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Game on for real-time sports streaming

Superior media experiences by broadcasting content

A mobile radio network can switch on a broadcast service, enabling new use cases and improving both user experience and network efficiency.

Key findings

  • Telstra streams live sports content to around 1.2 million devices, with fans consuming 37 million minutes of live content over a typical weekend.
  • LTE-B users watched a stream more than 25 percent longer than viewers watching the same content on non LTE-B enabled devices.
  • LTE-B allows high-quality live content to be delivered, free from rebuffering and without degrading the network experience for other users.
  • With LTE-B, the consumer experience is significantly enhanced and the operator receives cost benefits because they are not increasing capacity in their network to cater for one-off events.

An ongoing challenge for communications service providers around the world is managing the growing demand for video and other types of data while maintaining high-quality customer experience, particularly for live content streaming. LTE Broadcast (LTE-B), based on the Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services (eMBMS)1 standard, is a key part of the solution implemented by Telstra – a market-leading communications service provider in Australia – to address this challenge.

This article was written in cooperation with Telstra, a market-leading telecommunications and technology company in Australia offering a full range of communications services.

More content delivered, less network strain

Telstra’s first commercial product offering based on LTE-B was launched in 2018. A year on, Telstra has quantified the network efficiency benefits of this technology. As the technology reaches widespread adoption and a compatible device ecosystem develops, use cases can be expected to multiply, further enhancing end-user experience.

LTE-B is a cost-efficient mechanism for delivering large amounts of data while increasing network efficiency and improving customer experience. Previously, when a large group of subscribers in one area wanted to watch the same content on their smartphones or tablets simultaneously, individual streams of data were sent to each individual device (i.e. one-to-one). With LTE-B, content is sent via a single stream of data to many mobile users in one area (i.e. one-to-many), making content scheduling and delivery more efficient. The same mechanism could also be used for broadcasting a software update, traffic information or emergency alerts to a large group of users in a specific geographic area.

Streaming live sports events

One of the early use cases for LTE-B that Telstra identified was streaming live sports, a popular online activity in Australia. LTE-B technology was switched on nationally across the Telstra network on July 11, 2018 as part of an end-to-end service streaming live Australian Football League (AFL) games. Telstra offers the AFL Live Official app for free (unmetered content) to its existing mobile subscriber base, but it is also available to others for a monthly subscription fee.

Weekly live sport traffic level via the AFL Live Official app
Seasons 2016–2017 saw 2.5 times increase in AFL Live official app traffic.
Seasons 2017–2018 saw an additional 1.25 times increase in AFL Live official app traffic.

Difference in video quality between unicast and multicast content streams

Unicast without LTE-B (576p SD)

Unicast without LTE-B (576p SD)

Non-LTE-B users had an inconsistent viewing experience with fluctuations in video quality.

Multicast via LTE-B (720p HD)

Multicast via LTE-B (720p HD)

LTE-B users experienced the highest resolution (HD quality) delivered as a sustained stream

LTE-B users watched a stream more than 25 percent longer than viewers watching the same content on a non LTE-B enabled device.

Increase in real-time game streaming

During the 2018 AFL season, Telstra observed a 58 percent increase overall in customers streaming games in real time and, in some instances, more than twice the number of streaming customers when compared to the same match the previous year.

Weekend traffic generated by the AFL Live Official app across Telstra’s network has more than tripled since 2016. The combination of AFL, rugby and netball streaming since the 2018 season launch means Telstra is now seeing mobile network traffic peaks each weekend which regularly exceed traffic seen on weekdays. However, while sports traffic has been steadily growing on Telstra’s mobile network (see graph, above), customer experience on the Telstra network has not been adversely impacted and in some cases it has even improved.

LTE-B brings network efficiencies

For Telstra, LTE-B has been an important solution to meet the ever-growing demand for mobile video while improving network efficiency and, importantly, boosting customer experience by delivering smoother streaming. Video streaming is transforming entertainment consumption, including sports viewing. LTE-B improves the video and audio experience for customers watching live content. Accessing key moments in a match and “snacking“ on games are key usage trends on mobile applications, and ensuring the highest quality experience for this content consumption is important.

LTE-B kicks in once a predetermined traffic threshold is reached. This is achieved using a feature called MBMS-operation-on-Demand (MooD) which dynamically activates or deactivates LTE-B based on certain parameters, such as the number of devices in an area streaming the same video content or accessing the same data stream, and when traffic levels reach a designated threshold. In cells where LTE-B has been activated, Telstra has observed that around 12 percent of traffic is being carried via LTE-B to capable devices, which represents a tangible improvement in network efficiency as less capacity is used in the cell to carry this traffic. As more LTE-B-compatible devices join the network, it can be expected that efficiencies can be further improved within LTE-B-enabled cells.

With LTE-B, the consumer experience is significantly enhanced and the operator receives cost benefits because they are not increasing capacity in their network to cater for one-off events. This technology offers myriad opportunities for broadcast app/software updates and major live, regional, and global sporting events, as well as in meeting growth in usage of live video broadcast apps.

Developing a device and application ecosystem

Live sports have been Telstra’s foundational use case to accelerate the LTE-B ecosystem. In the first 3 months of the new service, Telstra broadcast more than 50 AFL games and related live events, resulting in 43,000 streams to broadcast users which equated to 4,700 hours of consumed video. After a successful introduction, it is expected several other services will follow.

In summary, LTE-B improves network efficiency in the radio access network (RAN), core and content delivery networks (CDNs), but it can also improve the coverage of high bitrate services, enhancing responsivity and reliability. It will also be an essential technology in the delivery of services in new use case areas, such as connected vehicles and mission critical services.

Support for broadcast with 5G New Radio (NR) and core is still to be defined from 3GPP Release 17 and onwards.

Comparative user video experience for non LTE-B and LTE-B users

Creating superior customer experiences

Currently, LTE-B is integrated into the Live Official app for AFL, the most widely streamed sport in Australia. Each weekend across the AFL season, Telstra streams live sports content to around 1.2 million devices, with fans consuming 37 million minutes of live content. LTE-B allows high-quality live content to be delivered, free from rebuffering and without degrading the network experience for other users. When it comes to bitrates, LTE-B users can stream with a guaranteed 720p (HD) resolution via HEVC3 (H.265) at 1.5Mbps, while non LTE-B users can expect 576p (SD) resolutions in high-traffic situations. LTE-B users watched a stream more than 25 percent longer than viewers watching the same content on a non LTE-B enabled device, indicating that a good viewing experience can encourage increased viewing.

Meeting massive peaks in demand for live sporting content requires extensive end-to-end network design, continued network management and strategic investments. Telstra has invested in network capacity and continues to optimize its network to meet demand for video sporting content from subscribers of the AFL and other sporting apps. With an increasing number of people engaging in real-time sports consumption, the popularity of Telstra's sporting apps is a prime example of a viable LTE-B use case.

LTE-B is expected to develop and reach a truly global scale thanks to a growing ecosystem (including device support) and the increasing prevalence of broadcast content (sports, live video, software) over the mobile network.

Additionally, in developing countries, where there is a less established fixed infrastructure, LTE-B can enable large file downloads and software updates that otherwise might struggle to be efficiently delivered to end users.

Potential applications that would benefit from LTE-B include:

  • evolved live sports experience: more camera angles, team statistics and telemetry information available to subscribers
  • other sports events such as soccer and rugby
  • delivery of software and app updates; available as an alternative for places with limited fixed broadband connectivity
  • prepositioning (pre-downloads) of content for high-quality commute viewing and new media releases
  • real-time traffic and navigation information for autonomous vehicles
  • real-time emergency alerts
  • mission-critical communications such as push-to-talk (PTT) services
  • broadcast of emergency notifications, video and data to first responders

Essential to the success of LTE-B is the coordination of elements, including:

  • Network evolution and coverage: the foundation for LTE-B must be a high-performing LTE network with extensive footprint
  • Application development and enhancements: apps are central to the development of mobile ecosystems and represent the portal through which users consume content
  • Device and middleware support: compatible devices are key to the development of the ecosystem. More devices in more frequency bands will pave the way for LTE-B global adoption
  • Content rights: agreements with content providers on broadcast rights are a must to offer valuable content to users on LTE-B

1 eMBMS is a point-to-multipoint interface specification for 3GPP cellular networks, which is designed to provide efficient delivery of broadcast and multicast services, delivered through an LTE network. It is also known as LTE Broadcast

2 On average LTE-B users have < 3 secs video start-up time and 40 percent of non LTE-B users have > 6 secs video start-up time (high traffic scenario)

3 High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), also known as H.265, is a video compression standard. HEVC has been an approved standard since 2013