Can your mobile network keep up with the pace of the London Marathon?

A look at the data traffic spikes that mass events such as the Virgin Money London Marathon can cause and how to prepare for them.

During the Virgin Money London Marathon, (almost) everything can come to a stop. With the obvious exception of over 35,000 runners, a whole host of other things across the city will gradually be seen to grind to a halt. Cars will be crawling slowly around road closures, supporters will be getting stuck in the spectators’ areas along the route and major train stations will be systematically closed to prevent predictable overcrowding.

Logistical issues aside, this is not where the congestion ends. All these masses of people – runners, spectators and a few disconcerted tourists – will collectively be trying to send huge amounts of tweets and texts on numerous apps which, when combined, could dwarf the complete works of Shakespeare. Not to mention the thousands of high-quality HD images and videos of energetic runners that will be trying to make their way onto social media, or the owners of wearable tech frantically trying to sync their devices to their handsets! This sudden surge in data transmission inevitably leads to network congestion.

So much so is this risk of data congestion, the official Virgin Money London Marathon carries a warning: “Do not rely on mobile phones in the finish area as it is often impossible to get a signal due to the number of phones in operation in the confined area. It is recommended that you agree to use a third party’s landline number as a backup number on the day.”

Last year, the ‘London Marathon’ attracted over 38,000 runners and approximately 750,000 spectators. In the very same year, it provided for the first time an app for iPhones so that spectators, friends and family could track their favourite runners, simply by entering their bib number. Did it work? Anecdotal tweets indicate the showcase wasn’t quite the success it could have been. For many users, the app didn’t load quickly enough over the congested networks, resulting in no or inaccurate information about the runners, such as reporting a runner was approaching the last mile when actually he/she had already finished. In an ironic twist of frustration, spectators took to social media to try and vent their anger with a sense of real-time fury – only proving to add even more traffic to the already congested networks! [source]

There are plenty of other applications that rely on fast online services. Many athletes want to share their stats in real-time. It is not feasible to throw the responsibility back at the end users asking them to refrain from using these services as the warning on the ‘London Marathon’ website does. Should runners leave their wearables at home, should spectators stop tweeting, posting and Snapchatting to keep the networks uncongested? This is certainly not an option. The responsibility to ensure a good service lies with the service providers having to prepare for high quantities of traffic.

Both mobile carriers and online services will have to do their bit. Mobile Carriers can’t rely only on their cellular networks to handle big traffic. Instances of ‘off-loading’, where traffic is passed off from cellular networks to Wi-Fi or small-cell networks are starting to increase; in 2015, mobile off-load exceeded cellular traffic for the first time with 51% of total mobile data traffic offloaded onto the fixed network through Wi-Fi or femtocell [source].

Online services have to analyse their YoY data to identify trends and past traffic demands, to predict usage and run load tests. Campbell Williams, group strategy and marketing director at Six Degrees, discusses the importance of scaling up servers: “Dealing with a high volume of traffic is tough, you need some serious scale, but that’s what cloud-based technology is all about. It would have taken many months of planning in the pre-cloud era, but now that it’s a software-based approach you can definitely scale up in a much shorter period. In fact, most services will be turning on the extra capacity the day before and turning it off the day after.”

Scalability is central to online services in order to sustain operations during busy periods and the ability to predict where the peaks are coming from, allowing extra compute to be added in time.

Let’s hope they are all going to run smoothly this year at the ‘London Marathon’ – the athletes, the apps, the mobile network.

How to avoid data congestion and still make the most of your wearable tech:

  • Not all wearables are putting a strain on the mobile networks. Many activity trackers are using GPS technology and don’t need an internet connection during the event. You could wait until afterwards to upload and share your data.
  • Sync your wearables – if possible – via Bluetooth which operates in a personal area network (PAN).
  • Timing chips which come with the running kit and are worn by all runners link up via a transponder and use radio frequency. So again no problem here.

Please explore how our managed Cloud hosting solutions can help you scale your services and prepare for traffic spikes.

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Have you ever been affected by an unpredicted traffic peak? Please share your experience using the form below and tell us how you deal with this problem.

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