Operators Get Gold for Service During the Olympics

17/08/2012 12:40 BST | Updated 16/10/2012 10:12 BST

Whenever there is a major sporting occasion that engages the British public, the UK press likes to pen a few stories about how many extra cups of tea will be made during the event by thirsty viewers.

Every single time England play a match at the soccer World Cup, for example, news outlets are filled with references to the expected power surges at half-time as the great British public gets up en masse to make a cuppa.

Journalists seek quotes from electricity engineers to reassure the public that there is enough power in the energy grid to ensure everyone gets their caffeine fix. It's a familiar cycle.

This summer's hugely successful London Olympics saw a different kind of press concern emerge: what would we be doing with our mobile phones during the games and could the networks cope with the first truly 'digital Olympics'?

Networks' preparation pays off

Marquee sporting events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup have become so large, and technology like smartphone so ubiquitous, that operators are under huge pressure to ensure their networks are able to cope with spikes in service demands when they occur. Failure to do so has all the makings of a public relations disaster with angry users taking to Twitter and Facebook when service is later restored to condemn what they see as inadequate service.

Prior to the Olympics there was much speculation as to whether mobile and broadband operators would be able to cope with the expected surge in data requests.

News outlets predicted huge rises in voice calling, OTT (over the top) service such as Voice over Internet Protocol use (VoIP), text messaging, and Facebook updates and Twitter use during the games. They were to be proved right.

Operators frequently sought to reassure customers they had planned for the data surges and that their networks would cope with any stress. Vodafone, to take just one company, released statements talking of how they had invested £1.5 million daily into its network in the first half of 2012 and were confident they would survive whatever London 2012 threw at them.

It turns out their confidence was well placed as no major problems occurred during the Olympics and network services in the main ran as smoothly as they would normally.

As the tournament got going operators released details of data surges at key sporting moments and proudly announced they had passed without issue.

O2 UK, for example, revealed it had double the amount of mobile data sessions double during the Olympics' opening week. Everything Everywhere claimed to have an 80% increase in voice and data use from users at Olympic venues during the same time period.

Twitter was, of course, a major source of data demand. During the opening ceremony 9.7 million tweets were sent related to the Olympics. Twitter claimed this was a 125 times more than during the opening ceremony in Beijing in 2008.

Elsewhere, the BBC, official broadcasters of the games in the UK, had 9.2 million browser visits from mobile devices and 2.3 million from tablet devices concerning the Olympics. Countless people also took advantage of the BBC's online service to watch events unfolds via their mobile phone, rather than whilst gathered around a television set as they would have in the past. This truly was the first social media Olympics.

Changes in how we communicate

London 2012 was a fascinating glimpse into how we now communicate differently. Whilst there was a massive rise in data demand for operators, there was not necessarily the expected corresponding rise in voice usage.

More and more people are turning to VoIP to meet their calling needs, cutting down on their phone bills in the process.

A recent survey from Analysys Mason, a US communication consultancy, found that 4% of smartphone users now use VoIP options more than traditional voice services. Of the smartphone users surveyed who use VoIP at all, 20% use VoIP more than standard calling.

These trends indicate that VoIP use will continue to grow in the coming years as tech savvy users (exactly the kind of users who made this Olympics the 'Social Media Olympics') exploit the ever increasing range of services offered by the likes of Skype, Rebtel and Viber to allow them to make free or cheap calls.

Much like the British team has changed the game in the cycling world, OTT services are racing ahead of operators when it comes to mobile innovation and growth.

How will the mobile landscape look in 2016?

As Brazil get ready to host the next Olympics, they have to consider not only the traditional concerns of hosting nations, such as transport infrastructure, sporting facilities, visitor accommodation and so on, but they must ensure their network operators can provide a reliable communication infrastructure.

Furthermore, operators themselves may find that the communication landscape is very different indeed, come 2016. Will their role be more concerned with data handling than their traditional voice services? Will OTT services and technological developments reduce them merely to the status of data carriers?

Either way, Brazil has a lot to live up to.

The eyes of the world will be watching, but it's the tongues that will start wagging if things go wrong.