A connection of sport

14 December 2021 | Melanie Mingas

Cover

Next generation networks are tipped to transform industry and gaming – but when it comes to sport, 5G, private networks and enhanced broadcasting tech are creating new business cases for network operators. Melanie Mingas explains why it’s a match made in heaven

What do the Olympics, the World Cup and the Super Bowl all have in common? The answer is major tech debuts.
The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics saw the worldwide debut of 5G; the 2018 FIFA World Cup saw broadcasters use eSIMS for enhanced security; and for the 2021 Super Bowl, reduced fan admissions prompted organisers to create immersive viewing experiences from home using 4K and 8K streaming.

These incidents aren’t isolated and the trend draws on a long history of necessary collaboration; however, as speed and data volumes see exponential growth – and audiences too, continue to grow – a new business case is emerging for network operators to work with event organisers.

“We often see major events are great places to launch new ideas, because they are front of mind for people,” says Peter Gray, senior vice president of NTT’s advanced technology group, sport.

This year, as sports fans were able to return to venues around the world, digitalisation – not to mention a proliferation of advanced communications and home entertainment devices – had changed what that experience entails.

Keen cyclist and Aussie rules fan Gray explains: “Sport stimulates a new way to embrace a new generation of technology, but also it is a great laboratory. Every project we at NTT are working on, I can guarantee, there is a little lab project on the side, that you will never see, that is figuring out what is happening in two to three years’ time.”

Sitting within the new ventures innovation team, Gray leads NTT’s sport-related projects globally, which across the group includes work with the Tour de France, IndyCar and the British Open, among others.

Gray says: “It varies event to event, but broadly speaking we are doing a number of key things to create this world of smart and connected sports – creating great experiences for fans but also enabling all the operations and the technology that sit behind running these events and allow the organiser to deliver a world-class event.”

By way of example, this year’s UEFA European Championship saw NTT deliver and integrate a portfolio of services across 11 host countries as well as the tournament’s Amsterdam-based broadcast centre. NTT was tasked with standardising connectivity across all venues, ensuring consistent experiences at each location and integrating that into a hub-and-spoke architecture to transfer relevant data back to Amsterdam. It wasn’t just for fans and organisers; broadcasters, journalists and VIPs were also dependent on the network infrastructure.

The project saw 87,000km of fibre cable and 245,000km of copper cable deployed alongside 890 switches and 1,565 access points. Counting the core and local teams, more than 170 people were involved in project delivery for the one-month tournament.

“Sport is a microcosm of what happens in the world more broadly and it’s a great place for innovation,” Gray explains.
“The Euros happens every four years, so if you think of the change just in terms of a simple thing like the resolution of a photo on a smartphone and the file size of that photo, then you multiply that out by thousands of millions. Think of the impact that has.”

The examples continue but the true challenge, Gray says, is “the dependence on that core network and the volume that needs to be managed through it”.

It’s exacerbated by the shift to IP-based technologies in broadcast and voice – even simple things like commentators working over Zoom – meaning “the demands just layer on top of each other”, Gray continues. According to Ericsson, sports venues around the world are seeing a 67% growth in data usage year over year.

On the data surge due before the next Euros, in 2024, Gray says the volumes and speeds will probably be “multiplied by another magnitude of order again” – not only because of the aforementioned trends in IP-based networks, but because of what’s happening in mobile.

Since 5G debuted at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games in South Korea – courtesy of KT Corp – 181 operators around the world have launched services, according to Ookla’s Global 5G Map. 5G has long been tipped as a means by which to enhance everything from logistics to gaming – and now that could also transfer to stadia connectivity.

Gray says there are “two big stories” around the tech. The first is the fan experience, but “the other really interesting one”, he says, “is around the use of private 5G for event management and event operations”.

It’s a “major focus for NTT”, Gray says – and the firm launched the first globally available private 5G network-as-a-service platform in August.

It’s the same principle as a private 5G network at a port or factory – dedicated, secure infrastructure that can be scaled on demand to solve challenges for enterprises and provide interactive experiences.

Gray explains: “It enables new ways of streaming videos from onboard cameras – and we are looking at things like 3D onboard camera steaming – because these things start to become viable with this technology.

“You have the stadium ops element, but as we move to an IoT-enabled world that is more connected than ever before, it’s about being able to leverage a secure network to implement some of those capabilities as well. It is early days but in a couple of years’ time that will be the standard. It starts to open a whole new range of opportunities within the public carrier space and within the private 5G space,” Gray says.

Connecting the World Cup

As the official Middle East and Africa telecommunications operator of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 – and FIFA Arab Cup Qatar 2021 – Ooredoo Qatar is the telco tasked with delivering the first 5G-connected World Cup in just under 12 months’ time.

With 99.99% coverage across populated areas, 4G will play a key role in Qatar’s connectivity landscape, but Ooredoo has been pioneering 5G since it launched services in 2018 with a 5G-connected aerial taxi, which toured the industry exhibition circuit pre-Covid.

As one of two MNOs in Qatar today, Ooredoo expects its mobile network alone will see data increases of 50-100% over the course of the World Cup tournament, according to chief technology and infrastructure officer, Günther Ottendorfer.
Before taking up his current role in 2019, Ottendorfer worked on the Super Bowl, European Championships and several 4G and 5G launches across multiple continents with Sprint, Deutsche Telecom, Optus and Telekom Austria. Now leading a team of several hundred people to deliver the World Cup, he says the tournament is likely to become a catalyst for the adoption of advanced tech across Qatari society.

“We already have a lot of IoT solutions out in the market, mainly in logistics and energy, and I think the World Cup could be a catalyst for that to grow. I think for consumers that could be around information services, maybe around improved navigation services, and hopefully around AR and VR.

“These are the areas where I think things could develop very fast over the course of the next year,” he says.

Preparations for 2022 began four years ago and infrastructure continues to be deployed around stadia and fan zones. To tackle the project, Ooredoo is drawing on a toolbox of solutions, as well as network extensions that take in metro lines and stations, parking spaces and even the footpaths leading to the venues.

“We have solutions for quick coverage for limited geographical areas. We have the small cells and repeater solutions. We try to have a broad toolbox,” Ottendorfer says.

Ooredoo sources its telecoms kit through long-term partner Ericsson, which offers a “connected stadium” portfolio. Research published by the kit maker earlier this year says the application of 5G to advance the sports fan experience is a business projected to generate $83.1 billion in revenues by 2023 in the US alone.

In December 2021, Ooredoo named Ericsson as its infrastructure partner for that year’s Arab Cup and the next year’s World Cup, with the Swedish equipment giant involved in project planning and kit supply for both tournaments.
Although plans for 2022 are still being finalised, mobile shelters will be used only in the more remote areas while “several hundred” small cells will be deployed throughout stadia, as is done for the Super Bowl.

“We have broken down quite granularly each stadium into small sectors and we provide coverage for each sector,” Ottendorfer explains.

Building on Ooredoo’s 2020 carrier aggregation trials with Ericsson – which achieved record throughput of 4.2Gbps using 200Mhz spectrum for 5G – Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) is also in the toolbox.

“We are using 4G and 5G on the same frequency, so it will be very good for visitors when they are out and about,” he adds.

That said, the nature of the project means a number of unknowns remain, including the size and shape of traffic peaks. To prepare for this, during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, Ooredoo held data giveaways after the national team’s big wins – including the semis and finals – which allowed it to assess how subscriber traffic might flow during the World Cup.

“We could then base necessary traffic extensions on the knowledge of those days and that’s what we have done since. The traffic more than doubled on the data giveaway days, so I would assume, with the number of visitors coming in, that’s something that we will probably see again,” Ottendorfer says.

“It will depend a little bit on the success of popular teams. You can’t forecast everything, because it will depend on how the tournament goes and what teams are there,” he adds.

Put to the test

As a market, Qatar already has one of the world’s highest average traffic demands per customer and, Covid aside, Ooredoo subscribers averaged data use of more than 12Gb per month last year. The country of 2.9 million permanent residents and citizens offers award-winning 5G speeds and is no stranger to major events, from sporting tournaments to its own National Day. In fact, 63 such events have been hosted this year alone, including the Formula 1 Ooredoo Qatar Grand Prix.

“That gives us the confidence that we are constantly tested on this,” says Ottendorfer.

In addition to the AFC Asian Cup, those tests have also included the FIFA Arab Cup and Amir Cup Final, which in 2019 was enhanced with a “virtual stadium”.

For this, the south stand of Al Wakrah Stadium was equipped with elastic cloud radio technology and antenna with High Order Massive-MIMO, to give fans a preview of what’s possible. The demo was broadcasted to a virtual stadium at Mall of Qatar, where consumers engaged with the immersive VR experience during the 90-minute game.

“We had 16 cameras in the stadium connected via 5G and then it was transported to Mall of Qatar – and there you could see the game from different angles. There were iPads that customers could use and select their favourite angle to watch the game,” Ottendorfer says.

“These are the kinds of things 5G will enable and I fully expect that some AR and VR applications might come around at that time,” he adds.

Another test was the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha. During that, Ooredoo Qatar delivered more than 40Tb of mobile traffic, with the project requiring more than 350,000m of fibre cable to broadcast from Khalifa International Stadium, as well as “several hundred smart antennas in the stadium to cover each sector”, says Ottendorfer.

For this competition, Ooredoo launched a visitor SIM and the AI-powered Ooredoo Sports App to give customers information about the event. Similar offers will be in the works for 2022.

“One of the things that also helped us was that 5G was already being deployed. We saw excellent coverage with more than 1Gbps in the stadium during the event, and we did that all in close co-operation with many of our suppliers,” says Ottendorfer.

“We saw it also as a test drive for the World Cup.”

The other gaming experience

While virtual gaming is tipped to be a major driver for 5G, the possibility to enhance real-life sporting experiences with communications tech will also be central, and organisers are increasingly looking for bespoke and high-capacity infrastructure, as well as local telecoms partners.

So why are major sporting events a great place to debut communications and tech advancements?

A spokesperson for UEFA says: “Major tournaments are the conclusion to a season of cycle and are massive showcase events that draw equally huge viewing figures and fan engagement. UEFA continues to innovate at these events, and across the season, where practical, in order to meet the demands of our key stakeholders – broadcast partners, sponsors and the wider football family – as well as direct to our fans.”

UEFA partners with network operators and telcos on an event-by-event basis, depending on competition locations. For example, for the 2016 Euros UEFA partnered with Orange in France, BT in London and Colt in Germany, among others.
The body says discussions for partners for 2024 are ongoing and that 5G will “definitely be part of UEFA’s tech mix for future major tournaments, particularly for centralised content distribution using bonded mobile technology from off-venue activities”.

Meanwhile, at the International Olympics Committee (IOC), Swisscom’s former EVP of television and smart products, Ilario Corna, celebrated one year as chief information and technology officer in November.

While Corna wasn’t available for comment, the IOC did tell Capacity that the Tokyo games were a “watershed moment in the history of Olympic broadcasting, with more content made available to fans on more screens than ever before through TV, digital, apps and social media”.

Further, the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 will see the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) use super-fast 5G wireless transmission.

OBS works with Intel, using its TrueView technology to deliver immersive replays for basketball via 35 on-court 4K cameras, and has also turned to Alibaba Group to develop a cloud platform. The IOC says: “The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly accelerated the adoption of cloud solutions.”

More than streaming

In the UK, a government-backed project called 5G VISTA is looking to take things a step further. The project was launched in September, and collaborators include Virgin Media O2, Global Wireless Solutions (GWS), DTG and Digital Catapult. Their aim is to gauge consumer demand and deliver the business case to enable 5G-powered sporting events in the near future.

It will do this by offering “enhanced interactive viewing” direct to mobile during events in stadia and other select locations, by leaning on 5G broadcast technology – itself tipped to deliver multimedia content via mobile and TV in ways that MediaFLO, LTE Broadcast and DVB-H are unable to.

CEO of GWS, Paul Carter, says: “People want reliable connectivity to enhance their experiences wherever they go. However, networks can be challenged to meet this requirement, particularly at well-attended events where capacity becomes an issue.”

The idea is to provide consumers with “more control over what they view, as well as offering solutions to pain points they have”, Carter says – and, yes, that includes the kiosk queues.

“Project Vista’s innovation offers both a solution and an opportunity for operators. Today, at busy stadium events, barriers – such as the volume of individuals present – exist against providing consistent network coverage, particularly for data-driven applications such as an enhanced viewing experience,” Carter explains.

He says that enhanced Further Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services (FeMBMS) can rectify many of these issues “at a cost advantage compared with more traditional cellular solutions”, while allowing large-scale live multi-camera, multi-angle video to be part of a live performance.

“The telecoms sector will be key for deploying this technology and striving for low-cost solutions to make it widespread,” he adds.

Carter continues: “There is a myriad of opportunities that Project Vista’s innovative technology provides telcos, MNOs, and other stakeholders in the live entertainment industry. Their involvement and investment will demonstrate a bright future for 5G technology at stadiums.”

As private networks, mobile and broadcast advances facilitate ever more immersive viewing experiences, the trick for telcos will be to seize the first-mover advantage. Expensive lessons were learned when the OTTs arrived in the market – and, when it comes to monetising the next generation of networks, the trick is to avoid an own goal.