British telecommunications companies serving London’s Olympic Park say they have created a wireless system capable of handling a large city. Legions of iPhone-toting visitors are about to put them to the test.
Annual smartphone purchases have risen almost fivefold worldwide since the Beijing Olympics four years ago, according to researcher IDC, and many fans and athletes in the 2.5-square kilometer (0.97-square mile) park in east London will be watching video on iPads, chatting with friends and e-mailing photos as they take in the games that kick off with today’s opening ceremony.
London’s Oxford Economics estimates the city, with a population of 8 million-plus, could draw 6 million more over the course of the games, many of them crowding into the park for events. Analysts question whether preparations are enough to serve so many accessing mobile and Wi-Fi networks at once.
“There is no doubt that carriers have put extensive planning into this, but there will be huge problems with cellular communications during the Olympics,” Ben Wood, research director with London-based consulting firm CCS Insight, said in a telephone interview. “Cellular technology is a finite resource and that is complicated by the fact that this is the most multimedia-interactive Olympics that we have ever seen.”
Organizers have warned businesses that mobile phone traffic may be slowed at times of peak demand -- especially for larger files such as photos and videos.
“Voice, e-mail and low-data traffic are unlikely to be affected, but it may be difficult to download larger content such as file or images,” according to a booklet distributed by London 2012.
Two weeks ago, Telefonica SA’s O2, the U.K.’s second-largest mobile service provider with 23 million customers, suffered a network crash that left users unable to make calls or send messages. The outage, attributed to a faulty network system, led analyst Steven Hartley of Ovum to question whether the telecommunications infrastructure is ready for the London Games.
O2 and BT Group Plc, which is providing the fixed-line backbone for the games, referred questions about the system’s overall readiness to Stuart Newstead, volunteer chairman of the Mobile Experience Group, which represents Olympics TV programmers, Internet sites such as Google Inc.’s YouTube.com and the phone networks serving the area.
Providers have done as much as possible, Newstead said in an interview.
“The demands that will be placed on the networks will be like having four royal weddings per day for 17 consecutive days,” Newstead said. “Like any of the athletes, we’ve prepared as well as we could and whatever happens, happens. Let the games begin.”
BT climbed 0.4 percent to 218.20 pence in London, while Telefonica rose 3 percent to 9.21 euros in Madrid.
The Joint Operators Olympic Group, which includes mobile operators, BT, the country’s biggest land-line operator, and the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, has been working for more than 2 1/2 years to design a system that won’t freeze or break down under unprecedented wireless demand.
BT is laying down enough cable to stretch from London to New York, according to the London-based company.
That infrastructure is expected to carry 60 gigabits of information every second, the equivalent of 3,000 photographs, the carrier said in an e-mail. The capacity is four times that of the Beijing games, according to BT, the official communications service partner.
“BT may see volumes in the Olympic Park alone that are the equivalent of normal volumes across its whole Wi-Fi network, all 4 million hotspots,” Newstead said.
The company, which doesn’t have a mobile network, also installed 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in Olympic Park and London ahead of the games, creating access points that will steer Internet traffic away from the mobile carriers’ networks.
“It is smart to be using this Wi-Fi as an offload mechanism,” Charles Golvin, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst, said in a telephone interview. “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.”
The mobile providers, including O2, No. 1 Everything Everywhere, a venture between Deutsche Telekom AG and France Telecom SA, and Vodafone Group Plc, have wholesale agreements providing customers on their networks with free access to about 4,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, BT said.
BT also negotiated an agreement with AT&T Inc. that lets visiting customers of the U.S. phone company use any hotspot at their normal roaming rate. Other tourists from overseas can buy e-vouchers for Wi-Fi access, BT said.
“This is the first Olympics where there is a robust shift in consumers’ behaviors,” Golvin said. “It’s not a promise anymore, it’s a reality. More people spend time working with the Web and data than they do making calls and texting.”
Video will be a big drain on capacity. The British Broadcasting Corp. is providing live-streamed Olympic coverage that can be accessed on mobile phones and tablet computers, as is Comcast Corp.’s NBC Universal in the U.S. One short video on a smartphone can gobble the same bandwidth as 500,000 text messages sent at once, according to Newstead.
“Once you appreciate the scale of the initiative, you have to start thinking, ‘OK, are the U.K. wireless networks up to it?’” Ovum’s Hartley said in a phone interview from London.
O2 has invested 50 million pounds ($78 million) in London this year as the company expanded capacity on its current network and built new temporary sites across the U.K., Derek McManus, chief operating officer, said in a statement.
Newbury-based Vodafone, the world’s second-largest mobile phone provider, is investing 1.5 million pounds per day on its network, with spending weighted toward the first half of the year, according to the company.
Operators haven’t been able to run a test of peak traffic in real time. The opening ceremonies began at 9 p.m. London time.
“Though they have many previous events that they can use to simulate a certain density of users, like the Super Bowl or New Year’s Eve, they can’t realistically assemble 90,000 of their closest friends and have them mimic activities to simulate Olympic behaviors,” Golvin said. “They have to extrapolate on the data that they do have.”
Everything Everywhere offered technical assistance to O2 during its network outage and is studying the financial feasibility of helping its rivals during future breakdowns, according to Chief Executive Officer Olaf Swantee.
The toughest periods for access are likely to be during popular events, such as the men’s 100 meter final. Fortunately, most visitors have become accustomed to the unpredictability of wireless networks in these kind of situations and are aware that there could be a freeze, Wood said.
“The knock-on effect comes if something goes wrong,” Ovum’s Hartley said. “Then you’re relying on the legacy infrastructure. Over the last three years we haven’t seen a lot of evolution of that wireless infrastructure.”