Howard Dickel: At London 2012 BT learnt to expect the unexpected

Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Howard DickelWhat's a hungry rat got to do with delivering the communications services for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games?

Well it was one of the last things I was thinking about when BT was appointed official communications services partner of London 2012 – but one thing I learnt very quickly on was to always expect the unexpected.

When we were appointed, Sebastian Coe, London 2012 chair, said: "It's inconceivable that we could deliver the 2012 Games without BT on board. We need someone we can trust who could provide the technical know-how and the creative solutions to ensure our London 2012 Games are the very best they can be. BT gives us this."

So we decided not only to meet these expectations but exceed them. An exciting but daunting four and a half year task lay ahead.

At the start of our journey we set ourselves some core risk management principles and posted logical milestones along the route leading to London 2012. Among these was the decision to use only tried-and-tested technology; while the milestones included a freeze to any design changes well before the Games opened. And, as you'd expect, we built in some extremely rigid and exhaustive testing schedules and events – these principles served us well.

mpc lonodn 2012 156-1The press placed the greatest demands upon the communications infrastructure, while public and London 2012 traffic was a comparatively small proportion

London 2012 was previewed as the most connected Games ever, a prediction that proved more than true. As with the Rio 2016 debrief this week, it's normal for succeeding Games teams to learn from their predecessors. We certainly did that by sending our moles to both Vancouver and Beijing, but with technology evolving at such a rapid pace, we were well aware that things had moved on.

At Beijing 2008, for instance, a private network was provided for photographers' images to be copied back to the main press centre (MPC) for editing and transmission. At London 2012 we would send them across the BT infrastructure wirelessly, enabling real-time uploads – direct from cameras. This meant, images from the Games could be published on internet sites within seconds – rather than minutes or hours.

Among others, staff at several major global broadcasters remarked that London 2012 was easily the best Olympic Games service they'd experienced.

The maximum measured throughput on the network we designed for the Games was nearly 7Gbps, of which a quarter was internet traffic. The media placed the greatest demands upon the infrastructure, while public and London 2012 traffic was a comparatively small proportion.

So, what about network performance I hear you ask? Well core network availability during Game-time was 100 per cent: in terms of Severity Level 1 faults – these are categorised as affecting an entire venue or a major facility such as the IPC – there were precisely zero. In fact, across all 94 venues only a handful of minor service-affecting incidents were reported over the 19 days of the Olympic Games and 12 days of the Paralympic Games.

london 2012 websiteThe london2012.com website recorded over 450 million hits during Games time

BT's London 2012 Delivery Programme team of 1,000 people clocked up one million hours delivering the communications infrastructure, along the way installing more than 5,500 kilometres of optical fibre in the 94 competition and non-competition venues. There were 11,500 fixed telephones originating and answering 500,000 calls between them.

The number of BT Wi-Fi hotspots reached 500,000 in the London area in time for the Games, including the largest ever high-density Wi-Fi installation inside the Olympic Park. A total of 1,451 terabytes of information was carried over the network, while the london2012.com website recorded over 450 million visits.

Not only the most connected ever, London 2012 was also the most digital Olympic Games ever, with the amount of video and other internet content carried on Britain's mobile networks surpassing all records. When Bradley Wiggins won cycling gold it saw more data carried over mobile operators' networks per second than past peaks marked by the Royal Wedding. Usain Bolt made digital history by generating 80,000 tweets per minute winning the 100 and 200 metres finals.

In terms of security for London2012.com (we built the infrastructure to handle one billion hits at Games-time); we picked up and dealt with daily nuisance incidents using our website and network perimeter defences. Only one coordinated attack was identified during Games-time, and that was easily handled by provisions built into London 2012 hardware and processes.

Another example of BT responsiveness? There was some concern raised when BT saw cellular traffic congestion during the cycling road race. There was no way that the infrastructure would be able to stand up when Wiggins competed in the time trials. So, within just 24 hours, BT installed new broadband links for extra timing points on the course.

The impact on BT's brand has been phenomenal – people really understand and are aware of BT's contribution to the Games. In the latest Nielsen tracker (the Official Market Research Services provider for the Games) issued in September, BT was the most recognised sponsor in terms of providing expertise and services to the Games and that's something we're extremely proud of.

So what about that rat?

Greenwich Park 15-11-12A peckish rat proved to be our biggest challenge at Greenwich Park

Greenwich Park is one of the most beautiful Royal Parks in London and it was selected to host the dressage and show jumping events.

Beautiful it may be, but it was up there with one of our most challenging venues.  It's a huge site, which holds a conservation order, thousands of trees, many buildings, roads – and, understandably, many restrictions on where BT could place its poles and ducting.

One of the first challenges we faced involved laying our network cable uphill and under a museum so that we could reach the stables, transport logistics, and site management area two kilometres away. That's before we could even start work on networking the 23,000 seater temporary stadium built to house the Games. Due to the heavy restrictions on site, we weren't permitted to use our BT vans either so managed to borrow some golf buggies to transport our equipment around.

On top of that, there were significant delays that impacted our delivery of the communications services – delays to the delivery of the temporary structures like tents and cabins, delays to the provision of power and delays caused by one of the wettest summers on record. The outcome of which meant that the cabling fit-out was only completed one day before the competition started.

Three days into competition, and just when we thought our troubles were behind us, a hungry rat decided he liked the look of our network cable and tucked in. In doing so, he knocked out the network connectivity to the entire retail concession area on site – meaning no London 2012 goodies for anyone wanting to pay by credit or debit card.

But fear not, in true BT style, we got the retail area connectivity up and running two hours before competition started that day and we never did find that darned rat...

Howard Dickel is client partner for BT's London 2012 programme and who led the delivery of the company's communications infrastructure and services for the Olympic and Paralympic Games
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