Will London 2012 be the first data roaming mega event?

At the recent Roaming World Congress hosted by IIR an animated panel session highlighted a number of challenges and opportunities imminent in the forthcoming London Olympics. These Olympics have been heralded as a major opportunity for medals to be won and sport to be celebrated but there are also a number of reasons to celebrate the games as a major driver for mobile roaming.

Millions of inbound roamers (forecast at around seven million) will enter the UK market as a result of the games while the countries operators will see their networks having to deal with billions of additional voice minutes and MB of data over the duration of the games and within the relatively small footprint of London and a number of regional centres. This demand is also likely to be ‘bursty’ being tied to particular events (finals) and the respective national sporting obsessions of the Olympic visitors. This issue was highlighted at a recent IIR Roaming Summit held in Barcelona when discussing the last roaming mega event, the World Cup held in South Africa. At key points during this event operator’s experienced dramatic increase in demand related to key matches and specific events within them. Jaques Bonifay CEO of Transatel, went on to state that it would have been better from a roaming perspective if France had won as international calls were expected to have ‘gone through the roof’. This aside there are serious ramifications of mega-events, like the Olympics for roaming service providers and London 2012 is of particular concern as the first mega-event in which smartphones and data will be an integral part.

Operators have taken a proactive stance in preparing for the event with capacity planning and additional cell tower support. However the panellist were quick to point out that when Germany hosted the UEFA European Football Championship (2008) Deutsche Telekom was somewhat over-prepared with an abundance of repeaters and portable cell towers but a decided lack of roaming. This approach has been emulated with London 2012 with temporary cell towers popping up at both staging centres and sporting sites. In respect of the UEFA experience the consensus was that roaming prices were still prohibitively high when the event was held which would have dissuaded use. However, it was felt that this would be less of an issue with London 2012, at least if roamers were from the European Union, due to the price cuts legislated in this region.

The agreements reached on May 10 regarding Roaming III regulation have come at a particularly fortuitous time. The radically reduced roaming rates will provide a strong incentive to experiment with roaming at the London 2012 event with both roaming voice and data service set to benefit.

It was the panellists view that cellular use would be huge over the period of the Olympics, indeed panellist member Duncan Hill of Europa technologies stated they were rolling out additional support for their coverage mapping service to clients and end customers in Olympic hotspots; as Europa’s main customers are operators there is obviously some concern regarding coverage. Duncan went on to share the fact they are also providing wifi mapping adding further credence to this assumption. Paolo Silvi of Keynote SIGOS argued that coverage for roamers during the Olympics was the tip of the iceberg. He argued that without demonstrable quality of service roamers would simply not make use of cellular services claiming that QoS as well as coverage needed to be guaranteed to facilitate such mega-events.

The panellists agreed that capacity planning for the summer months already incorporated expected increases based on vacationing patterns but they were divided as to whether this would be enough to cope with both holidaymakers and the inspected influx of Olympic visitors. Edward Van Kuijk, EVP Sales and Marketing Hub services for Vodafone roaming was relatively downbeat on the potential for roaming during the Olympics. His assertions came on the back of his own analysis of the number of international roamers expected and their likely avoidance of high tariff international roaming charges.

A challenge from an unexpected quarter was highlighted by Jaques Bonifay who stated MVNOs could potential impact the roaming opportunity at London 2012. Bonifay highlighted a particular approach his company was taking in cooperation with the Chinese Olympic delegation in which they are partnering with China Unicom. Transatel will be setting up an MVNO for the duration of the event providing a local calling alternative for the Chinese Olympic delegation and Chinese nationals. The service is being marketed via China Unicom. Fielding questions Jaques agreed that while he sees this approach as a highly attractive one for users visiting international mega-events it does require a pre-existing relationship to be in place between the roamers home network operators and any potential partner MVNO. Without this it is not a cost effective based on the setup costs, COA and relatively short time in which the MVNO can generate revenues.

Whether the Olympics will be a great opportunity for all roaming players bearing in mind preferred partners and steering will be remain in place is debateable.  Whether roaming data use will increase over the Olympics or impact the consumption habits of roaming users is also unknown. What is known is the London 2012 Olympic Games will be an important testing ground for data roaming in a regulated market and an opportunity for data usage profile testing within an international mega-event.

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