Virgin Money London Marathon 2014
Virgin Money London Marathon 2014

This year the Virgin Money London Marathon attracted one of the largest crowds in its history with over 600,000 spectators turning up to soak up the atmosphere and cheer on over 30,000 runners.

As one of the spectators, I was far from being alone in bombarding social media platforms with photos and videos of the race. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat – you name it. But even using my 4G iPhone – making a call, sending a message or even attempting to access the internet was painfully slow.

On the London Marathon website, Virgin advises you to “not rely on your mobile phone” to find others and they’re not wrong there. When attending an event with thousands of other smartphone-equipped spectators, the mobile networks become quickly congested and can result (in my case) with frequent “call failed” alerts.

So the question is why are mobile operators not better prepared for these regular events? Aren’t there technologies out there to handle these cases of extreme demand on the network? Why can’t we rely on our mobiles?

Tony Brown, Senior Analyst at Informa explained to me that events like the London Marathon cause big problems for mobile network operators because they “bring together very large numbers of people, with many of them wanting access to mobile broadband, in areas where there are not typically large numbers of people present.”

So is that’s the case, what are operators doing to handle these types of demand better? Admittedly the marathon brings an unusually large crowd together, but surely in the generation of LTE we should all be able to at least make voice calls on our smartphones?

"Call Failed"
“Call Failed”

” In these situations mobile operators are moving towards improving their performance, this will include the deployment of small-cells to improve the density of the network, the usage of carrier-aggregation and new spectrum bands , including using TD-LTE as well as using things like self-organising networks.”

OK sounds great, it seems that operators have a variety of strategies to overcome these problems and improve network coverage in certain areas. My guess is that these will only be solely focused on urban areas with a dense population of users because let’s face it, not many rural events attract that amount of visitors. But as I asked Tony, surely there are specific places where operators always expect large crowds?

 “Yes, in other scenarios such as a regularly used football stadium,  operators can make a business case for building new network capacity into those areas but this is not necessarily the case for one-off or annual events like the London Marathon.”

One of the technologies I have been hearing a lot about lately, which was getting operators excited at MWC for this very reason, is LTE Broadcast.Trialled by operators such as KT in South Korea and Telstra in Australia, it seems to have made its way onto everyone’s agenda.

It was back in February I read about Europe’s first live trial of LTE broadcast, as Vodafone Germany and Ericsson trialled it in Borussia Mönchengladbach’s football stadium. Since then I have seen KPN have successfully tested LTE Broadcast in the Amsterdam arena, and Qualcomm have been quoted saying they expect to see up to eight operator trials of LTE Broadcast technology across EMEA, Asia and North America in 2014.

I asked Tony if it would be plausible for operators to apply it to a situation like the marathon.

“Yes LTE Broadcast is another ace up the sleeve for operators. It would be able to deploy high-quality broadcast video to Marathon watchers along the famous course – with the data usage even being sponsored by the likes of Gatorade or Nike.”

Sounds like one to watch. And with any luck these technologies will be deployed by mobile operators so in the future we can always rely on our mobile phones, even during the London marathon!

If you’re interested in reading more about LTE Broadcast, check out our previous blog posts: Video is the Opiate of the Networks and Interview with Gokula Krishnan Subramaniam at Ericsson.

Also look out for the “Online Video & OTT Partnerships” part of the Mobile Broadband track at Broadband World Forum for more on LTE Broadcast and managing demand on mobile networks.


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