LONDON, June 7, 2010 – Several factors are conspiring to make the 2010 football World Cup a testing time for Europe’s fixed and mobile broadband networks.
The soccer tournament kicks off June 11 in South Africa. Europe has six of the world’s top eight footballing nations competing, and fanatical populations are desperate to keep up from office computers, mobile devices, home televisions or at a public venue for large screen viewing.
Europe also has finally and rapidly embraced high-definition technology as TV set prices have collapsed and the World Cup itself has driven broadcasters to ensure all the matches will show in HD.
Subscribers can now view programming content over the internet and mobile networks in much higher definition than before, and that could generate enough traffic to bring down a network if fans in populous nations such as the United Kingdom and Germany watch matches in large numbers that way. A single user could easily consume 400 megabytes of data viewing a match via mobile phone, which leaves wireless operators unsure of how much additional traffic they will actually get thanks to the World Cup.
There is the potential for significant revenue from data downloads, but there’s also the danger that heavily trafficked networks could collapse or deliver poor performance with the risk of triggering consumer defections.
Some operators, such as Vodafone in the United Kingdom, have responded with contingency plans to offer transportable cell towers ready to be deployed at short notice in areas where unusual demand is expected or imminent, but their backhaul networks could remain exposed.
There would be little problem if the majority of fans watched at home on their TVs; the major operators all have established networks for delivering the content, with plenty of capacity for their HD programming.
For IPTV operators delivering programming over IP-based networks, HD has caused headaches because content is then delivered on a one-to-one basis right down to the end consumer, rather than being broadcast or multicast to avoid simultaneous transmission of the same content to multiple users. However many European IPTV operators, such as BT Vision in the United Kingdom, have deployed hybrid services where the live HD programming is transmitted via a broadcast medium, usually digital terrestrial or more occasionally satellite.
A few IPTV operators in urban areas that have fiber running all the way or close to the home can deliver HD directly over their IP networks, without having to operate a hybrid service.
Either way, the World Cup is not likely to pose particular problems, although those operators that have failed to bring on HD so far could be exposed to churn. The situation is most interesting in France, the world’s leading IPTV country, which has over 8 million IPTV subscribers, compared with 400,000 in the United Kingdom where the population is slightly larger. France also has three of the world’s four largest IPTV operators, Free, Orange France Telecom and Neuf Cegetel. All three have been relatively quiet in the build up to the World Cup, allowing the satellite and cable TV providers to make the running with their greater broadcast capacity.
Meanwhile, the World Cup has raised concerns that the biggest problems may come within private business broadband networks caused by people watching matches at work. A survey by ISP Eclipse Internet has warned that 54 percent of Britons could watch games online while at work, with a particular risk posed by the group game against Slovenia on June 2. That game begins at the earlier slot of 3 p.m. local time. There was potential for widespread chaos among corporate networks, warned Eclipse, whose survey of 2,000 workers found that 58 percent had given no thought to the possible consequences of on their employers of watching the World Cup at work. The ISP advised organizations to implement guidelines about office computer usage during the World Cup, backed up if necessary by technical restrictions on access to the Internet. Eclipse also hinted that the surge in broadband traffic during such high profile matches could cause more widespread disruption of the Internet in European countries.
Such issues may well not be resolved even for future major global events, for increased capacity could be offset by ever higher definition video services, with 3D waiting in the wings. In a sign of things to come, the private French broadcaster TF1 announced it will transmit five World Cup football games in 3D including the opening game on June 11 between South Africa and Mexico, as well as the semi-finals and the final on July 11. That will soak up twice as much network capacity as the highest quality HD broadcasts.