Hamish Fletcher

Business reporter for the NZ Herald

Networks under pressure at World Cup

Questions linger over whether the multimillion-dollar upgrades to Auckland's mobile and internet networks will be able to cope with demand from the influx of Rugby World Cup fans.

Most of the estimated 85,000 overseas visitors will be in Auckland for the tournament, and telcos expect many of them will be using smartphones and consuming large chunks of mobile internet.

"They're going to be calling, TXTing, tweeting, Facebooking, uploading photos, to tell their friends around the world about New Zealand," said Vodafone's Matt East.

This will place added pressure on networks, especially at stadiums during matches.

Telecommunications Users Association chief executive Paul Brislen said rugby fans coming to New Zealand would demand high standards from mobile operators.

"Travellers' expectations have changed so dramatically and it's becoming essential to offer [good service]," he said.

"And the type of people we're going to see coming to the Rugby World Cup will be in that bracket that is more affluent than your usual backpacker and will want to be able to take photos and footage and send it back home and show people what they're missing out on - and that's quite important for our tourism industry," Brislen said.

To bolster the networks to support the influx of visitors, mobile companies have upgraded and invested millions of dollars in new equipment.

Vodafone and Telecom paid particular attention to Eden Park, where the pair installed 13km of fibre cables and 247 antennae to ensure the network does not get overloaded and the 60,000 crowd can have a seamless experience before during and after the game.

Vodafone head of networks Tony Baird said that while most of the work had been completed, technicians would monitor the performance of the system leading up to the Cup and make the necessary tweaks to it.

As well as collaborating with Vodafone to improve the Eden Park network, Telecom's information technology branch, Gen-i, has installed automated ticketing systems in the stadium, improved the Wi-Fi network and installed hundreds of video screens around the complex.

Both Vodafone and Telecom have also upgraded their networks around fan sites, such as Queens Wharf and the Viaduct, and main transport routes to the airport.

"We also have a number of temporary solutions that can be moved around throughout the event, to where they are needed to cover busy crowd areas like the stadium and fan zones," said Gemma Roper, Telecom's head of network operations.

2degrees has also boosted its network for the event and has cell-sites on wheels it can use, but does not have its own equipment in Eden Park.

In response to questions why 2degrees did not follow its competitors' moves, communications manager Michael Bouliane said the company already had adequate coverage in the area.

"We've got a relatively new network with strong coverage in the Eden Park area, so we're happy with the coverage, capacity and signal level we already have in place at Eden Park."

While 2degrees has not put equipment in the stadium, Bouliane said the network has been amplified.

But despite the upgrades and investment, Brislen questioned if the telcos' efforts would be enough.

He pointed to strategies employed by providers in the United States who encouraged fans at the SuperBowl to use the stadium's Wi-Fi (wireless internet) rather than the mobile network if they wanted to send photos or videos during the game.

"They discovered it's not enough to have boosted 3G capacity and when you've got 50,000 people in one spot and they all want to take a photo of the winning try and then send it to their mates, possibly just across the paddock, it just chews through [network capacity]. So you move all the data traffic on to Wi-Fi and have a number of Wi-Fi hotspots around the place and you make it free and this keeps all data traffic off the [mobile network]," he said.

There are no plans to introduce public Wi-Fi on this scale at Eden Park.

Roper admitted Telecom could not rule out disruptions to service.

"Despite all our countless hours working out how best to deliver the coverage and capacity to [our] customers, it all depends what happens on the day. Overall, most people are understanding about mobile experience in areas where there is an unusually large grouping of people," she said.

As well as throwing doubt over the mobile network, Brislen said Auckland would need to improve the availability of wireless internet for travellers coming to the city.

Auckland Council has put out a tender for a private provider to extend Auckland's Wi-Fi network, but would not reveal how much it had earmarked for the network build. And with less than 100 days to go till kick-off, project manager Drew McGuire admitted the schedule was "tight", given that work had not started.

- NZ Herald

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