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Behind every great athlete is a nervous network engineer

A short history of Olympics communications

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London Olympics Had there been a functioning mobile network in Greece in 490BC, the messenger Pheidippides wouldn’t have had to run from Marathon to Athens, only to breathe his last as he delivered news of victory over the Persians.

The modern reenactment of his feat in the Olympic marathon would have been a much shorter event, although the sight of 100 puny men competing to send a text message might not be the spectator attraction the broadcasters require.

Easier to get corporate sponsors, though.

Nothing but the booth

Fast-forward 2,437 years and mobile telecommunications networks of a sort were already delivering up-to-the-minute results in 1948, the last time the Games were staged in London.

Red telephone boxes along the marathon route were commandeered by the organising committee so that spotters could watch the race through the little glass window panes and report on the runners’ progress.

Media offensive: Sponsor BT will plant its OpenZone hotspots
all over the city. Pic credit: BT

In 2012 BT, sensitive to the fact that every tourist visiting London takes at least one picture of a companion leaning out of a phone box, is repainting 400 of the traditional kiosks near Olympic venues.

Since BT is the official telecommunications supplier to the games, however, this is by no means the limit of its involvement, as we shall see.

Telecoms project management has become one of the biggest team sports in the Olympic Games. For example, the mobile network around London’s Olympic Park will feature half a million BT OpenZone hotspots in the highest-density Wi-Fi zone ever created.

Contrast this with the technology needs of the Atlanta Games in 1996, the first such event to have its own website.

The first “Internet Olympics” had precious little mobile data, with IBM managing capacity for 9,000 mobile phones and 2,500 pagers (ask your dad). IBM created a “surf shack” in the village with 30 computers for those of the 16,500 athletes who had email. It would have been easier to run home with the news.

The Atlanta Olympics would hardly have supported the communications needs of the skeet shooting in Sydney four years later. IBM had installed about $100m worth of technology infrastructure to support the entire Atlanta games; in Australia, that much was spent on upgrading mobile networks alone.

Not a phone booth in sight: The highest-density Wi-Fi zone ever created will hum around the Olympic Park...
And if all else fails, there's always 3G. Pic credit: London 2012

Mobiles had become commonplace and so Telstra, Optus, Hutchison and Vodafone all added capacity to their networks, employing Ericsson (for GSM) and Nortel (for CDMA) to install 200 microcells in the Olympic Park.

Even then, the target figure was 2,000 concurrent calls (and mobile data at this time meant no more than an SMS). The marathon was followed by mobile base stations, much to the relief of the phone-box users of Sydney.

An exciting new technology called GPRS was being piloted, with the prospect that it could soon be used to upload pictures almost in real time. And instead of balancing loads on the network every hour, traffic was – for the first time in Australia – monitored every minute.

Recurring nightmare

One of the challenges for mobile technology suppliers is that the Olympics, with its once-in-a-lifetime supply of problems, happens every four years.

Things tend to change quite a bit in that time, so there is always an element of risk. That risk is minimised by designing the hell out your infrastructure.

For London 2012, this is effected by the Mobile Experience Group (MEG), a committee made up of mobile and Wi-Fi operators, content providers, vendors, Ofcom, the Mayor’s office and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, or Locog, which has been in place for three years.

There is also the Joint Olympic Operators group, which works out how to share network infrastructure and backhaul.

MEG does what committees do: it makes sure that the operators don’t step on each others’ toes, that they have a common idea of demand and planning, and that they co-operate in secret simulation exercises for testing the response to extreme events.

MEG also handles the tedious job of satisfying contractual confidentiality requirements by giving bland answers to journalists.

“All the UK’s network operators have been working hard to get as much capacity into and around the Olympic venues as possible,” says chairman Stuart Newstead.

“We expect unprecedented levels of demand over the 17 days of the Games, and we’ve seen unprecedented levels of investment and co-operation by the industry to meet this demand.”

IEEE boffin: 'It's a perfect storm for mobile data – they have to try to plan when they really have no idea'

We turn instead to William Webb, IEEE Fellow for leadership in the deployment of third-generation mobile and wireless LAN technology, and also CTO at Cambridge-based wireless boffinshack Neul.

He thinks the 2012 Olympics is a “perfect storm" for mobile data.

“It’s a real unknown, because they have to try to plan when they really have no idea. On the cellular side, it’s all a bit finger in the air,” he says.

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