The 2012 Olympic communication challenges ahead

This summer’s Olympic Games in London will be the climax of several years of planning by various organizing committees, including LOCOG – the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games – the UK government-appointed organization tasked with preparing and staging the London 2012 Games.

This summer’s Olympic Games in London will be the climax of several years of planning by various organizing committees, including LOCOG – the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games – the UK government-appointed organization tasked with preparing and staging the London 2012 Games. Together with Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, LOCOG will be accountable to the UK’s government for the smooth running of the games, but behind the scenes, several telcos, cellcos and commcos have also been working as contractors and coordinators for the communications infrastructure that will underpin the Summer Games.

From a communications perspective, the 2012 Olympic Games will be unlike any other in the decades that have gone before – largely because of the explosion in broadcast communications – but the real new ground will be broken in terms of the adoption of smart handheld devices – smartphones and tablet computers – that consumers will be using during the summer.  

The key difference with the Olympic Games of 2012 and those that have gone before is that consumers will be generating ferociously large volumes of Internet content – as well as consuming a wealth of multimedia content. At the Superbowl earlier this year, for example, AT&T (Dallas, Texas, USA) reported that, over a seven-hour period, its own network customers in and around the football stadium actually uploaded 40% more data than they downloaded.

For the upcoming 2012 Olympics, this propensity for spectators – both at the event and watching on TV – to share unique experiences provides not only a challenge for UK networks in the vicinity of the events, but also networks worldwide as a huge amount of data will be broadcast from the Olympics worldwide and at very specific times.

Whilst the Athens Olympics was reportedly something of communications headache back in 2004, what happened behind the communications scenes in Beijing in 2008 is largely unknown – except for anecdotal reports of China pulling out all the stops to ensure the live events were transmitted with as few glitches and bandwidth issues as possible.

The statistics involved with the Summer Games are astonishing; with organizers estimating that more than 80% of the 8 million tickets for the games have already been sold, watching around 14,500 athletes from more than 200 countries competing at around 700 venues across the UK – complete with 4 billion media viewers worldwide.

Notice I said media viewers, where previously we might have discussed TV viewers. This is because of the volumes of people who will consume video and other information across the Internet – and using a variety of portable/fixed devices.

BT (London) – the official communications partner to the Games – reports that it expects there will be 80,000 connections spanning 65 different locations, moving data at rates of up to 60 Gbps during the Olympics.

The interactive element of the Games, however, will be the smartphones and tablet computing users, who are being catered for with 1,800 wireless access points and interactive screens located in city centers across the UK, all burst-inserting large volumes of data in the UK communications grid on a scale never seen before.

Communications professionals reported that the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Games in China triggered a global Internet traffic level peak that was five times higher than the normal, with workers watching the ceremony both on the move and from their place of work.   

And then we will also have a large volume of employees working from home after being advised not to travel during the Summer Games. Spare a thought also for the commcos who will also have a major issue getting staff to and from their data centers in Greater London.

Overall, however, the problem facing the carriers with the Summer Games will not be a bandwidth issue, but more the extra IP bandwidth needed to handle the upload capabilities of millions of smartphone, tablet and computer users.

Most telco and commco networks were designed with asymmetric communications usage in mind – for example, most home and office broadband connections work downstream at speeds of 4 to 16 megabits per second (Mbps) but only support upstream bandwidths measured in hundreds of kilobits per second (Kbps) terms.  This means a large PowerPoint presentation that takes a few seconds to download, can take several tens of seconds to upload to the Internet. And where a wireless connection is involved – especially using 3G cellular – the base stations’ backhaul links to the network are finite.

For most commcos, the effect on their data networks will be similar to what happens to voice calls when the weather is really bad – voice traffic volumes go through the roof, with landline telephony users having to wait for a dial tone or hitting a busy signal. On cellular networks, meanwhile, the end result is either a busy signal or that calls simply fail.

The good news is that a number of commcos have been working closely with network carriers in and around the Olympic venues – as well as across London – to monitor data flows and give the commcos access to real-time information on how their networks are performing. By simulating the effects of these ferociously high data flows on accurate computer models, the specialist companies can advise on how the carriers can deal with increasing levels of network overload scenarios.

Whilst landline and wireless carriers can implement call gapping on their voice networks – this is where comms switches block calls for a pre-determined period of time before allowing the next batch of calls through – IP networks must load balance and prioritize certain types of data traffic in real time.

Balancing this constantly changing communications merry-go-round is a complex task, and requires investment in specialist network analysis devices to be located on and around the core network, in order to analyze what is happening in real time.

The good news is that, in order to cater for the expected increase in traffic at the 700 UK venues hosting the Olympic events this summer, cellcos will be able to significantly increase the capacity at the base stations close to the venues, as well as using technologies such as variable electrical tilt (VET) antennae to `steer’ signals from adjacent cellular base stations as appropriate.  All of these network technologies, however, must have sufficient backhaul into the backbone network if the smartphone users at the venues are not to experience call failures, slow uploads or – perhaps worse – a complete failure of their voice or data calls to go through.

Only by monitoring the network infrastructure – and adapting the available bandwidth to users’ requirements – can the carriers hope to come out of the Summer Games in London with their reputations untarnished.