Rio 2016: the wireless Games?

The Olympic Games often reflect the current state of communications technology be it television, Wi-Fi, cellular and increasingly the use of social media and content sharing. William T. Webb, IEEE Fellow and CEO of Weightless SIG, looks at the role communications played at the Rio Games and what its legacy might be

Rio 2016: the wireless Games?

Large sporting events rely on robust and reliable communications. Every four years, all eyes are on the host nation of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and with national pride at stake, the organisers would rather the athletes make the headlines as opposed to any infrastructural failures or shortcomings. To meet the challenge in Rio this year, Cisco Systems’ deployment reportedly included more than 7,000 Wi-Fi access points and 100,000 local area network ports.

More than 500,000 visitors flocked to Rio this year, and ensuring wireless connectivity, along with many other infrastructure technological aspects for the Games was years in the planning. Considerable investment was made to bring Brazil’s communications capability up to the level required for the world’s most iconic sporting event.

Post-Games, Cisco summed up the scale of the communications, writing in its blog that its network transported more than 1.4 petabytes of data generated by nearly 150,000 connected devices.

Technology and the Games

Throughout history, the staging of the Olympic Games has reflected the technological advances of the time. The 1936 Berlin Games was the first to be televised – albeit to a limited audience of the athletes in the Olympic village and members of the public in a number of local viewing rooms. Jump forward to 2012, which saw London dubbed the ‘Twitter Olympics’ due to the scale of the social platform’s use.

Four years on, and those in Rio that were tasked with connecting people at the Games had unprecedented use of social media to contend with and needed to ensure the corresponding bandwidth surge. In fact, before Rio, 79% of sporting fans said they planned to share and view Olympic content on Facebook, while 28% cited YouTube and 27% Snapchat – as reported by SocialTimes.

With today’s scale and proliferation of mobile device use, the demand on wireless networks in Rio was naturally going to be higher than ever. However, when it comes to predicting traffic levels and deploying sufficient Wi-Fi and cellular capability, there is of course a lot of experience to draw on from previous Olympics and similar sporting events.

While the previous host, London, already had a strong wireless infrastructure in place, Rio was in urgent need of modernisation. Events the size and scale of the Olympics face problems with radio frequency, unreliable connections, slower speeds, weak access points and potential sources of interference. During large events, the loading on networks across primary locations rises and can result in slower connections. This was exactly the sort of user experience organisers in Rio worked to avoid.

Hotspot or Notspot?

With wireless connectivity such a prominent and necessary feature of ‘the most connected Games ever’, there were inevitable security concerns to contend with.

Fake WiFi hotspots in stadium locations posed a serious danger to unsuspecting mobile device users seeking a fast connection to consume and share Olympics updates. Pre-Games, security firm Kaspersky analysed 4,500 hotspots and found 18 percent to be fully open, and a further seven percent vulnerable to hacking.

Not surprisingly, security across all means of communication was a priority. Threats and attacks were anticipated and strong measures were put in place to deal with them. Cisco recently reported that, “In protection of all official Rio 2016 public websites and mobile apps, Cisco and Rio 2016 security partner solutions detected 40 million security threats, blocked 23 million attacks and mitigated 223 major DDoS attacks.” It’s an almost incomprehensible level of threat.  Atos – technology provider to the Games – also reported big numbers, having detected 400 IT security incidents per second, twice those recorded in London 2012.

4G comes of age

Adding another notch to the Olympic Games’ technology timeline, Rio also needed to rise to the 4G challenge. Mobile network data traffic overall was forecast to be 50 per cent higher than in London 2012, which took place just a few months before EE launched the first UK 4G network.

Providers worked hard to enhance coverage and boost network infrastructure to cope with the levels of demand. They had the experience of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil to draw on. This was the first dry run of the country’s 4G coverage, however, it was only available to half the users at that time. Experts predicted more reliability and better quality for the 2016 Games.

To limit any gaps in connectivity, sites were identified for small cells to be installed, based on the projected movement of people around prime areas. It’s a similar tactic to the one used at this year’s Super Bowl in the USA. To meet the anticipated surge in demand, wireless providers added capacity to the local network by installing 150 cell sites in the area so that high traffic wouldn’t result in latency issues.

Paralympics and beyond

With the Paralympics following hot on the heels of the Olympics, there will be no let-up in pressure for providers striving to ensure that the network quality of experience is not disrupted.

The network plan will have been based on minimising unforeseen traffic hiccups during events, tackling them before quality is compromised. This helps minimise the complexities of small cells and multi-technology heterogeneous network HetNet deployments by estimating traffic demand and automating network planning features, as well as offering a comprehensive backhaul network design.

Of course, the Games these days are not just about the Games. Nations have the added responsibility of demonstrating the legacy the Games will provide – leaving behind services and infrastructure that will have long, ongoing sustainable benefits. Technology is a huge case in point – in a short space of time it has become essential to business and, increasingly consumer life.

The benefits of going through such an enormous undertaking as equipping a host nation with the communications capacity required of an Olympic Games is not just in the infrastructure itself. Rather, it’s in the skills and experience it affords the people who achieve it. They can go on to continue achieving in the field of technology in the years well beyond the closing ceremony of the Games.

About the author

William T. Webb is IEEE Fellow and CEO of Weightless SIG

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