3G/4G, and possibly 5G
Cellular providers are now planning to deploy evolved multimedia broadcast multicast service (eMBMS), a multicast technology that mobile carriers believe can efficiently multicast video content by sending it to a large number of subscribers at the same time, essentially broadcasting using the cellular radio spectrum. The challenge to these operators is in upgrading their networks to handle the increased traffic, including the backhaul between cells and central hubs. It’s also not clear that all existing receivers can handle the new protocols, meaning consumer device upgrades could be necessary.
Cellular networks have a more fundamental dilemma: Although 4G-LTE offers up to 20 times the bandwidth of 3G networks, some analysts estimate that by 2015, when LTE networks are fully built out, mobile data traffic will have grown by the same factor, rendering them obsolete before fully deployed. This forms one oft-quoted rationale for “freeing up broadcast spectrum,” which by many accounts would only solve the problem temporarily.
In the meantime, companies are scrambling to invent new technologies that can increase bandwidth over wireless networks. Multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) technology uses multiple transmitting and receiving antennas, and shows promise as a bandwidth-enhancing transmission technology. It is now being studied by standardization groups on both sides of the Atlantic.
There have been announcements of new systems under development, including one with an early label of 5G, which uses an adaptive antenna array that promises to deliver from 1Gb/s to 10Gb/s of bandwidth wirelessly in the millimeter waveband. Developers hope to deploy such technologies by 2020.
But the real problem is that consumer use will always expand to fill capacity, much the same as more highways increase the number of drivers. Broadcasters are now challenged to consider new and innovative ways to reach their audience — like combinations of OTA and one-to-one networks — using all spectrum resources that are now available.
—Aldo Cugnini is a consultant in the digital television industry, and a partner in a mobile services company.