UK-first 5G broadcast trials at MK Dons football stadium set to revolutionise fan experience

A landmark project using 5G broadcast technology to supercharge the way fans interact with live sport has been piloted at a major sporting event.

The group behind 5G VISTA - a government-backed consortium using 5G technologies to deepen audience engagement, broaden content for fans and create valuable new commercial opportunities - completed a successful trial at a live football match at the 30,400-seat MK Dons football stadium.

A group of lucky fans at the match between MK Dons and Ipswich Town on 12th February were able to try out a prototype of the 5G VISTA app. This allowed them to view six, high-quality live streams of different perspectives of the game - including behind the scenes footage - with the tap of a screen.

Not only does 5G broadcast technology allow spectators to get even closer to the action at live events; it has the potential to offer solutions to a number of pain points experienced by broadcasters and TV crews at events venues and stadiums.

This includes overcoming challenges associated with cabling and network complexity, and unstable 4G networks during events with a large number of attendees.

In-stadia mobile connectivity for fans is notoriously weak, with challenges for large sporting venues in providing enough capacity to deliver enhanced spectator experiences at a reasonable cost. 5G broadcast allows these experiences at a cost advantage compared with more traditional cellular solutions.

Alex Buchan, Strategic Technologist, DTG and Project Lead said:

“DTG, through the VISTA project, is proud to be leading the TV industry into a new phase of interactive, personalised and live content driven by 5G for access anywhere, anytime. The trial at MK Dons shows the technology developed during the project has the potential to transform the way we consume content, and experience live events, over the coming decade.”

Digital Infrastructure Minister Julia Lopez said:

"5G has the power to further fans' enjoyment of live sports in stadiums while helping broadcasters to improve their live output.

"I'm delighted that this trial is the latest in a long list of cutting-edge tests we've funded through our £200 million programme to use 5G to drive economic growth and improve people's lives."

The completion of the technical trial was followed by a final showcase of the project on 14th February as part of the MK5G Create event in the Marshall Arena, also at Stadium MK.

5G VISTA partners including Virgin Media O2, Rohde and Schwarz, DTG, GWS, Digital Catapult, Ori Industries, Imaginary Pictures, Ateme and the University of Surrey’s 5G/6G Innovation Centre joined sporting, tech and broadcast giants such as Microsoft, MK Dons, MK5G and the Open University to discuss business cases for live events solutions powered by 5G Broadcast.

MK5G showcased several groundbreaking applications illustrating how major venues can harness 5G to operate in the future, including autonomous vehicles for transporting fans to and from the stadium, and AI-enabled traffic control onsite.

These demonstrations included an exhilarating drone race around the MK Dons football pitch - filmed from multiple perspectives using the 5G VISTA app, as the final milestone of the 5G VISTA project. This constituted the world’s first drone race broadcast in high definition, sponsored by Virgin Media O2 and organised by the British Drone Racing Association.

Both 5G VISTA and MK5G had received funding from the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport to boost live events using 5G.  5G VISTA was backed by £1.3 million, with a further £1 million contributed by partners.

David Owens, Head of Technical Trials at Virgin Media O2:

“This event marks the culmination of a lot of hard but very rewarding work with some fantastic partners. We're thrilled to bring 5G VISTA to life at a MK Dons game, showcasing the technologies to real fans and watching their reactions was fantastic. We're excited about the future possibilities of this 5G-powered technology for fan experiences in-stadium and at home.”

Kostas Katsaros, Lead 5G Technologist, Digital Catapult said:

“Working on 5G VISTA has been a fantastic journey – from early tests in our 5G labs, to a preliminary showcase at the O2 Blueroom in September, and now streaming a football match and drone racing at a real sports stadium.

“The project shows that taking spectator experiences to the next level using 5G Broadcast is a very real possibility, and I can’t wait to see what exciting developments are ahead for audiences, events venues, marketers, artists and sports teams.”

Dr Haitham Cruickshank from the University of Surrey's 5G/6G Innovation Centre said:

"This landmark pilot is just a glimpse of how 5G will transform how we all consume live events such as football matches. For the 5G/6G Innovation Centre, it was an opportunity to showcase our end-to-end security capabilities that are the foundations that could allow thousands of people to share live experiences in unique ways.

"We will soon add this multicast/broadcast security into our world-leading testbed in Guildford."

Douglas Mancini, CCO, Ori Industries:

“The 5G VISTA project has highlighted the transformative opportunities for edge computing deployments and future network capabilities in real-time commercial settings. This new technology is changing the way people experience live events and we’re pleased to have been involved in this transformation.”

The recipe for 5G Broadcast success: 5 tips from industry experts

As a technologist and sports fan, there isn’t much that excites me more than 5G and its power to completely transform attendee experience at live events.

5G Broadcast can unlock experiences to create an innovative dimension to live events that will not only enhance customer experience, but also increase channels of engagement. The opportunities here are vast, but there are several challenges to confront before the potential of 5G broadcast technology for live events can fully be realised.

Testing out 5G Broadcast

As part of 5G VISTA, part of Digital Catapult’s work has involved holding workshops with esteemed broadcasters, sports teams and venue managers - from Arsenal and Live Nation, to BT and the BBC. Presenting different use cases to them, we picked their brains on how something like VISTA could benefit industry and got their perspectives on potential different business models for VISTA.

Here were 5 key takeaways from our industry experts:

  1. Distributed sports events

Sports or events where you cannot see all the action from one position have a more obvious appeal. Take cricket matches, golf or motor racing as an example; a multi-angle app could allow spectators to get a better view of the action that’s about to take place – whether that’s following their favourite F1 driver round the track, or following different golfers playing on different holes.

“I can absolutely see people jumping on their phones to see certain angles or replays in sports that are punctuated by breaks - like cricket or motor racing.”

Workshop attendee

  1. A customer-first approach

An app like VISTA is first and foremost targeted at the consumer, and adoption is entirely reliant on positive consumer engagement.

Focus should be on augmenting and improving a live experience, rather than detracting. Elements such as live statistics or access to backstage interviews could offer something additional to enhance in-stadia events.

“You need to find the right moments, the right environments where the technology actually compliments and adds something to the experience, rather than detracts from it.”

Workshop attendee

  1. Doing away with cabling

Cabling and wifi are a key pain point in large stadium sports, such as football. Despite 3 of 4 Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) offering 4G coverage in large football stadiums, many networks can become unstable on match days.

5G Broadcast has the potential to offer a solution here, as a large number of users access the same content at the same time. You can also deploy a smaller number of antennae to cover large areas, minimising the cabling and network complexity, and potentially offering the same services in smaller venues.

“If football clubs can find a technology that allows stadiums to move away from cabling, it could be incredibly beneficial.”

Workshop attendee

  1. One-to-many broadcasting

A challenge is promoting the value of 5G Broadcast over alternative technologies, such as unicast, to network operators, service providers and application developers.

While most mobile and internet communications are ‘one to one’, 5G Broadcast is ‘one to many’; it takes a single stream and sends it to multiple users. They all receive the same content at the same time, in this case, to a mobile handset or a smart TV.

5G Broadcast allows mobile operators can use their scarce spectrum more efficiently, and is able to support SIM-less devices, thus expanding the range of supported end users.

  1. Ownership of content

In spite of the consumer benefits of VISTA, our experts acknowledged complications in terms of rights management and ownership of content. Taking football as an example, the Premier League owns the rights to all games.

As such, a project like VISTA should explore opportunities that focus on broadcasting to attendees at and during the event itself. Meanwhile, any new broadcast service should work in tandem with existing business partners and commercial agreements.

Looking ahead

A technically ambitious project such as VISTA is essential to get right, and the broadcast space is complex both from a legal and technological standpoint.

However, working together with other market-leading experts, we’re helping to further develop the device and network ecosystem to support 5G broadcast, and deliver seamless experiences to end-users.