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Rio de Janeiro faces 4G challenge at 2016 Olympic Games

With the 2016 Olympics just days away, are mobile operators prepared for a deluge of network traffic that will dwarf what was seen at London 2012?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Will Rio’s 4G networks sink or swim?

As final preparations are made for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, most of the IT needed to run the Games has been delivered and extensively tested, spearheaded by the IOC’s main tech partner, Atos, alongside the likes of Cisco, EMC and Microsoft.

The IOC’s IT contracts are set up to ensure the competition, athlete and broadcast facilities are world-beating; but it has also worked closely with Brazil’s mobile operators to ensure that hundreds of thousands of visitors and spectators can use their own devices freely and easily while moving around the host city.

In many ways, this is just as important as the IT backbone because as Rio is, realistically speaking, the first 4G Olympic Games – note that the UK’s first 4G network (EE) launched in October 2012, after the London Olympics closed – any availability problems will be noted, and complaints voiced loud and clear.

Thanks to the advent of 4G, Brocade’s Emea vice-president, Marcus Jewell, estimates that mobile network data traffic could increase by 50% over what was seen at London 2012, which saw huge amounts of traffic without 4G.

“The Olympics receives phenomenal amounts of interest from people around the world,” says Jewell. “For example, at London 2012 there were 1.1 billion page views from 38.7 million unique users on mobile devices. It is clear that tuning in to the Games from anywhere and everywhere is what we will expect.

“While Brazil has spent enormous resources on building new infrastructure to transport and house the half-million international spectators expected to flood into Rio de Janeiro, closer attention should be paid to whether its network infrastructure has the ability to cope.”

4G availability

Having failed in their ambition to get adequate 4G connectivity up and running in time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil’s big four operators – Claro, Oi, TIM and Vivo – have pulled out all the stops to improve 4G coverage for the Olympics.

In the past 12 months, a lot of work has been conducted on improving 4G availability with the result that, says a recent report from network comparison service OpenSignal, mobile subscribers in Brazil can expect to receive a 4G signal 56% of the time – up 6% on this time last year.

This may seem low, and indeed Brazil ranks close to bottom of the league table for 4G availability in Latin America, says OpenSignal, but it should be noted that vast areas of Brazil are remote and unpopulated.

In Rio de Janeiro itself, the picture is a little rosier, according to OpenSignal, with three out of four operators averaging 60% availability, while local player Nextel – which only offers 4G in Rio and São Paulo and so is not counted in the national stats – averaging 80% availability.

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However, even this coverage is patchy around the city. Network testers at Global Wireless Solutions recently roamed Rio and determined that while tourist hotspots such as Copacabana Beach and the Maracana Stadium were well served, other parts of the city, notably the area around the famous Christ the Redeemer statue, were not.

“While operators may be taking extra precautions such as installing additional cell sites to help increase network capacity, just building out the networks to support the influx in users does not guarantee a great experience,” says Global Wireless CEO Paul Carter.

“In the end, what is the point of being at an event and seeing a signal on your phone if you can’t share what’s going on? These are meant to be the fastest Games ever – not just for the athletes, but also for mobile data speeds, and users will expect to be able to upload photos and videos in real time.”

Brocade’s Jewell adds: “Mobile network infrastructure will play a key role in providing a memorable experience to spectators.

“From WhatsApp to Snapchat, and Twitter and Facebook, spectators at the Games will want to share their memories with friends and family. With 7.5 million tickets expected to be sold, there will be huge demand for bandwidth at sporting sites.”

The small cell advantage

However, according to Gregory Donnard, senior product marketing manager at Infovista, a provider of network service assurance and planning services, Brazil’s operators have found an answer to the problem of patchy 4G coverage by using small cell technology.

In recent months, the operators have been busy scoping out locations that will see the highest volumes of people moving through, modelling aspects of the city’s day-to-day life that include census and population data, call tracing, building density and even geotagged posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. All of this, says Donnard, will help them understand where small cells will be most useful.

“Small cells allow you to add coverage and capacity more cheaply than macrocells [standard base stations],” he says. “They allow you to put cells where the traffic is heaviest. They also relieve the burden on macrocells so people who are not at the Olympics, but are in the city, will also benefit.”

Donnard believes small cells may be the saviour of the Olympics from a connectivity perspective, and while Infovista is not directly involved in the preparations for the Olympics, he says customers on the ground in Rio seem to be “more positive and confident” in network availability than they were during the World Cup.

Network optimisation: not an afterthought

Brocade’s Jewell points out that besides small cells and improved coverage, operators should pay close attention to other aspects of network design, such as load optimising and traffic shaping.

“The Rio 2016 Olympics will be taking place over a large distance, with sporting sites set across the city, which means carriers will be forced to deploy solutions that can balance heavy demand from a large volume of users in areas that may be scarcely frequented soon after,” he says.

“Still, this is also an opportunity for Brazil. Although fibre-optic networks and load optimising solutions may be underused in the short term, demand is set to grow sharply in the coming years in Brazil.

“We often associate legacy infrastructure as a negative, but in the case of Rio de Janeiro, this is likely to enable them to better serve their population and economy in the future.”

If Brazil’s mobile operators have got it right this time, then once the Olympics have packed up and moved on, Rio de Janeiro will be left with mobile networking services fit for whatever the future can throw at them.

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