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Tokyo Olympics spotlights evolving role of technology in live production

By Shaun Lim

The Olympics, staged once every four years, remains one of the most iconic sporting events in the world, capturing the imagination of millions of sports fans worldwide.

The Tokyo Summer Olympics 2020, postponed to July 2021, is likely to be no different, even though spectators will be conspicuous by their absence during the Games. Although the broadcast footprint will be 30% smaller than it was at the 2016 Rio Olympics, content production will be up by about 30%, as 9,000 hours of sports content will be produced over the space of 17 days.

Yiannis Exarchos, Chief Executive of the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), said, “We want to redirect resources where it makes sense in innovation, [and] in new ways the Games and sports can be experienced, rather than spending on and investing in traditional broadcast workflows.”

Describing how the OBS is using technology “to tell a story”, Exarchos also revealed that Tokyo 2020 would be the first Games coverage to be natively produced in 4K HDR, the possibility of which can be attributed to OBS’ adoption of IP technologies. “And I would say especially by the massive adoption of cloud services,” he highlighted.

In collaboration with Alibaba, OBS developed the OBS Cloud, a platform that allows broadcasters to receive and work on content remotely on the cloud. With the International Broadcast Centre (IBC, the temporary hub for broadcasters during sporting events) in Tokyo being 25% smaller than the Rio IBC, and with 27% fewer broadcasters present physically, the OBS Cloud allows broadcasters to perform a significant portion of their jobs – from post production to commentary – from their own countries.

Looking ahead to the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, Exarchos believes that technology will have an even larger role to play, as 5G broadcast looms on the horizon.

Tokyo Olympics testbed for 5G broadcast?

From the creation of instant replay after the 1960 Winter Games, to the adoption of colour TV after the 1968 Games, the Olympics has traditionally been a technology accelerator, according to Rick Echevarria, Vice-President and General Manager of Intel’s Olympic programme.

With Japan having launched commercial 5G services in March 2020, Intel and NTT Docomo are partnering to provide 5G technologies and support for 360-degree and 8K video streams in real time during the Tokyo Olympics.

“The Tokyo Games will bring immersive VR (virtual reality) experiences that will allow sports fans to engage with their favourite sports in more ways,” Echevarria added.

And specific use-cases such as this, as well as field trials, are likely to represent 5G’s involvement during the Tokyo Olympics. 5G broadcast technology, insisted Colin Prior, VP Sales, APAC, Enensys Technologies, is currently only at the technical field trial phase, and is not ready for large-scale deployments.

Prior said, “Longer term, the market is really waiting for Release 17 of the 3GPP specification early in 2022 that will standardise ‘multicast’ capability in 5G. Many broadcast organisations, including the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), have made significant input into this process to ensure their requirements are addressed.”

For 5G broadcast to be widely deployed as a broadcast distribution method, the availability of receiver equipment and spectrum efficiency must be addressed, Prior stressed. Currently, there are no FeMBMS (Further-evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service) devices available commercially, while spectrum efficiency of FeMBMS is approximately the same as DVB-T.

Prior explained, “Regulators will be reluctant to adopt a technology that is less spectrum-efficient than current broadcast standards such as DVB-T2 and ATSC 3.0.”

Broadcasters, on the other hand, appear to be more optimistic about 5G and its role in broadcast distribution. A study by Nevion last year highlighted that 82% of broadcasters believe 5G and next-generation cellular networks will eventually replace traditional satellite and digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcast distribution methods.

And 37% of broadcasters believe that the transition to 5G will take place within the next two years, although 10% of broadcasters maintain that it is unlikely to happen within the next three years.

5G may replace DTT in the distant future, but in the short-term, such a development is unlikely, Prior reiterated. “The EBU has stated that it does not see 5G broadcast as a replacement for DVB-based DTT services.”

Clearly, more work needs to be done before 5G broadcasting can be a reality, with companies such as Enensys actively participating in 5G trials through the provision of BMSC and BPM network components, including in Asia-Pacific, where they work with, and are represented by systems integrator, Magna Systems & Engineering.

Paul Maroni, Group Sales and Marketing Manager of Magna Systems & Engineering, concluded, “Magna are in a great position when 5G broadcasting becomes a reality as our business focuses on both telecommunication and media entertainment technology.

“In addition to that, we partner with companies like Enensys, who are currently at the forefront of 5G broadcasting, including active trials around the globe.”

For broadcast professionals around the world, they will not only be keeping their eyes on the Olympians competing against one another in Tokyo but on what new innovations and technologies are emerging … and so will APB+!

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