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Bandwidth challenges at the Olympics 2012

Meeting the communications requirement for the Games will place tremendous pressure on the organisers' bandwidth management. 

The Olympic Games always present major ICT challenges for the host country, as the demands of so many different interests converge around specific events at specific times with specific requirements. The challenge of the last decade has been meeting the escalating technological expectations of event managers, organisers, athletes and of course broadcast media, compounded by the rising expectations of spectators and other stakeholders.

The communications infrastructure for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games must also take into account the fact that a requirement that once relied on hardwired infrastructures is now increasingly reliant on wireless channels that may have to be shared between thousands of users at any given time. The London Games are expected to have more than 14,500 athletes from over 200 countries participating in nearly 700 venues throughout the country and will be viewed worldwide by an expected four billion people.

The communications infrastructure is, of course, on a major scale. It encompasses mobile-, wide-, local- and metropolitan-area networks, IP telephony, TV and broadcast, fibre-to-the-premises, applications, service and support, and more. BT Communications is the official partner for enabling the Games' communications services, and is responsible for the planning, design and rollout of the network. The company says that there will be 80,000 connections across 65 different locations, carrying up to 60Gb per second, and 1,800 wireless access points and interactive screens in UK city centres allowing people to send messages to friends worldwide.

Planning an Olympics communication infrastructure these days is an Olympian task in itself, and starts at least six years prior to the opening ceremony. Spectrum management for multivarious wireless channels (see pages 40-41's selective spectrum guide). The previous Games provides some baseline guide as to what the next one can expect. The opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympics saw Internet traffic levels peak five times higher than the norm with employees watching live-streamed events from workplace PCs driving much of that. In preparation for the increased demand for spectrum during the Games, UK regulator Ofcom has been running Internet traffic foresight tests during 2011 and 2012. These have taken place at high-profile events such as the royal wedding in April 2011, the F1 Silverstone Grand Prix in July 2011, and the Sail for Gold event in June 2011.

Ofcom expects wireless traffic to double during the event, which has caused data network suppliers to question the impact the Games will have on their infrastructure. The use of wireless communications equipment by sport officials, security operatives, visitors, organisers, emergency services and the expected 20,000 media representatives will have a huge impact on bandwidth usage, both wired and wireless.

The challenge is to ensure that London's network can manage the influx of people and the connected devices they will bring with them. For instance, BT reckons that one billion smart devices are expected to connect during the Games either via 3G or Wi-Fi access, and with the majority of visitors using smartphones and tablets, the contention caused by the volumes of data generated is bound to affect data transfer speeds. The overhead will be increased by social media websites like Twitter and Facebook, which encourage viewers to update their locations in real time and upload photos and videos, all of which will need allocated bandwidth.

Data management during the Olympics is providing opportunities for specialist companies who provide tools for data monitoring and control, such as network analysis vendor Napatech. "Networks [traditionally] cater more for downloading," says Daniel Joseph Barry, the company's VP of marketing, "but trends show that people are now actually uploading data at live events, rather than downloading, so networks will need to adapt to these one-off situations' But to cater for the expected increase in traffic at Olympic events, carriers can increase capacity at mobile cells close to venues, installing additional Wi-Fi hot zones access points and by using cells on wheels."

An important factor here is the 'borrowing' of additional bandwidth capacity for the duration of the Games. At the start of this year Ofcom made public its plans to borrow spectrum on a short-term loan from the Ministry of Defence, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Maritime Coastguard Agency, and the Home Office, to help cater for the demand during the Games. These frequencies are for wireless camera transmissions.

Other plans include the digital switchover in April 2012 in London, by switching off analogue television at the 474.0MHz frequency to free-up more spectrum. Communica tions company Airwave is designing and building a TETRA-based private mobile radio network called Apollo (at around 380-384Mhz and 390-394MHz) which will be used by LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) staff to enable inter-team radio contacts.

Viewer expectations

Another challenge facing the LOCOG is how the Games will affect in-premises corporate bandwidth. The Cabinet Office's official advice document, 'Preparing your Business for the Games' states the demand for bandwidth could lead to companies losing Internet connections. The document highlights "it is possible that Internet services may be slower during the Games or, in very severe cases, there may be dropouts due to an increased number of people accessing the Internet." Companies are advised to offer flexible working hours and working from home days to employees.

"What is needed is a back-end management infrastructure to measure data capacity and usage in real time. With a monitoring system, the various Olympic locations can be measured in terms of how much data capacity is used and which areas are maxing out," explains Daniel Joseph Bar from Napatech. "For global carriers, they can monitor consumption of Olympic video streams, website access and other related content on their networks in real time and react accordingly building a picture of consumption almost on an event-by-event basis."

IT consultancy Bright Cloud is advising businesses to adapt and prepare for the London 2012 Games as majority of the events will be held during the daytime – i.e., typical working hours. Multiples of staff simultaneously streaming and downloading data is likely to affect IT departments, and enterprises would be wise to anticipate how this might affect 'business-as-usual' applications; some argue that smart employers even find ways to manage this by polling employees in advance to glean an indication of which events are most likely to be watched online, so that they have advance intelligence of possible traffic spikes. The problem is, of course, for colleagues who have no interest in the Olympics, and who find network performance impaired by the additional traffic. "Employees have high expectations compared to years ago. They want to be involved in outside-of-work events while in the workplace. So how do companies accommodate that?" says Bright Cloud managing director Duncan Little. "Packet-shaping technologies are ideal, for instance by splitting traffic down into critical business traffic, everyday business traffic and recreational traffic, these applications can help businesses monitor and control which traffic has the highest priority and allowed bandwidth usage... Caching is another temporary mechanism to reduce bandwidth." 

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