The Olympic task of keeping your signal up and running during the Games
7th Aug 2012 | 10:08
A look behind the operator's curtain
The London 2012 Games have seen a massive spike in data, voice and text use – so how do mobile carriers cope?
It's no surprise that data is one of the areas we've seen the biggest explosions of use; the availability of Twitter and Facebook are becoming known to even the most ardent of smartphone deniers, and with the increased capacity in networks, even uploading footage to YouTube in near real time is a possibility for many.
These networks are having fortunes poured into them every day – with most pushing around £1.5m per day for improvements.
However, 2012 presents a different challenge, with the bulk of the spikes in usage coming in the middle of the year. Vodafone told us: "We are investing well in excess of £1.5 million per day in our network this year and weighted that investment towards the first half of 2012 in preparation for a busy summer."
To take a closer look at how a network works during the busiest summer yet for the networks, TechRadar headed down to Everything Everywhere's Service Management Centre (SMC) to see exactly what tools are in place to spot and avoid outages – like those seen for O2 recently – during a time when the world's gaze will be trained on the UK.
"We receive a large number of alarms [relating to network provision], each given a severity rated from one to seven, as we want to spot problems from the outset," said Nathan Roberts, Incident Management and Major Customer Support Manager for EE.
"Not each means an impact to customers – it could be a broken piece of kit, a capacity issue, all differing levels of event for the guys [in the SMC]."
Preparation for the Olympics from the networks has been ongoing since London won the rights to host it seven years ago - well before the Everything Everywhere merger, meaning the networks had to try to combine their operations at the same time as preparing for one of the UK's biggest events in history.
Inside the SMC itself you'd expect it to be a thriving hub of activity, with hundreds of people furiously scrabbling to make sure the millions of people connected to the network don't lose their increasingly precious signal.
In truth, it's testament to the efficiency of today's networks that it's a relatively serene affair – multiple screens present a plethora of data to represent the function of the service that provides your calls, data and texts.
The complexity you'd expect when keeping a close eye on the network is definitely there – a sea of traffic lights, convoluted maps and minute-by-minute updates on everything from mobile email stability to data provision is noted and given a coloured status.
Everything Everywhere also has the unique issue of managing customers on two networks. Orange and T-Mobile customers are able to roam onto the other network with nearly full functionality these days, and Roberts told us that the network had seen a 23 per cent reduction in dropped calls since the same time last year.
But there's the added pressure of the Olympics: it's not the same as a Royal Wedding or a cup final where on-site data is localised, as the Games are spread around the country.
To this end, the likes of the Mobile Experience Group (MEG) and the Joint Operators Olympic Group (JOOG) have been set up to allow significant investment in the set-up for the Games, as well as bringing together social networks, online services and the network providers to make sure the situation works seamlessly.
No repeat of 1948
London may have hosted the Olympics before, but it's a vastly different landscape this time around. Where those were called the 'Austerity Games' as a result of the world still recovering from war, London 2012 has seen a large number of new venues around the country – and each need to have full mobile access.
The Olympic Park alone saw 30 new masts erected, along with a strong Wi-Fi network to offload some of the data burden.
"When it comes to the Olympics it's a huge piece of work for us," said James Hattam, Director of Network Service Management for Everything Everywhere.
"It's early days, but the general word on the street is that everything is working as we expected it to. We've invested significantly in our infrastructure, bearing in mind the numbers of customers at different venues around the country as well as the roaming customers from around the world."
EE employed a number of network specialists to analyse sites around the UK, including tourist attractions, transport hubs and sporting venues, and upgraded hundreds of key sites to cope with the additional demand.
There are also engineers on hand at key sites too; while traffic can be usually routed around an incident on the network, at sites like the Olympics this isn't possible, so dedicated staff need to be on hand to manage the networks, often in difficult conditions and only at specific times.
Expected to perform
The carriers are all claiming to have been fairly robust during the games, although it's not all been plain sailing (or cycling).
One of the networks became overwhelmed during one of the early cycling road races, causing key timing data to not reach commentators, as it was being carried over the same signal.
This caused the organisers to ask fans to stop using social networks unless sending 'an important update' – but the offending network wasn't revealed.
That hasn't stopped the mobile operators claiming a strong performance during the games, with Hattam telling us:
"We saw that [the Tweet ban] but we have to say the networks are performing great; we've had people in the main stadium and at different venues around the country monitoring performance and we're really happy with the way both networks [Orange and T-Mobile] are performing."
During the games, the SMC monitors all the Olympic venues specifically, and TechRadar was shown data highlighting how both networks have run smoothly during the event so far – with places like Greenwich showing a 10x increase in data use on occasion.
O2's recently released data appears to back this up, showing consistently high levels of data usage throughout both Saturday and Sunday when Team GB was performing well.
It's worth noting that a lot of traffic would have been farmed through home Wi-Fi networks during this time as people Tweeted from their sofas, but there was also a significant increase in data being sent and received from multiple venues around the country.
So it appears everything is running smoothly during these high-traffic games – and that bodes well for the future.
On the one hand, there's the improved infrastructure, with many more base stations and investment creating more powerful networks for customers to use in the future.
Just how these networks will be provisioned is up for debate, as Hattam of EE points out that there are still a lot of legacy issues to be resolved with the Games' venues.
"Obviously the temporary [network sites] will be dismantled afterwards. However, it's not just about the Olympics, as we've invested in other areas around the country too. It's still up for debate over what happens with some of our extra sites as it depends what happens with the venues.
"For instance, the future of the Olympics Stadium is still up for grabs, and we don't know what will happen with the Athlete's Village. Until that's nailed down we won't know how the equipment will be used."
And it's not just extra hardware that will be of benefit – the data collected from how people are using the networks during a big event will be hugely useful going forward.
Everything Everywhere's SMC already had reams of data on when to expect big spikes in traffic ("The last day of the Premier League season, with men checking their phones in pubs to see other scores is one of the biggest football-related spikes," Roberts tells us) and as such can ensure that the network is ready to cope.
So BBC commentators may have lost their data momentarily during the Games, but the Olympics has brought benefits to customers in the shape of more powerful and robust networks for years to come.