Does sports content hold the key to 5G adoption?

Over the coming weeks and months, 5G will transform from an idea into a reality. The first compatible handsets will be unveiled at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona and operators will be detailing the brand-new consumer applications they hope will drive adoption.

One of the earliest use cases has been immersive content. Indeed, the ultrafast speeds, greater capacity and ultra-low latency of next-generation networks are perfect for Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies.

And just as sport has been used a key driver of pay-tv subscriptions and new television technologies, it is being viewed as a way to create interest in 5G networks.

5G Sport

New research from Amdocs and Ovum has suggested that the first time many consumers will interact with a 5G network will be through watching a sport event at home or in the stadium – and most likely in 2020.

Ninety-one per cent of the world’s leading mobile operators plan to trial 5G at sporting venues before the end of 2020, while two thirds plan to offer 5G-enabled VR and AR sporting experiences to supporters.

This might be instant VR replays, 360-degree streams, or AR-powered statistic applications that overlay graphics on top of live content. Others are planning to use the enhanced capabilities of 5G to power new multi-screen streaming services.

Tellingly, 37 per cent of operators plan to coincide their 5G launches with major sporting events. A quarter will do so for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and 28 per cent will do so in time for European football championships in the same year.

The figure is even higher among European operators, 88 per cent of which plan to launch in time for Euro 2020, which will take place across the continent.

Sporting content

“It’s essential for operators to find successful use cases for 5G given the investment levels. Amdocs’ research has revealed that major live sports events could hold the key to consumer adoption of 5G,” said Gary Miles, Chief Marketing Officer at Amdocs.

“Operators have identified these events as the springboard for rollout of a whole range of new interactive and immersive services. This will give consumers their first real taste of what 5G can deliver and allow operators to showcase the capabilities of their next-generation networks.

“Expect to see the first of these new services and applications rolled out in conjunction with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and soccer tournaments in Europe, among other big events in the sports calendar. We will also see operators becoming integral to the growth of esports with 5G opening the door to future investment and revenue opportunities.”

Intriguingly a third of the operators surveyed said they might even look to own a sports team if it helps their 5G efforts. While it’s unlikely we’ll see Vodafone United competing in the Premier League, or athletes competing for Swisscom at the Olympics – it shows the importance of content in the 5G era.

Tellingly, operators are also planning to subsidise 5G devices to get them in the hands of consumers. Ovum says 43 per cent of operators will subsidise the cost of 5G smartphones and a third will do so with tablets.

Both Three and Vodafone have made Mixed Reality (MR) a key focus in their early showcasing of 5G to the public, but 5G will also make it easier to produce traditional sports content.

5G broadcasting

5G allows broadcasters to deploy wireless and autonomous cameras around the arena and beyond, reducing the number of cameras and cameramen required, and offering a wider range of creative options.

5G is far more suited to broadcasting than 4G because of the enhanced capacity and because operators will be able to use network slicing to guarantee a minimum standard of speed and throughput. What’s more, 5G make outside broadcasts far more efficient. At present, broadcasters use on-site trucks and fibre connections to capture images and audio and for production.

EE used 5G to broadcast the Wembley Cup, while Intel and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held trials of 5G broadcasting at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics earlier this year. Golf is another sport looking to see how 5G can enhance its broadcasts.

“5G is not just a new wireless technology from a network equipment provider, it’s a fundamental transformation of mobile networks, infrastructure and business models,” said Ed Barton, chief analyst, consumer and entertainment at Ovum.

“It will drive the creation of new applications and services, which in turn will require new operating and business models, force changes across operator technology setups and emphasizing the need to integrate the new with the old. Our discussions with the World’s leading operators prove that it’s already a challenging journey. The industry has two years or less to get it right if it is to hit the ground running.”

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.