This week's network issues on the O2 network may show weaknesses that the Olympics will only highlight further
This week's network outages on the O2 network have raised questions as to whether the operator will be able to handle the extra strain that the London Olympics 2012 will place on the system.
Approximately one million extra visitors will arrive in London for the Games. According to research firm Forward Data, tourist arrival figures are due to be up 13% on last summer, with people from the US making up 19% of the total. The next largest visitor group is Europeans, followed by those from Asia.
Steven Hartley, practice leader at research company Ovum's telecoms strategy team, stated: 'The huge influx of visitors to London ahead of the games will cause network traffic spikes, putting pressure on the UK's mobile networks, which already have a poor reputation compared to others in Western Europe. While UK mobile operators claim to be prepared, they have not yet given indication of the scale of their plans.
'Mobile capacity upgrades at key transport and crowd hotspots will undoubtedly take place before the Games,' Hartley continued. 'However, if there is a major public transport failure, the spilling over of people from a location where high network traffic has been anticipated to less well prepared peripheral cells could prove disastrous. The national perspective is both a fixed and mobile concern. The BBC, the UK's state broadcaster, has announced plans to stream live video of 27 different events on its website on the two Saturdays during the Games. BT has conceded that it has brought its fixed broadband investments forward by six to 12 months to cope with such demand.'
The problems arise when the Olympic events cause massive peaks in data volumes, for instance in the form of users accessing streaming TV, news websites, radio and texting friends, all from their mobile phones. Hartley added: 'Where demand appears will not be easy to predict, which makes fixed and mobile preparations difficult to assess. For example, when a British athlete reaches a final, local support will cause a concentration of demand from their hometown, as well as an increase across the nation.'
Francesco Radicati, research analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, stated: 'O2 has not been the first operator to face challenges in the UK; Orange also had issues with its 3G network in March this year. Of course, operators need to make the right investment to try and avoid any service availability problem, but, if it does happen, transparency and honesty with customers can make all the difference. Although O2 was responsive on Twitter and included updates of the status of the solution to the problem on its homepage, it was not enough to deal with the bad experiences and frustration its customers were experiencing.
'This outage could be also a further embarrassment to O2 as the Olympic Games take place in London later this month, and it raises questions about how the operator will cope with the strain that the influx of tourists will put on its mobile network,' continued Radicati. 'Although O2 has dealt better with this problem than other operators in previous cases, it should still be far more proactive in engaging with its customers when problems happen; it should communicate with the customers as soon as a problem occurs, essentially before the customer experiences the problem.'
Warned Hartley: 'We hope that our concerns are unfounded and the Games pass without telecoms incident. Connectivity at the Olympic Park can at least be predicted and planned based on a greenfield implementation of the latest technologies and architectures. However, the UK as a whole must rely on previous investments to carry it through, and these have been less than optimal in the mobile space.'
Informa Telecoms & Media conducted a survey in May this year with smartphone users in the UK, where 77% of the respondents stated that a lack of network coverage would be a reason to change their current operator. It was the third highest reason, after 'best value for money' (92%) and 'attracted by a better service plan' (88%). However, 47% of the respondents had been with the same provider for more than four years. Although a long relationship could be a sign of loyalty, the main reasons for customers staying for such a long time is more likely to be the lack of any alternatives that are significantly different, said Radicati.