Cabinet Office warns that internet may have dropouts during Olympics
With the vast changes in how social media allows people to stay in touch all the time, the 2012 Olympics do look set to demonstrate large levels of internet traffic, but the diversity of connection methods, communications providers and large number of fibre backbones connecting major cities across the UK and to the rest of the world mean that the talk internet meltdown by the Cabinet Office look very like scaremongering.
An article in the last weekends Observer runs with the headline that the internet could crash due to the London Olympics, and web access be rationed. A lot of the Cabinet Office concern may stem from a Department for Transport (DfT) pilot, Operation Footfall run in August 2011, that saw staff experience internet connection problems as part of a homeworking experiment. The pilot forms part of Operation StepChange that is meant to show how staff can work from home, embracing video conferencing.
While there is no doubt that event locations will see heavy access to resources like mobile networks for both text, voice and data, the networks should be well versed in handling large events through lessons learnt at places like Glastonbury, Wimbledon and other major events in the last few years across the UK. The deployment of more Wi-Fi hotspots by providers particularly in London may off-load some traffic, and will also allow overseas visitors to access the internet without recourse to expensive roaming agreements.
The limited capacity of most Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile masts means that even if everyone in a stadium tweets at the same time, the effect may simply be that some tweets are a little slow getting through. The ability for a large crowd in one part of the UK to crash the UK internet as an entity is ludicrous.
It is entirely feasible that some home broadband providers may suffer more peak time congestion than is usual, but talk of rationing web access makes it sound like providers may disconnect parts of the UK for hours at a time. Congestion due to spikes are not uncommon and the good providers will be well used to handling them, if anything the calendar for the Olympics allows for better planning. Video streams and for example people wanting to watch the 100m final after missing it are likely to be the biggest source of traffic, but many services have distributed Content Delivery Platforms that ensure that expensive backbone capacity is not wasted, i.e. a stream can be delivered once to a cache, and played back to multiple people from a location in a providers network.
There is some merit to small business and medium businesses located near an Olympic venue who plan to have staff working from home actually testing that this backup plan does actually work. For example can the systems that currently only have or two home workers using them actually handle twenty people it at the same time. Larger businesses which have dedicated bandwidth leased line connectivity, and extensive diverse location hosting solutions should be able to cope as they have ensured that their business has no single point in its communications network.
The summary is that normal contingency procedures should allow businesses to continue to function, and the Olympics for broadband providers will really just be a series of daily traffic spikes, which may not follow the standard pattern. The wall to wall coverage on digital TV should ensure most people will be able to view most of the major events live or on +1 channels with no difficulty. Alternatively if you want to escape the Olympics we are sure there will be plenty of cheap holiday deals across Europe.