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How will mobile networks cope during the Olympics?

"Be realistic, demand the impossible!"

Che Guevara

After seven years of waiting the London Olympics has finally rolled into town. Opinions have steadily polarised about the event with optimists and pessimists hardening their positions like Republicans and Democrats, Capulets and Montagues… even Apple and Google fanboys. Yet there is one area where both sides are united: demand for fast and reliable mobile networks for the duration of the Games. Is it realistic?

The Challenge

Look at the Olympics in pure numerical terms and the size of this challenge emerges:

  • The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) expects the capital's 8.2 million residents to be swollen by an extra four million over the Olympic period.
  • Analysts estimate the Olympic Park alone will need to process 60 gigabits of data every second - equivalent to 3,000 photographs or the capacity of over 6,000 10Mbit home broadband connections.

These are figures far beyond any infrastructural challenge London has faced before and yet they exclude the fact that the UK's data demands are already pushing networks to breaking point.

The most recent example of this happened just two weeks ago as O2's data network suffered a 24 hour outage. The integral nature of mobile data in today's society was highlighted by the fact that the blackout didn't just affect the man on the street, but several key emergency and transport services. Even London's Barclays Cycle Hire scheme was not immune as it uses the network to process payments. In June O2 admitted making calls was now only the fifth most frequent use of a smartphone.

It has been coming. Industry regulator Ofcom reports mobile data consumption per person has doubled in the last 12 months. Three backs this up saying the average amount of monthly data used by its contract customers has leapt from 450MB in summer 2011 to 1.1GB. It added that customers with premium smartphones average in excess of 1.5GB per month. "There is no sign of this slowing down," said Three CEO Dave Dyson with COO Graham Baxter describing the last four years as a "data traffic explosion".

Furthermore the strain on social networks is already beginning to tell. On Thursday tweets about the Olympics brought down Twitter 24 hours before the opening ceremony. Should a similar fate await any of our major networks during the Games, London legislature states it is only permissible to carry out major construction work on the streets between 00:00 and 06:00.

Given UK roll-out of LTE, 3G's significantly faster next iteration, has been delayed until late 2013 to the significant detriment of the nation's economy it feels as if we’re about to reap what we’ve sewn.

The Response

It is said the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one and thankfully it is a step every major UK provider of wireless communication has taken. As such unparalleled relief efforts have long been at work. Rather surprisingly, in this age of mobile devices, British Telecom is the key player during the Games as it is responsible for all network use around the Olympic Park.

The result is that BT will deliver a single network across 94 locations, including 34 competition venues, and claims capacity will be 4x that of the Beijing Olympics. "We have done a huge amount of capacity-planning work, which has included reviewing and learning from events like the World Cup, royal wedding and America's Super Bowl," said a BT spokesperson speaking to the BBC. "As a result we've built a capacity model for our core broadband networks and we've brought forward investment and capacity increases to meet the anticipated extra demand."

Bearing the brunt of this will be Wi-Fi networks. BT already had 475,000 hotspots across the UK, but this has been increased to 500,000 in time for the Games and 1,000 have been setup in the Olympic Park alone creating the largest high density Wi-Fi network ever deployed. BT broadband customers will get free access, as will customers of some operators where it has agreed deals, but for the vast majority pre-paid vouchers will be needed.

"It is smart to be using this Wi-Fi as an offload mechanism," argues Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin. "If you can steer one customer over to Wi-Fi, you are taking traffic off your network and liberating someone else to use this newly opened capacity."

This sense of shared responsibility runs deep. While reliable Wi-Fi is crucial, the most constructive part of the tech run up to the Games has been the creation of the 'Joint Operators Olympic Group '. JOOG represents a sea change in the self-serving attitudes of mobile carriers and unites O2, Vodafone, Everything Everywhere, 3 and BT for the first time. Working in unison, JOOG members attempt to strengthen 3G capacity by each focusing on a specific section of a venue rather than trying to cover it completely with a wide but weak signal.

The technique has been dubbed 'super-sectorising' and was trialled during a sell-out of Twickenham's 82,000 capacity stadium last year. "The Twickenham tests indicated we would need a tenfold increase on the four sectors serving that stadium to achieve the anticipated demand at the Olympics," explained O2 radio design manager Dave Fraley. "From a radio point of view, this was hugely challenging and the key enabler proved to be a specialised antenna system devised specially for stadia, but not previously deployed in the way we have and not on such a major scale."

JOOG revealed measurements taken during the Twickenham trial achieved a remarkable 100 per cent success for voice calls and 99.9 per cent for data access at a very high throughput. "We can say capacity will not be an issue… and we believe we have identified and catered for all contingencies with the necessary spare gear and backups" added Fraley.

Away from the stadia the unity of JOOG breaks down, but fear of horror headlines has led every network to invest substantially:

  • O2 has invested £50m into its London infrastructure and set up seven large free-to-all Wi-Fi hotspots across the capital.
  • Everything Everywhere is investing in its T-Mobile and Orange networks at a rate of £1.4m per day and confirmed this will continue until the end of 2013.
  • Vodafone similarly is investing £1m per day throughout 2012 and has been working with its New Zealand and South Africa offshoots to learn from their experiences of the 2011 Rugby World Cup and 2010 Football World Cup.
  • Three has upgraded and expanded around 500 sites and introduced Dual-Carrier HSDPA equipment, which it claims could potentially double real world performance.
  • Virtual carrier Virgin Mobile has worked with its broadband division, Virgin Media, to bring free Wi-Fi to the majority of London's central Underground tube stations.
  • Lastly Sky's purchase of The Cloud has seen it offer all 10,000 of its hotspots (1,250 of which are in London) free to Sky Broadband customers.

"The demands that will be placed on the networks will be like having three royal weddings per day for 17 consecutive days," said Stuart Newstead, head of the Mobile Experience Group (MEG), which mediates performance of UK operators, media and Internet companies during the Games. "Like any of the athletes, we’ve prepared as well as we could and whatever happens, happens. Let the games begin."

The Legacy

With many complaining the true cost of the Olympics will spiral far beyond the £9bn advertised (that figure is way above the government's initial £2.2bn estimate) its greatest consequence could well be technological.

"This [JOOG] partnership model amongst normally keen competitors could be a great legacy for mobile network operators," says Fraley. This is an understatement, the notion of rivals getting together to boost signal and reception for all customers nationwide would do much to lift the image of operators long tarnished by infighting, roaming costs and the occasional £6bn tax scandal.

The concern is that no guidelines are in place. As such no decision has been taken over how much of the bolstered infrastructure will be used after the Games or whether any of the Olympic Park's overlaid antennas and hotspots will be redeployed. Given the equipment is not LTE compatible (another shortcoming of the standard's delayed arrival) the fear is that much of it could be wasted.

As for London's free Wi-Fi epidemic, that will also be restricted. Most notably both O2 and Virgin Media have already confirmed free access to their hotspots will be limited to their own customers in the months after the Olympic flame is snubbed out.

Despite this London 2012 has broken new ground. The huge task of connecting London's temporarily swollen population has broached a fresh approach of collaboration over capitalism and drawn out planning applications have been streamlined to enable innovation to flourish. Lessons have been learned, let's hope they are remembered…