By adaptive - January 25th, 2016

Mobile data traffic at the Rio Olympics is expected to be 50 percent greater than at the London 2012 games. Will Brazil’s wireless infrastructure be able to handle it? Camila Fontana reports from São Paulo…

Brazil has been making headlines for months due to a deepening economic recession, successive corruption scandals involving top government officials and growing political instability, but the Rio 2016 Olympics are expected to be a bright spot in a sea of discontent.

Mobile infrastructure will play a key role in providing a memorable experience to attendees. The games will be held August 5-21 and 7.5 million tickets are being sold, meaning huge demand for voice calls, social media posts, and photo and video transmission on mobile devices before, during and after events.

The budget for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games is roughly $1.8 billion, and 20 percent of that total is being spent on information and telecommunications technology. Two companies owned by Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim’s America Movil will be working together as sponsors: mobile carrier Claro and pay-TV and landline phone service provider Embratel.

According to Claro/Embratel estimates, 27 million voice calls will be made and 3 million SMS messages will be sent during the competitions. Furthermore, thanks to the increased penetration of smartphones and greater popularity of video and photo posts, 3G/4G traffic data is forecast to be 50 percent higher than in the last Summer Olympics, held in London four years ago.

“Our services will take the Rio 2016 games to people in all corners of the world, in all kinds of screens and ways,” said Claro marketing director Rodrigo Vidigal. For the Olympics, America Movil’s Brazilian companies plan to implement in Rio de Janeiro 180 mobile stations and 40 dedicated coverage stations, which are already being tested in large gatherings, such as marathons and music concerts.

Slim’s companies are responsible for the event’s 358-kilometer fiber optic network and promise free Wi-Fi in 60 Olympic facilities. Another sponsor, Cisco Systems, is in charge of network infrastructure. The San Jose, California-based company is implementing 50 tons of dedicated equipment, including more than 7,000 Wi-Fi access points and 100,000 LAN portal networks —and relying on its experience as official sponsor of the 2012 London Olympics.

Mobile operators in Brazil will leverage the 4G infrastructure that was laid out as a requirement for the FIFA World Cup held in June and July of 2014, as well as the know-how acquired then. Total data traffic during the 64 matches of the tournament reached a record-breaking 26.7 terabytes, according to SindiTelebrasil. Some media outlets referred to the event as the “Selfie World Cup”.

Free Wi-Fi networks in the stadiums were vital to ensure smooth data transmission, as they will be in the Olympics. “Wi-Fi and cell phone service was reliable during World Cup games and we experienced very few and temporary glitches while in the stadiums,” said Gerson Caner, a financial consultant for a travel agency in São Paulo specializing in sports competitions. He attended eight of the 64 matches in different cities.

Such reliability is uncommon in Brazil. None of its Big Four carriers (Claro, Vivo, TIM and Oi) were able to maintain a 4G connection more than 50 percent of time during a survey by U.K.-based OpenSignal that was released last August. For comparison purposes, 4G connection was available 95 percent of the time in South Korea, 74 percent of the time in the U.S., and 64 percent of the time in Mexico.

OpenSignal also analyzed the 3G network in Brazil, and even that connection was unavailable to users 16 percent of the time.

As an added challenge, analysts point out that the Olympics will be unlike any other mega event Brazil or Rio de Janeiro has ever hosted, including Carnival festivities, New Year’s Eve in Copacabana Beach and Pope Francis’s visit in 2013.

Next year, 306 Olympic events will be taking place over 17 days in 37 different venues, which are often quite distant — the Maracanã stadium is about 30 km (18 miles) away from the golf course, for instance. That means carriers will scramble to provide heavy coverage for a large number of users in areas that may be scarcely frequented soon after.

“Mobile carriers in Brazil have experience in serving large events,” said Juarez Quadros, who was Brazil’s Minister of Communications in 2002 and now heads Orion consultancy firm in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia. Preparing for the Olympics, mobile carriers are ditching radio and connecting more cell towers by using optical cables to increase speeds and reduce interference, as well as working together to offer coverage redundancies, ensuring service in case of failure or larger-than-expected traffic.

According to Quadros, some infrastructure may be underused after the Olympic Flame is extinguished, especially in the remotest locations, such as the Deodoro complex — an area otherwise used by the Armed Forces, which will accommodate equestrian, mountain bike and shooting competitions during the Olympics. “The big issue is the equipment that cannot be left behind, which must be removed. Removing optical cables, for instance, implies significant losses,” said Quadros.

Mobile operators, including sponsor Claro, have not released specific plans about how they will deal with the surge and subsequent slide in demand in and around Olympic venues. Not only that, forecasting data and voice service demand is quite difficult, so carriers must overestimate these requirements, according to Georgia Jordan, a telecom industry analyst in São Paulo for Frost & Sullivan. On a positive note, some fiber optic networks may be underused in the short term, but demand is set to grow exponentially in the coming years, reducing possible excess capacity. “Legacy infrastructure from the Olympics will allow carriers to better serve their customers in the future,” Jordan said.


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