London Olympics and crumbling 3G networks

17 Aug 2012

With the London Olympics over, one interesting note was how well the mobile networks coped within the immense load. I was quite surprised to see one of my friends in the closing ceremony post updates and the occasional picture from the event.

I asked the chap, a telecom industry executive, if he was on a commercial 3G network or on a special VIP LTE test network of some sort. Apparently it was just a standard 3G connection and while he complained that uploads took forever, it was quite usable.

All in all, quite impressive considering that media speculation was rife in the run-up to the Olympics that the networks would crumble under the load, but this was, by and large, not the case.

BT had carpet-bombed the Olympic village with Wi-Fi hotspots and indeed most of London with 1.7 Gbps of bandwidth, and that helped to offload data.

Contrast this with the first few days and the cycling road races. For the mens’ race, the commentators were complaining that no timing information was being fed to the studio and the few numbers that did come through were clearly wrong half the time. With riders stripped of their usual team uniforms and in country colours, the commentators got the names wrong half the time too.

I found it quite amusing, a reminder of simpler days before telemetry and statistics changed commentating.

Later it emerged that so many people were using mobile phones that the 3G telemetry that the race organisers had tested had failed. Indeed, the organisers blamed Twitter for the network problems.

So while the networks had prepared the Olympic village with sufficient capacity, they did not add capacity to the rural networks - the bicycle race itself was a 250 km race that went out beyond the outer ring road to the southwest of London.

Obviously it is impossible to get tens of thousands of fans out into the hills to test such a scenario. One wonders how Rio 2016 will fare but by that time, the country should be carpeted in 2.6-GHz LTE and 450-MHz rural LTE if things progress as planned there.

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