5G: Can cinemas wish fibre a fond farewell?

The rollout of 5G could radically impact content distribution, explains Patrick von Sychowski — just look at Norway…


October last year and UK telecom provider EE decided to show off the speed of its rural 4G network with a headline-grabbing stunt involving a flying cinema (check out ee.co.uk/cinema). This so-called 4GEE cinema was suspended 100ft in the air above a former RAF base in England’s South Downs, with 20 students from the Goodwood Flying School shown a film streamed via 4G onto the big screen and even popcorn delivered by drones. Apart from certain design flaws — there was no toilet for the strapped-in viewers, for instance — this publicity stunt was somewhat overtaken by technical reality when Norway launched the world’s first 5G cinema this year, and in a regular multiplex no less.


Located in the newly revamped of Storo Storsenter shopping centre in the Norwegian capital, the 14-screen Odeon Oslo was always set to be the flagship of the AMC-owned Odeon Cinemas Group in Norway. It is the largest multiplex in the Scandinavian nation and also the first in Norway with IMAX, Dolby Atmos is in 13 of the auditoriums, it features 4K laser projection throughout, a lounge area as well as VIP ‘Luxe’ recliners. It was the cinema that enabled the Odeon Group to overtake rival Nordisk as the largest cinema operator in Norway.


While still very much in their infancy, 5G networks are far more than just even faster versions of the 4G telecom that powers many of today’s smartphones and mobile devices. 5G is seen as a paradigm shift, having a transformative effect on everything from autonomous vehicles and drones to telemedicine and ubiquitous cloud storage access. With speeds of 10-20 Gb/s, 5G networks operate as fast as fibre optic, without the wires. With a low latency of less than a millisecond, 5G is increasingly seen as playing a key role in mission-critical applications. It also uses less energy and offers more affordable devices for the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). Yet while many mobile applications are envisioned, stationary communication will also happen.


A focus on customer needs

Odeon Oslo began testing 5G delivery as part of Telia Norway’s own 5G test network in the Nydalen outskirt of Oslo last year. Telia Norway had previously deployed 4G to all of its base-stations and Narrowband IoT. But rather than just rolling out 5G and then seeing how it gets used, Telia Norway wanted to start with its potential future customers. “We’re starting the 5G development from a customer perspective, and exploring use cases and service scenarios first, and developing the technology from that,” said Abraham Foss, CEO of Telia Norway in a statement.


Telia Norway’s 5G network went live with two base stations in mid-December 2018 and Odeon began using it fully in January 2019. As well as downloading DCPs, Odeon also provides wifi in the cinema lobby to its customers using the 5G network. Odeon also envisions enabling future applications such as live-streaming of events and eSports with multi-player gaming (see interview sidebar with Ivar Halstvedt, head of Norway for Odeon).


“Using 5G instead of traditional internet lines is giving us higher capacity than we’re used to,” Jon Einar Sivertsen, CCO at Odeon Norway, told ZDNet at the launch of the test. “We have redundancy via normal lines, so we’re not dependent on the 5G network now. But it’s been shown that 5G is giving us download rates we normally wouldn’t get. We transfer the movies to local servers, so playback happens locally, even though we’ve tested live streaming, which also works excellently.”


Telia Norway stated that the test has achieved a performance of 2.2Gb/s and response times of between seven and eight milliseconds, compared to 40 milliseconds or more for 4G. However, the Telia-Odeon Oslo test is a ‘non-standalone 5G’ variant, whereby signaling traffic for setting up the data channel is carried by 4G in the 1,800MHz band, but the data traffic itself is carried over the 3.7GHz band by 5G. Even so, it is a remarkable world-first. And with telco rival Telenor having launched its 5G pilot in Kongsberg, an hour’s drive from Oslo, perhaps the local Krona cinema could be the second 5G cinema in the world.


5G promises to be a significant and viable alternative to fibre broadband for many cinema locations. DCP delivery has steadily migrated from hard drive and satellite delivery to broadband, as prices have fallen and speeds have increased, even in previously challenging markets such as India. While satellite was not always an option for many city-centre cinemas, due to roof access for satellite dishes, broadband too can be challenging depending on distance to the exchange, which affect installation cost and speed. 5G promises to do away with such restrictions, due to the easier infrastructure cost of base station deployments.


The fact that a cinema in Norway has become the first in the world to embrace 5G for DCP delivery should not come as a surprise. The country was the first in the world to switch over all of its cinema advertising to low-end digital projection, thanks to cinema advertiser CAPA and solutions provider Unique Digital, in the early part of past decade. Based on this, it then became the first country in the world to switch over all of its cinemas to DCI-grade digital cinema, helped in large part by the DVD-levy fund administered by cinema trade organisation FILM&KINO. The Odeon Oslo 5G is thus just the latest in a long line of cinema-technology firsts for Norway.    


Odeon Oslo is, however, not the first instance that the telecom network has been used for DCP distribution and delivery. There is a cinema in the far north of neighbouring Finland (that shall remain nameless) which is too remote to be connected to fibre-optic broadband and also too far to readily accept hard-drive delivery. So, instead, DCPs are currently sent there over the local 4G network — but only at night so as to avoid overloading the network during the day when the network is used by regular consumers. It might not be as spectacular as the 4GEE flying cinema, but it is a practical solution that works for now. At least until 5G rolls out in Finland too.


5G around the world

While much recent media discussion around 5G has centred on restrictions imposed by the US and others on the Chinese technology supplier Huawei due to concerns regarding communication security, 5G is still being readied for launch in most Western and Asian countries. The first test deployments are being seen this year with commercial availability expected in 2020. Handsets from the likes of Apple, Samsung and others are expected to feature 5G capabilities. Initial tests are mainly focused on major telecom markets (Korea, USA), where Samsung and Qualcomm are based, and in territories associated with dedicated telecom equipment manufacturers such as Huawei (China), Ericsson (Sweden) and Nokia (Finland).


In the US, Verizon has already started operating 5G networks in Chicago and Minneapolis, with the Moto Z3 the only consumer handset currently available to use with the service and the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G going on sale now. Sprint will follow in May for some US cities, while AT&T is accused of misleading consumers with its recent claim to be launching 5G that was actually closer to 4G in speed. But with Apple not expected to release a 5G-capable iPhone until 2020, there is not expected to be much demand for 5G from consumers until then. This leaves open the opportunity for commercial partners, including cinemas, instead.


Meanwhile China is expected to be the global market leader for 5G deployment and equipment. “Along with the state-owned telecommunications operator, China Unicom, which is expected to build 5G pilot projects in 16 cities including Beijing, Hangzhou, Guiyang, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Zhengzhou, and Shenyang, is China Mobile which will reportedly deploy 10,000 5G base stations by 2020,” Lifewire noted in April. The speed of China’s deployment is mirrored in neighbouring Korea and Japan, where 5G is due to be showcased widely during Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics.


Interview with Ivar Halstvedt, head of Norway, Odeon Kino AS


How did the Odeon Oslo 5G trial come about?

It is an extension of the cooperation Telia and Odeon has on the media side, Telia has used cinema for on -screen advertising and its recently acquired broadband division, Get, has sponsored one of the auditoria and used both on-screen an digital ad space to communicate with its customers. As both Get and Telia have used Odeon as a part of their marketing mix before joining forces, the idea came up to use Odeon Oslo as a launch for their 5G test.


How have the results been so far?

We have tested live streaming with excellent results and also transferred DCPs via 5G. We also provide a separate open WIFI for customers on this technology.


Would it not be easier and faster to deliver DCPs via fibre?

5G shows superior speed to the typical fibre delivery, and there is no change of complexity in operation. For all practical matters we can use the 5G as an internet connection.


How does this trial fit in with other initiatives by Odeon/SF?

The Norwegian cinema industry has always been keen to use technology. Odeon Oslo has an 80% share of customers buying tickets online, all digital and with no need to print tickets. The cinema itself is highly automated with everything from digital screens, lights, doors and TMS all automated.


Do you see 5G working for others in Norway and around the world?

With speeds we see in Odeon Oslo, it can replace fixed lines, especially in sites with an old infrastructure. It also gives room for development of live events and in-cinema e-sports where there is not only delivery of a signal but also a response. 5G makes it possible to have multiple players at multiple locations while, at the same time, streaming to other locations in high quality.