Oct 15th 2019

Broadcast #TechFest and the connectivity conundrum

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know that Babel is a specialist tech and telco agency. Topics like 5G, low-latency and network slicing are as familiar to us as seeing Bradley Walsh on the Chase – we see it every day (or at least I do…)

But, as much as we take pride in the depth of our industry knowledge, we also know that in the fast-moving tech world, our knowledge requires constant topping up.

That’s why I attended the Connectivity Forum event at the Dolby Screening Room on Soho Square last week (nice venue; great croissants). The morning, which encompassed panel discussions on remote production, 5G and IP workflows, is the first of a new series of #TechFest events being run by the Broadcast family of publications.

Broadcast tech is an important part of what we do here at Babel towers, and is a big personal interest of mine. I was therefore very interested to hear different viewpoints and discussions around connectivity coming from the broadcast industry’s perspective.

Remote control

First on the agenda, analyst Adam Cox outlined how the sector as a whole is traditionally quite risk averse – understandable when you consider some of the costs involved, particularly when acquiring premium content like live sports.

However, he explained that cultural change is taking place in the industry (and tech more widely I believe) as a millennial generation move into managerial roles. The signs of this are evident in the growth of remote production – the focus of the fist panel.

Not a new topic by any means, remote production has gained more traction recently as concrete case studies begin to emerge. One such case study came from John Curtis of Whisper Films, who described how the indie production company covered SailGP in Australia using remote production technologies from its base in London. Sailing isn’t exactly a TV sporting staple in the way that football or cricket are, so trying to justify the cost to cover it could tie you in knots. (Sorry.)

However, with the cost savings of remote production – which means fewer crew had to fly to the other side of the world – Whisper was able to bring a sport to TV that otherwise might not have made it to air. John also made a pertinent point about a lesser-discussed benefit of remote production.

So much of the talk about what remote technologies can do centres on cost-saving; “reduced opex” here and “budget efficiency” there, with smatterings of a “reduced carbon footprint” spliced in. But while the cost savings of reduced crew/equipment travel is important, what you do with those savings is too. John quite rightly pointed out that by using remote production technologies, Whisper was able to invest in more equipment like on-board cameras and improved graphics to enhance the viewing experience for the sailing fans watching at home.

From a PR perspective, this is a much sexier message than “we saved some money”, and it’s amazing how few brands seem to unearth the real golden nuggets from their digital transformation stories. Quite ironic that a company that does seem to know what to shout about is called Whisper…

Five years for 5G?

After a brief drinks break (nice venue; great croissants tea selection) we moved onto the headline act for the day – 5G. This is the topic I was really keen to dive into, because even though 5G has seemingly become the tech buzzword, there’s still a lot of confusion over what it’s actually going to deliver in reality, and how soon.

“We believe 5G is going to be significantly disruptive,” said Claire Harvey from Red Bee Media. She’s right, we believe that too. 5G has the potential to disruptive a whole host of industries, but within broadcast the possibilities are very exciting. More efficient production resulting in many more events being covered at once; network slicing to guarantee bandwidth when broadcasting from crowded locations; low-latency internal comms from on-the-ground back to studio; integration of AR and VR technologies; these are just a few of the numerous potential benefits of 5G that were discussed.

But what was so apparent sat in the theatre room (nice venue; great croissants tea selection cinema seats) was that none of this is really going to happen any time soon. To illustrate just how unlikely an imminent and complete shift to 5G is, Tim de Marco from IMG asked for a show of hands as to; “how many of you think 5G will have a big impact on your business in next five years?”

In a room full of broadcast industry professionals, less than half the hands went up.

Part of the reason behind that reluctance was the classic “killer app” question. What will the killer 5G app be? Well, as Matt Stagg of BT Sport quite rightly pointed out, we don’t really know. Social media wasn’t around when 4G took off – certainly not in the shape it is today – but yet it has become a ‘killer app’ of 4G, so the killer app of 5G “is probably being thought up in a University dorm somewhere right now, and we won’t hear about it for a few years.”

For the here and now though, that doesn’t exactly make investing in and experimenting with 5G more appealing for the broadcasters. And that takes us back to the issue Adam Cox outlined at the start of the day; the cautious, risk-averse nature of the broadcast industry. 5G is a technology for improving the live broadcast experience. While it might be utilised from time to time in live news to help cover a breaking story, we’re unlikely to see the benefits of 5G described above for a while yet.

With the astronomical sums required to secure live broadcasting rights to sports events or music festivals, why would the industry take any risks when it’s been delivering content so reliably for so long? Well, because that initial risk has massive rewards if 5G is executed well! It’ll take a forward-thinking production company to make a leap and give 5G a proper go, but once it’s proven to work in the broadcast realm, it won’t be long before that room full of hands are all waving in the air.


Declan Bradshaw