The Olympic Communications Challenge Explained
Dan-Joe Barry, vice president of network analysis and acceleration technology specialist Napatech, explains the nature of the intense communications planning that has been taking place in the run-up to this summer’s Olympic Games.
The adoption of smart hand-held devices, like smartphones and tablets, over the last number of years has far exceeded everyone’s expectations. The communication, entertainment and social networking possibilities of smart devices have delighted users to the extent that mobile data traffic is exploding. According to a recent report from Informa, in 2016, mobile phone users will, on average, consume 6.5 times as much video, 8 times as much music and nearly 10 times as much games as in 2011.
This is a challenge for carrier networks at the best of times, but one of the other trends we are seeing is increased usage of smart devices at live sporting events. At the superbowl earlier this year, AT&T reported that over a seven-hour period AT&T's customers at the football stadium uploaded 40% more data than they downloaded.
For the upcoming Olympics, this propensity for spectators, both at the event and watching on TV to share unique experiences provides not only a challenge for UK networks in the vicinity of the events, but also networks worldwide as a huge amount of data is broadcast from the Olympics worldwide at very specific times. Imagine, for example, how much mobile data will be generated in the time it takes to run 100m?
Whilst Athens Olympics was reportedly something of communications headache back in 2004, what happened behind the communications scenes in Beijing in 2008 is largely unknown, except for anecdotal reports of China pulling out all the stops to ensure the live events were transmitted with as few glitches and bandwidth issues as possible.
The statistics involved with the London Games are breathtaking. The organizers estimate that 8 million tickets for the games will be available with 82% of these expected to be sold. 14,500 athletes from more than 200 countries will be competing at around 700 venues across the country with around 4 billion expected viewers.
And it’s these viewers that will pose the biggest challenge to the UK communications infrastructure, as many of them will be `tuning in’ across the Internet as well as watching via conventional broadcast TV.
BT – the official communications partner to the games – reports that there will be 80,000 connections spanning 65 different locations, moving data at rates of up to 60Gbps .
The interactive element of the Games, however, will be the smartphones and tablet computing users who are being catered for with 1,800 wireless access points and interactive screens located in city centres across the UK, inserting large volumes of data that will make the eyes of professionals at communication carriers start watering.
We know that the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Games triggered a global Internet traffic level peak five times higher than the normal, with workers watching the ceremony from their place of work using desktop and portable PCs.
BT, for its part, reckons that – worldwide - a billion smart devices will connect to wireless (cellular and WiFi) networks during the Games, almost certainly creating upload bottlenecks on a scale never seen before.
The problem facing the carriers is not one of bandwidth generally – there is a significant excess of extra IP bandwidth being created to handle the broadcast transmissions - but the upload capabilities of millions of smartphone, tablet and computer users.
Most carrier networks were designed with asymmetric communications usage in mind – for example, most home and office broadband connections work downstream at speeds of 4 to 16 megabits per second (Mbps) but only support upstream bandwidths measured in hundreds of kilobits per second (Kbps) terms.
This means a large PowerPoint presentation that takes a few seconds to download, can take several tens of seconds to upload to the Internet. And where a wireless connection is involved – especially using 3G cellular – the base stations’ link to the network, known in communications parlance as `backhaul,’ is quite finite.
For the average carrier, the overloads that will occur during the London Games are going to be similar to what happens to voice calls when several inches of snow falls from the heavens during rush hour – the volume of voice traffic goes through the roof and landline users either have to wait for a dial tone or hit a busy signal. On cellular networks, the end result is either a busy signal or the call simply fails.
The good news is that a number of specialist companies have been working with the carriers in and around the Olympic venues – as well as across London – to monitor data flows and give the carriers access to real-time information on how their networks are performing.
By simulating the effects of these phenomenally high data flows on accurate computer models, the specialist companies can advise on how the carriers can deal with increasing levels of network overload scenarios.
Whilst landline and wireless carriers can implement call gapping on their voice networks – where telecommunications switches block calls for a pre-determined period of time before allowing the next batch of calls through – IP networks must load balance and prioritise certain types of data traffic.
Put simply, this means allowing – for example - Olympic staff data transmissions to take priority over a smartphone or tablet computer users’ video uploads to YouTube or email recipients – with the former running at full speed and the latter calls being throttled or, depending on the local IP traffic issues, blocked altogether.
Balancing this constantly changing communications merry-go-round is a complex task, and requires investment in specialist network analysis devices to be located on and around the core network, in order to analyse what is happening in real time.
Networks traditionally cater more for downloading, but the interactive nature of people’s smartphones and tablet computers during the London Games will show that people are now actually uploading data at live events - rather than downloading - meaning that the carriers must adapt to these situations.
The goods news is that, in order to cater for the expected increase in traffic at the 700 venues hosting the Olympic events this summer, cellular carriers will be able to significantly increase the capacity at the base stations close to the venues - as well as installing additional WiFi hot spot access points and by using mobile base stations.
All of these systems, however, must have sufficient backhaul into the backbone network if the smartphone users at the venues are not to experience call failures, slow uploads or – perhaps worse – a failure of the voice or data calls to go through.
Only by monitoring the network infrastructure – and adapting the available bandwidth to users’ requirements – can the carriers hope to come out of the London Games with their reputations untarnished.
The value of investing in a comprehensive network monitoring infrastructure is that it allows normal network behaviour to be profiled now allowing congestion situations to be pin-pointed in real-time during the Olympics. This allows resources to be deployed and redeployed quickly in response to bandwidth needs.
This is not just a priority for UK carriers close to the event, but should also be a main priority for carriers in other countries as billions of viewers exchange views and content during Olympic peak time events.
The London games are almost upon us, but it is still not too late to plan ahead and prepare for the inevitable tsunami of data the Olympics is expected to generate. At Napatech, we have been helping our customers to build the systems required to monitor networks in real-time and they are ready to go. It’s time to build the early warning systems that can avoid any disasters.
Posted by Janine E. Mooney, Editor
June 22, 2012