TV and video offerings to consumers. Either way, operators that can reliably distribute popular or urgent content may be able to earn additional revenues.

Even if an operator doesn’t charge customers directly for a broadcast service, it should be able to capture value in the efficiency gains and improved customer experience that broadcast technologies provide. For example, analysis by Rise Conseil & TDF found that broadcast offload could result in capex savings of €1 billion in France in 2019, about 15% of the annual capex in the market.

To fully harness the potential of broadcast technologies, mobile operators will need to work closely with the broader ecosystem, particularly device makers. New smartphones and tablets should support eMBMS by default and should reserve some memory (at least 10% of that available) to be used for recording and storing media content. That would enable the mobile device to act as a digital video recorder, making it easy for consumers to pause and rewind videos, for example.

In summary, there is a strong case for operators and their partners to employ broadcast technologies. As demand for mobile content rises inexorably, operators need to adopt the most efficient and cost-effective mechanisms to deliver that content. In this way, they will enhance customer satisfaction and build out new revenue streams.