YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. – One of the interesting things about 5G is that its potential impact reaches far beyond faster mobile downloads.
Thanks to the speed of certain 5G connections, it’s being used to enable a number of different applications, including new types of experiences in public venues as well as a point-to-point wireless connection mechanism between critical pieces of equipment.
For this weekend’s big game in Miami, for example, major U.S. carriers including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are promising the world’s first 5G Super Bowl.
While that sounds exciting, the truth is it boils down to each of them deploying a number of 5G connection points (including both upgrades to existing cell towers as well as special event-specific network access equipment) to provide access to their latest network technology at a major public event.
Of course, because the total number of 5G-capable phones that have been sold to date in the U.S. is still relatively modest (and therefore, the total number of 5G-capable phones at or even near the game will be small), the focus on 5G-specific network capabilities is somewhat limited for this year’s big game. Plus, it’s not clear that the fastest 5G connection speeds will even be available to everyone in Hard Rock Stadium because of the limited range of the millimeter wave (mmWave) flavor of 5G. (As a quick reminder, mmWave 5G offers speeds up to 50x faster than 4G LTE but also has a very small range per cell site. See “5G service is here, but do I really need to get a 5G phone now” for more details.)
5G at sporting venues
Verizon has discussed how they’ve outfitted 13 NFL stadiums this year – including the one in Miami hosting the Super Bowl – with their speedy mmWave 5G service, but they’ve also acknowledged that the service may not be accessible from all seats in all stadiums. For their part, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have all mentioned some of the 5G services they’ll be making available in and around the stadium for the game, but they’ve all been more eager to describe the quality and enhancements they’ve made for their 4G LTE service for this year’s game.
While it’s not as exciting, the truth is, these enhancements will improve the mobile device experience for a lot more people at Super Bowl LIV than any of the 5G-specific ones. In fact, what’s interesting about these Super Bowl-specific 5G announcements is that they represent a microcosm of where 5G service stands right now in the U.S. overall.
They also highlight the different strategies that each of the carriers have taken when it comes to 5G. Both T-Mobile and AT&T, for example, have started to build out nationwide 5G services, but both of their efforts are based on the sub-6 GHz variant of 5G and specifically what are called the “low-band” frequencies (under 1 GHz for any tech heads out there).
What 5G gets you
The key benefit of 5G service based on these low-band, sub-6 GHz frequencies is that coverage is significantly broader and more far-reaching than mmWave-based 5G, but the speeds are also significantly slower. In these early days of 5G, it’s even possible to find 5G service based on these sub-6 radio frequencies is a bit slower than 4G LTE because of all the refinements that have been made to the 4G networks.
Sprint, for its part, said it’ll be offering a combination of 4G and 5G services for the Super Bowl. What’s interesting – and unique – about Sprint’s service right now is that it’s based on what’s called the “mid-band” version of 5G (using sub-6 frequencies around 2.5 GHz) that offers a solid combination of both decent range (much wider than mmWave 5G) and decent performance (much faster than low-band 5G).
Interestingly, most other countries who have started to widely deploy 5G, including Korea, Japan and China, have selected these and other “mid-band” 5G frequencies as the primary means of delivering their 5G service.
The future of 5G
Overall, however, the point is, U.S.-based 5G services are still very much of a split entity between mmWave and sub-6 GHz and, for now at least, they’re more of a special purpose application. Even current 5G phones are limited to supporting one type or the other – thankfully, most future 5G phones won’t have these issues.
In situations where high-speed 5G connectivity is more ubiquitous, one of the most interesting potential applications for the technology in sports is the ability to view a particular play from the vantage point of several different cameras. The idea is to give individuals the equivalent power of the TV producer and let consumers switch between camera angles at their own will. Only with the very high data download rates possible with some of the faster variations of 5G would that type of application be possible.
In a related way, another potentially interesting application of 5G in the sports broadcasting world is the ability to connect shoulder-mounted mobile video cameras wirelessly, avoiding the need for unwieldy long tethered cable connections. NBC Sports and Sony have partnered on a variant of 5G mmWave technology to enable this application for golf tournaments in the past. It uses specially equipped Sony broadcast cameras with a 5G transmitter that connects to receivers in the main control room. For golf tournaments, this saves the expense and cost of digging holes and laying cable, for example, around greens. It’s easy to see how this technology could also be applied to football games and future Super Bowls.
Ultimately, the real-world impact of 5G at this year’s big game is likely to be pretty modest. However, there’s little doubt that by next year’s Super Bowl LV, the influence of 5G will be much more strongly felt.
Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology indU.S. try and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.