The broadband olympics

E&T looks at the innovative technologies that will debut at the Beijing games.

As the world's elite athletes complete their final training in preparation for the Olympic Games in Beijing this August, communications engineers, too, have not been idle.

Years of careful planning and training have gone into ensuring that billions of people around the world will be able to follow the action. In addition, thousands of competitors, tens of thousands of organisers and journalists, and millions of attending fans will be exchanging an unprecedented amount of digital information.

Just as athletes at the games strain muscle and sinew to create new world records, so the host nation is expected to put on a bigger and better show than its predecessor. This year, the games have an especially strong political significance. The People's Republic of China is determined to use the event to trumpet its status on the world stage as a global superpower. No expense spared.

That includes spending on communications infrastructure. It's all very well building modern stadiums, the Olympic village, transforming the architectural landscape of your capital city and deploying a first-class transport network to impress visitors. But the world will judge the success of Beijing 2008 by how well those not physically present in the city will be able to remotely view every stride, jump, and throw, and every winning smile or scowl of inconsolable frustration.

Well aware of this, the Chinese government is making all things telecoms an absolute priority. "The 2008 Games will be the most successful ever in terms of communication services in Olympic history," promises Zhao Jidong, senior vice president of China Netcom, the official fixed telecommunications provider for the event.

Scattered arenas

Both China Netcom and the Beijing Organising Committee for the XXIX Olympic Games (BOCOG) have branded these "the first true broadband Olympics".

While Beijing will concentrate most of the action, it won't be the only city where competitors will be fighting for glory.

A total of 302 gold medals will be up for grabs at 37 different venues, 31 of which are in the capital. The rest of the sporting arenas have been built in six other cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao (Shandong province), Qinghuangdao (Hebei) and Shenyang (Liaoning).

In order to link up these geographically dispersed venues (as well as several other non-competitive sites), China Netcom has rolled out dedicated backbone and access infrastructure.

Work on the massive metropolitan area network (MAN) started in 2005. A series of powerful routers supplied by Chinese equipment vendor Huawei have allowed the telco to expand the total available bandwidth of its Olympic backbone to nearly 200Gbit/s.

By August 2006, two years before the official opening of the Games, the main elements of the MAN were in place and its optimisation process began. The network can now be adjusted to handle sudden traffic bursts by instantly adding or dropping bandwidth chunks of 10Gbit/s.

Some 20,000 journalists will descend on Beijing to cover the Olympics, most of them carrying some form of story-transmitting equipment that will collectively eat up the available bandwidth.

The International Broadcast Centre (the main media facility) and each of the media rooms at the 37 Olympic venues have been equipped with individual 100Mbit/s access points. Accredited correspondents will need to use a special smart card supplied by BOCOG to access these connections.

As part of the obligations and benefits that come with being selected as the official fixed-line telecoms provider, China Netcom has also developed a number of what it calls 'broadband Olympic products'. Some of them were created for the sole purpose of serving a specific requirement for the event. Others were built with the double intention of helping stage the Games and leaving a legacy of telecoms infrastructure that both company and citizens will be able to enjoy after the closing ceremony.

These products include: a remote video monitoring system based on Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) that will allow detailed real-time monitoring of all venues and major public areas; a call centre with capacity for over 2,000 agents involved in the organisation of the Games; a communications command and scheduling system to help China Netcom activate new services, monitor, troubleshoot and optimise resource allocation on its network; the installation of hundreds of multimedia terminals at core public areas such as hotels and airports to offer visitors local information, high-speed Internet access, voice communications and video highlights from the main events; the distribution of plug-and-play USB keys to provide wireless broadband access to laptop users; and online-based digital photo printing services. Additionally, China Netcom will be offering transmission services of high-definition television signals to those broadcasters covering the event in the advanced TV format.

Made in China

The Chinese government has made no secret of its intention to favour home-grown standards for the establishment of major communication technologies across the nation.

TD-SCDMA (time division synchronous code division multiple access) is the highest-profile example. Entirely developed in China, the government hopes that wide adoption of this 3G cellular standard by domestic operators (which control the world's largest mobile phone subscriber base) will prevent huge streams of cash from flowing to Western companies owning intellectual property rights for their established 3G platforms.

Beijing 2008 will provide the first major commercial test for TD-SCDMA. Pre-commercial trials of the standard have been carried out in dozens of cities by China Mobile (the official mobile communications provider for the Olympics), China Telecom and China Netcom, with some reports indicating disappointing initial results.

Still, by the time the Games open on 8 August, China Mobile will have a TD-SCDMA network on air that will be blanketing Beijing with over 3,000 brand new base stations supplied by ZTE. Other Olympic cities will offer the same functionality. The operator has actually promised to upgrade these networks with HSPA (or 3.5G) technology to allow for wireless broadband applications including mobile video monitoring for organisers and live mobile TV coverage for visitors and athletes.

Another home-grown wireless standard that will be making its debut at the Olympics is McWiLL (or multi-carrier wireless Internet local loop). Developed by Xinwei Telecom Technology (the same company from whose R&D labs emerged the SCDMA multiplexing technique powering TD-SCDMA), McWiLL is viewed by some observers as China's response to WiMAX.

Featuring smart antennas, the standard has been claimed to deliver broadband wireless download and upload speeds of up to 3Mbit/s for devices travelling at 120km per hour. Coverage range varies between a couple of kilometres and up to 60km depending on the type of landscape and radio frequency band used: 1.8GHz or 400MHz.

A lake in the Shunyi suburb of Beijing (where the rowing competitions are being staged) and the coastal city of Qingdao (where sailing events are being held) will witness the commercial launch of McWiLL technology. Boats will be fitted with cameras and transmitters that will relay live race video feeds back to shore. Apart from video, the standard has also been tested for the transmission of voice and data communications.

This is not to say WiMAX won't have a role to play during the Games. The body in charge of managing the radio space during the event (the Olympic Radio Frequency Regulatory Office) revealed last year that it had received a large number of applications for WiMAX-based services.

WiMAX was already successfully used during the Winter Olympic Games in Italy in 2006 for security applications. And China Mobile has been authorised by BOCOG to roll out both WiMAX and Wi-Fi networks around Beijing and Qingdao.

Wimax worries

Whether the central government will allow WiMAX to prosper in China as soon as the Games are over is a very different matter. While authorities are reported to have no major qualms about the fixed version of the standard, the mobile version of WiMAX appears destined to suffer.

According to China-based research firm Norson Consulting, the government has a "negative attitude" towards 802.16e (the mobile version of the WiMAX standard) because it "fears that fully mobile WiMAX networks would compete with the domestic TD-SCDMA 3G standard, which it strongly supports".

Norson believes that, as a consequence, "permission will not be granted for large-scale and/or commercial 802.16e networks in the near future" in the country. 

Juan Pablo Conti is an independent technology journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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