O2 network shambles spells Olympics anxiety for carriers

British carrier O2 has left hundreds of thousands of its customers in the dark with a near network-wide blackout of its services, including voice calls and text messaging. While its customers are furious it spells bigger trouble ahead with the enormous payload of data and network traffic that is going to lean on all providers when the London Olympics kicks off this month.

Infrastructure in the UK has, quite suddenly, been turned on its head. The M4 motorway, a key road between Heathrow and the Olympic park, has been shut down because of a crack in a bridge. Natwest found itself in the midst of disaster as customers were unable to withdraw their money or access their bank accounts. Now, O2 has cut off communications for hundreds and thousands of its customers, altogether, and it is one of the largest carriers in the UK.

So far, so bad. The latest from O2 is that frustrated users should try disabling their 3G connection but this feels like little more than a distraction technique for customers to try as the company’s technicians try desperately to bring systems back online. Now,  it claims to have restored 2G connectivity and users are starting to get their services back.

Mobile networks are clogged anyway. Cisco and other networking giants recognise that there is too much data leaning on the carriers for them to handle or keep as a sustainable model, particularly as more and more smartphones and 3G connections are activated every day, not to mention LTE on the horizon – eventually – on these shores, already established in many corners of the world.

Telecoms analyst house Ovum agrees that there is a looming disaster for the UK under the considerable demand of the Olympics. Steven Hartley, practice leader, warns that there will be enormous network traffic spikes which will put significant pressure on the UK’s mobile networks, which are not exactly considered a shining example of European infratructure already.

“While UK mobile operators claim to be prepared,” Hartley says, “they have not yet given indication of the scale of their plans”.

Hartley does not doubt that mobile capacity upgrades at heavy-use areas will take place. But, he warns, if there is a major public transport failure – and who could consider such a thing in London? – there is a threat of people spilling over from well prepared, high network traffic locations to under-prepared peripheral cells. And this could “prove disastrous”.

Ovum points out that the BBC has plans to stream live video of 27 different events on two Saturdays during the games, while BT admitted it needed to push fixed broadband investments forwards between six to 12 months to deal with the heavy demand.

According to Hartley, where that demand will appear will be difficult to predict and, as a result, fixed and mobile preparations are both difficult to assess.

Technology performance company Compuware draws parallels between the banking problems with Natwest and RBS. Director of IT service management, Michael Allen, said in a statement: “Not being able to make a call will be as serious to many people as not being able to take cash out of the bank.

“Unfortunately, these problems will only continue to increase unless organisations take a fundamentally different approach to the way they manage the peformance of the IT systems we rely on.”

IT systems are getting increasingly complex and independent, so O2 delivering a good service to customers depends on a long list of different components, systems, and applications working together in harmony.

“This can make preventing these types of service disruptions difficult as well as finding the root cause time consuming,” Allen said. “This is why a new approach needs to be taken – companies must manage their IT services in a much more integrated service-centric manner”.

Telecoms software provider, Tektronix Communications, believes the Olympics could pose a serious challenge to operators, and that they must be ready for it. “Operators need to assure the connected experience for the long haul,” Lyn Cantor, president of the company, said.

Threats of a less mundane nature cast their shadow over the Olympics, too, if MI5 chief Jonathan Evans is to be believed. Just one month before the national security spend-a-thon of London 2012 opens its doors to the world, he announced the UK faces an “astonishing” cyber security threat.

Meanwhile, software expert Professor Robert Dewar told TechEye unmanned drones have not been thoroughly tested in UK airspace and there is a slim, but real chance that a software failure could threaten a nasty surprise to the people of London.