Spring 2019

5G: The Reality
vs. The Hype

At CES 2019, 5G—the fifth generation of cellular technology—was heralded as the solution for glitchy entertainment connections, and, for entertainment companies, a way to extend their reach and lure new audiences. We separate the wheat from the chaff.

By Chris Morris

Illustrated by Brian Stauffer

The entertainment industry is on the precipice of a major shift in how audiences enjoy films and other types of content. But you've probably heard that before.

5G is the latest in a long string of paradigm-altering technological advances and it won't be the last. For filmmakers, though, it could be the most impactful since the dawn of streaming video.

Admittedly, the hyperbole that accompanies 5G can be overwhelming at times. At CES 2019, it was heralded as the solution for glitchy Internet connections, the key to widespread autonomous vehicles and the fulfillment of the promise of a truly smart home. For entertainment companies, it is being touted as a way to lure new audiences and to extend the reach of existing media.

That's certainly all possible—likely, even. It won't happen overnight, though.

To really get a grasp on 5G's potential, it helps to first understand what the technology is; to view a realistic timetable for its rollout; and to learn what's so important about it for the film and television worlds.

What is 5G

The fifth generation of cellular technology, 5G for short, will offer tremendously faster download speeds for consumers. Some carriers say users could see a 100x increase over what they have today. It will also boast significantly lower latency, meaning reaction times will be nearly instantaneous for end users. (Imagine, for instance, selecting a film on Netflix and having it begin playing without the 'percent loaded' screen we've all gotten used to.) Low latency will also mean users' connections are more reliable.

The chief focus of 5G providers will be mobile devices, as you might expect. Ultimately, though, many tech companies and analysts expect the days of paying for a separate, hardwired Internet connection in the home are numbered, since 5G will match even the fastest speeds.

Tapping New Global Audiences

The majority of data consumed via the Internet in 2018 was accessed by mobile devices and that rise was driven by growing mobile Internet usage in developing countries where wired Internet is not widely available. 5G will significantly increase that trend. This international development of high-speed mobile Internet presents enormous opportunities for content creators as huge numbers of new viewers from around the world gain access to video on their phones—a process that is already underway through access to 4G networks. Investment in and development of high-speed mobile has become a priority in many developing nations and may offer opportunities for them to skip over the delays and high costs of wiring homes with fiber.

With the technology's speed and low latency, consumers will be able to stream video (including 4K content) without buffering or download entire films in seconds. Existing customers are predicted to watch more films and television programs, as access to content increases. And first-time Internet users are likely to be captivated by the entertainment options available to them.

And the volume of data is about to explode. Chipset manufacturer/IT conglomerate Cisco predicts that by 2022, global mobile data traffic will reach 930 exabytes annually. That's the equivalent of every movie ever made crossing global mobile networks every five minutes. That same year, says Cisco, nearly 12% of global mobile data traffic will come from 5G connections.

Mobile video consumption is expected to grow between 30% and 45% per year through 2023, at which time video should make up 75% of all data consumed. (Cisco says the average user's data consumption will triple with 5G connections.)

That could bring about an economic boom. Ovum, a London-based analyst specializing in the telecommunications, media and technology industries, predicts annual mobile media revenues will double to $420 billion in 2028. $124 billion of that will come from the U.S. $100 billion will come from China.

Where Does 5G's Rollout Stand Today?

5G is in the wild already in select cities, but few can truly take advantage of it. AT&T, in December, launched its 5G network, but since there are no phones yet on the market that can utilize it (5G requires a different sort of antenna), the company is offering select customers a 5G mobile hotspot and modem. Verizon, similarly, rolled out limited 5G home service last October and will launch its 5G mobile network later this year, though only in select cities.

Internationally, the rollout is just as hit or miss. Big population centers in Europe will see 5G start to show up later this year, but the most rapid expansion will likely come in South Korea or China. Both are racing to be the first with widespread 5G availability, hoping that an advanced 5G infrastructure could serve as a breeding ground for startups that utilize the technology. (The U.S. saw this when it led the world in 4G development, giving birth to everything from Instagram to Netflix's streaming model.)

"American companies could reach critical mass earlier [with 4G] because it was here," says Emanuel Kolta, a research analyst at ABI Research. "That's why Uber could actually grow to scale before they expanded to Europe or Southeast Asia. It's going to happen the same way with 5G. Countries that reach 5G earlier than others can build up their ecosystem earlier and gain experience and have their businesses reach other countries [first]. But we don't know the use cases for 5G yet, and that's why China's putting forth the effort. They're rolling out as fast as they can."

Some other major population centers, though, like India, just finished installing their 4G infrastructure a few years ago. And because of this, they're not in a rush to adopt 5G at this time.

Early development in India isn't expected to get underway until 2021. And a complete global rollout of 5G will likely take a decade or more as governments conduct spectrum auctions and approve permits for the new hardware that's necessary for 5G.

What New Entertainment Avenues Can 5G Open Up?

While the broad increase in audience is certainly a major benefit of 5G's rapid deployment, the technology will also open up new creative avenues for filmmakers.

Disney's StudioLab, in January, announced a partnership with Verizon to explore the possibilities of 5G connectivity for media and entertainment. Among the ideas currently being examined are a new take on theatrical posters, where regularly updated promotional materials are sent directly to large flat-screen displays in cinema lobbies, and the ability to upload dailies from remote shoot locations, where high-speed Internet is hard to come by currently.

The availability of high-speed Internet from any location could also make witnessing live events something that isn't limited to those lucky enough to score a ticket.

"If you place an ultra high resolution camera at a concert and record 360-degree video, you can actually sell online tickets to customers," says Kolta. "Imagine you want to go to the Super Bowl or a concert. You can be on the first row and look around wherever you want in high resolution. It's a unique experience that 5G helps enable."

As Kolta implies, virtual reality (and augmented reality as well) stand to be major beneficiaries of 5G. Not only will the reduced lag times diminish or eliminate the feeling of motion sickness that often accompanies today's use of the technologies, but 5G's speeds, when combined with edge computing, will allow VR and AR companies to remotely handle the processing required to create those images. That will result in much lighter, more mobile headsets (versus current models, which must be connected to a powerful PC or high-end smartphone).

"When you can relocate the computing power from the device, you can have really slim, AR and VR glasses, which can have the same functionality as [current] devices," says Kolta. "The glasses basically become just a projector."

Other potential use cases 5G opens up include creating interactive content, with user-influence storylines, and volumetric 3D video distribution. There's even the potential of adding a haptic element to media, adding a new sensory dimension to how people consume media.

In the short term, though, 5G's mission is to expand upon the disruption that 4G began. Over-the-top users will continue to grow and some parts of the entertainment industry will struggle to find the best way to capitalize on that. It's a transition that will involve a wide variety of players, from studios to startups.

For content creators, the acceleration of OTT will result in a number of new outlets to showcase their work and a wider overall audience to view those projects, creating a number of exciting opportunities.

5G promises to be a critical tool for creators that can expand their reach and offer new ways to tell stories. And because the rollout will be a measured one over time, it gives creators time to adapt and learn best practices and, ultimately, to reap the benefits of the technology's advances.

The Players

There are lots of companies involved in the rollout of 5G technology. And they're all going about the process in a different way. The takeaway for users is the timetables for launches will vary widely by location.
Here's a look at some of the 5G world's major players—and where they stand today:

The Operators

DGA Quarterly Spring 2019 5G Reality Verizon

Verizon launched a 5G home product last October in parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. Later this year, Verizon says, it will offer 5G mobile service in "more than 30 cities." To rapidly expand that, it also has launched an effort to encourage citizens to lobby their local officials for 5G coverage, in an effort to eliminate expected municipal challenges as it seeks to add more towers.

DGA Quarterly Spring 2019 5G Reality AT&T

AT&T has already launched a service called 5G Evolution (or 5G E, for short), though it has faced strong criticism from competitors and tech writers that, despite the name, it's not really 5G. (AT&T denies the name is misleading.) It plans to fully switch on 5G in the first half of 2019 in cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Las Vegas, and hopes to have nationwide coverage by 2020.

DGA Quarterly Spring 2019 5G Reality T-Mobile

The nation's third-largest wireless provider laid the groundwork for its 5G presence in 30 cities last year, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas, and plans to launch that service later this year. Nationwide coverage should be available by 2020.

DGA Quarterly Spring 2019 5G Reality Sprint

Sprint might not be the biggest carrier, but it's assuming the role of enforcer with 5G, suing AT&T in February over 5G E, saying the campaign made false claims of "offering a 5G wireless network where it offers only a 4G LTE Advanced network." It's also readying a partial 5G rollout in nine cities in the first half of this year.

The Vendors

DGA Quarterly Spring 2019 5G Reality Huawei

Huawei's first entry in 5G will be a foldable phone that's likely to create buzz among tech enthusiasts. The company's long-term advantage, though, is its lower prices, making its products attractive to a wide audience. Huawei faces a significant disadvantage in its reported close ties to the Chinese government, raising fears the company's phones could be used to spy on users. The U.S. has banned government use of Huawei equipment and is moving to ban them completely in America. As that happens, though, Huawei is dramatically expanding its footprint overseas.

DGA Quarterly Spring 2019 5G Reality Samsung

Samsung's going big with its first entry in the market, announcing a 5G version of the Galaxy S10, its new flagship. The phone, initially, will be exclusive to Verizon, and Samsung says it "can download a full season of a TV show in minutes, play graphics-rich cloud games with virtually no lag, [and] enjoy enhanced VR and AR experiences." Samsung hasn't yet given a price for the S10 5G, nor did it say how long the exclusive window with Verizon would last.

DGA Quarterly Spring 2019 5G Reality Apple

Don't expect a 5G iPhone in the immediate future. While the company ferociously guards its future plans, Bloomberg reported last December that Apple will remain on the 5G sidelines until 2020, so the technical problems that often accompany the launch of new technology can be ironed out. That will also give carriers time to expand their networks, expanding the potential number of buyers.

The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.

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