By Tammy Parker
LTE Multicast (also known as LTE Broadcast) is getting lots of attention from vendors and mobile operators for its ability to deliver live multimedia to smartphones and tablets being used by concentrated groups of people, such as those attending a sporting event or concert. And while numerous operators are laying out plans to deploy LTE Multicast, a complementary technology--Wi-Fi Multicast--has already been deployed by venue owners and is being considered by both mobile operators and cable MSOs.
In August, the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) reported that LTE Multicast has attracted the attention of at least 16 mobile network operators, which are trialing or deploying the technology in Australia, China, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.
While LTE Multicast, based on the evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (eMBMS) standard, is in the early stages of being rolled out, Wi-Fi Multicast has been around for years in office WLAN environments. Its use has since been broadened to include public Wi-Fi entertainment platforms.
For example, Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) announced in October 2012 a stadium-optimized Wi-Fi solution for mobile operators, using Wi-Fi technology it gained in its April 2012 acquisition of BelAir Networks.
In addition, Cisco Systems introduced Wi-Fi Multicast via its StadiumVision Mobile platform in February 2013. The platform brings live video feeds to fans' devices using the related stadium app.
Barclays Center (Brooklyn, NY), Sporting Park (Kansas City), BayArena (Germany), and Tele2 Arena (Sweden) are using the solution, while Parken Stadium (Norway), Etihad Stadium (Manchester City), Estadio Santiago Bernabeu (Real Madrid) and other venues worldwide "are in the process of rolling out their stadium applications, which will include this solution," said Gene Arantowicz, senior director, solution management and innovation, at Cisco Sports & Entertainment, via email.
Demand from all corners
Multicast technology is more efficient than unicast technology for delivering the same content to multiple receivers. Many of the same factors are driving demand for LTE Multicast and Wi-Fi Multicast in entertainment venues, with the fan experience sitting at the top of the list as sports leagues and venues of all types strive to differentiate and do whatever they can to fill seats.
Michael Hanna, vice president of emerging business at Ericsson, told FierceWirelessTech that there is a growing need to ensure basic wireless coverage during events, especially for millennials. If they can't upload photos to Facebook or send out tweets on Twitter, "they get up and leave," he said.
University athletic directors have started noticing that half of the student section might be gone in the third quarter of a major football game if they cannot get Internet access. "It's been a big problem, even with Tier 1 colleges," Hanna said.
Having identified the issue, the entire sports and entertainment business has begun seriously assessing venue-specific connectivity. "Once one does it, it spreads like wildfire. We've been amazed at how quickly the venues have moved to upgrade connectivity," Hanna said.
But venues are going a step further by integrating multimedia entertainment with basic wireless communications for event attendees. One example comes from the Sacramento Kings basketball team, which is building a new stadium in northern California, and intends to outfit it with extensive Wi-Fi coverage. In a July interview with the Sacramento Business Journal, Ryan Montoya, head of technology for the team, said the Kings' arena will have the strongest Wi-Fi connectivity of any sports arena in the country when it opens in October 2016.
Montoya also appeared to refer to some sort of multicasting capability within the arena when he pledged that Kings fans will be able to use their mobile devices to watch multiple plays and replays from multiple camera angles and will be able to dictate the broadcast in some cases. "We're exploring all options, including Wi-Fi Multicast and LTE Multicast," Kings spokeswoman Laura Braden told FierceWirelessTech.
In fact, venues may deploy both technologies. "We believe that LTE Multicast and Wi-Fi Multicast complement one another, especially in dense environments like sports venues, and optimize the experience for fans," said Arantowicz.
"A good comparison of complementary offerings is Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and Wi-Fi. Over the past few years we have seen arenas and stadiums, along with mobile operators, pursue having both enhanced DAS and high-density Wi-Fi solutions in place to support fan needs in sports venues. Having a robust DAS system in place helps to ensure solid reception, but having reliable Wi-Fi available ensures rapid connectivity, and also offloads data traffic to make sure that mobile reception is top-notch," he said.
"The use cases dictate when and where and what makes sense" in terms of how the multicast technologies might be deployed, said Ericsson's Hanna.
For example, he noted a venue might deliver multimedia feeds to fans via LTE Multicast but could also install Wi-Fi Multicast technology for private feeds of alternative camera angles that reveal on-field action to coaches, owners and even those seated on the club level. Alternatively, LTE Multicast and Wi-Fi Multicast feeds could be delivered via the same app, enabling perhaps an NFL channel on the former and a team-specific channel on the latter.
"The cost per bit drives the business case," said Hanna, adding that as the solutions evolve there will be additional flexibility in how they are applied.
Of course, Wi-Fi Multicast, because it relies upon unlicensed spectrum, is something a venue can offer without the need to partner with a mobile operator, which is not the case with LTE Multicast. But there may be options for venues to partner with operators on both technologies.
Mobile operators have already indicated their interest in LTE Multicast, in part because they see the possibility of tapping new business models. Those include the ability to sell content rights in hour-long time slots, pay-per-view events or sporting events like the World Cup.
But because they are also interested in offloading data traffic from cellular to Wi-Fi, many mobile carriers are also eyeing Wi-Fi Multicast, where the same new business models might also apply. Hanna says Ericsson is offering its Wi-Fi Multicast platform because operators have indicated they want it. "That obviously solidified our R&D investment to build it," he added.
At the CTIA's carrier-centric Super Mobility Week trade event, held during September 2014 in Las Vegas, Ericsson's booth featured stadium seating where visitors would view a demo of Wi-Fi Multicast.
FierceWirelessTech asked both Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) whether they are interested in Wi-Fi Multicast. A Verizon spokeswoman replied that she is unaware of any plans by the operator to employ Wi-Fi Multicast and noted the carrier is focused "first and foremost" on its LTE network, which includes an LTE Multicast initiative. AT&T did not provide a response to the question.
Verizon has been rolling out LTE Multicast capability across its entire LTE footprint and plans to make a push for the service in 2015 when more devices are outfitted with the technology. AT&T has said it will most likely also deploy LTE Multicast sometime in 2015.
Cable operators, which are deploying extensive Wi-Fi footprints, are also said to be eyeing Wi-Fi Multicast opportunities. "We have had interest from cable operators, and we are having ongoing conversations with them as they look to augment their current service portfolio and extend the way they can connect with and benefit their subscribers," said Cisco's Arantowicz.
Making things work
Hanna explained that Ericsson's LTE Multicast and Wi-Fi Multicast platforms use many common core components, including similar broadcast delivery centers though "we have essentially a 'lite' version in Wi-Fi Multicast." And because Wi-Fi Multicast uses unlicensed spectrum--unlike LTE Multicast, which uses licensed spectrum controlled by operators--"all kinds of crazy things can happen" in the Wi-Fi Multicast scenario.
Therefore, Ericsson had to tweak its Wi-Fi Multicast platform to control the ways access points connect and disconnect, in order to mitigate interference, and employ narrow beams to ensure signals from Wi-Fi access points weren't crossing and interfering with one another.
"A lot of development went into making those things work really well," Hanna said. "If we can get a cleaner RF environment, then we can offer Wi-Fi Multicast."
In addition, multiple venue-specific issues must be addressed to ensure any multicast system works from a consumer-expectation perspective. For example, the dynamics of how users interact with their mobile devices depends upon whether they are attending a concert or a sporting event. Further, at many venues the layout of the seating and performance locations will change based on the activity being featured. "That actually affects all of the RF characteristics inside the venue," Hanna said.
While Wi-Fi Multicast has been deployed primarily to provide multimedia feeds, like its sibling LTE Multicast the technology can also be used for over-the-air data downloads. That might provide an attractive option to device vendors and service providers, which could turn to Wi-Fi Multicast rather than using unicasting over either cellular or Wi-Fi to efficiently deliver software updates and more.
"Wi-Fi Multicast is an extremely efficient delivery system for both video and data. As Wi-Fi becomes more ubiquitous, and with the rise of data processing and consumption to satisfy consumers' (i.e. fans) insatiable appetite for more engaging services, we believe that the solution can extend beyond multimedia entertainment at sports venues and extend to being a solution that has benefits anywhere people can get a reliable Wi-Fi connection," said Arantowicz.