Wiring the Vancouver Olympics

Powering the Winter Games requires more than 5,000 kilometers of cabling, 6,000 computers, and a willingness to break with tradition.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

The Games in Vancouver mark the first time the voice, video, and data of the Olympics will be carried over a single IP network. © VANOC/COVAN

Organizers of the Vancouver Olympics had a pretty simple message to the technology providers creating the massive network to power this month's Winter Games.

"We demand that this is flawless," Chief Information Office Ward Chapin said in a briefing with reporters this week. To meet that goal, Chapin said, there has been a tremendous amount of redundancy built into the network as well as thousands upon thousands of hours of testing.

"I would not want to be the individual that had to go up to Hans the ski jumper after his world record jump and say 'Oh, by the way could you do that one more time, we just had a little technical glitch,'" Chapin said. "That cannot happen obviously."

Given that, it's noteworthy that this year's Games make a significant change in the technology setup. In past years, organizers set up separate data and voice networks, but this year all the video, data, and voice will traverse one massive Internet Protocol network set up by Atos Origin, Bell Canada, Avaya, and others.

Olympic network, by the numbers
Here's some of the tech gear that is powering the Winter Games, which kick off on Friday.
Kilometers of cable: More than 5,000
Ethernet ports: More than 40,000
PCs: More than 6,000
TVs: More than 3,000
Two-way radios: More than 7,000
cell phones: More than 7,000
Source: VANOC, Bell Canada, Avaya

"Going to an IP infrastructure was a major leap for everybody," said Avaya general manager Dave Johnson. "Traditionally the Olympic Games have been fairly risk averse in the way they approach operations and they want to make sure that technology is never an issue that gets in the way of the Games. It's a conservative organization."

But, by doing it, the rewards have been plenty.

"Once we got everyone comfortable with the idea, the efficiencies we got out of the network were dramatic," Johnson said.

Using an all-IP network reduces duplication and also makes it easier when there are last-minute changes. In the past, if a news organization, for example, needed 10 phone lines, those lines needed to be provisioned by an engineer and placed at a particular physical spot. With the IP network, those 10 phones can be placed anywhere there is an Ethernet jack. Johnson said that as a result, Avaya estimates it has needed 35 percent fewer workers than it would have needed to oversee a traditional setup.

Although nearly everything is moving over that IP network, Johnson said a few exceptions had to be made. Some older media organizations in certain countries needed a several-generations-old ISDN line to send back their broadcast feeds, for example.

"It's been pretty interesting to have to fall back 20 years for some agencies," he said.

Plugging into the Vancouver Games (images)

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Bell Canada has also beefed up its cellular network, recognizing that a whole lot of people are going to want to be making calls and sending pictures from the Games using their mobile phones. Overall, the company has probably tripled its capacity, says Justin Webb, who heads the company's Olympic efforts.

Some of that has been tricky. Along the narrow Sea-to-Sky Highway that connects Vancouver and Whistler, for example, it is tough.

"It's a spectacular drive," Webb said. "But you are essentially on the edge of a 5,000-foot mountain range. It is very difficult to cover with cell towers."

In a first, Webb said Bell Canada put a solar-powered repeater on top of an island, which he said added 10 miles of additional coverage. Because it is solar-powered, there was no need for a generator, making it more environmentally friendly than the typical setup.

Webb said that the company believes it has added enough capacity. "With mobiles, if everyone congregates in one spot and makes a trillion calls you are in trouble," Webb said. But, he added, "Unless something extraordinary happens, we are going to be fine."

Even at the venues themselves, Webb said Bell had to do some interesting things, such as traversing the ski courses by snowmobile to add Wi-Fi networking capabilities mid-course so photographers could send images while the event is still taking place. In some cases, Webb said, photographers may be able to post shots of a skier to the Web before the athlete even crosses the finish line.

All of the data from the many venues--including high-definition broadcast video of every event--feeds into the main technology center and the central press facility.

"Literally thousands of fiber strands terminate there," Webb said.

While comparatively little of the wiring and other gear can be reused after the games, Johnson said that he thinks much of the know-how can be adopted by others.

"We think this model can drive a lot of cost efficiency for our other customers," he said. We're using the learning we've made at Olympic Games to make our products better and allow customers to drive costs out of their business."