Let the games begin

The Vancouver-Whistler bid crew may well have won the race to host the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in 2010, but judging by one team member’s description of the network technology required, the event isn’t even out of the starting gate.

It’s as if the work has just begun for Don Stuckert, director of technology with the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corp. Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided in July to award the event to this joint effort by Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., the municipalities still faces a job that will take the better part of a decade to complete.

They must create computer networks to support 25 sports venues and 25 non-sports locations. “Each network at each site has to operate independently, so if they go down, the rest of the network doesn’t go down,” Stuckert told Network World Canada. “They have to support voice, data, radio and broadcast.”

How will Stuckert and his fleet carry out the massive task? As it happens, the project’s anatomy is one part planning and one part tough decision making.

On the planning side, Stuckert said the Bid Corp. did plenty of preparation to impress the IOC. “I have a full, couple-hundred-page document on our system plan already with network diagrams, system diagrams, application models and data models.”

The Vancouver-Whistler bid book, which outlines how the team would pull off the event, provides insight into some of the high-tech details.

For wireless, the 2010 Olympics will rely on Vancouver’s Emergency Communication Centre (ECOMM) network, which supports 911, fire, police and emergency services. Vancouver will segment spare frequencies that ECOMM owns but doesn’t use, and employ those frequencies to support sport operations.

At Whistler, where alpine skiing, bobsleigh and other events requiring a steep descent will take place, the team will build a media centre and a data-telecom centre, as well as smaller data-telecom centres at each sports venue. The bid book points out that Whistler, a popular spot for alpine skiing events, already has in place “significant permanent on-mountain infrastructure.”

“All Olympic venue sites will be linked by fibre optic cable,” the book reads, adding that Vancouver, where spectators will cheer on hockey teams and speed skaters, offers ADSL, fibre-optic infrastructure and emerging wireless local area networks.

Qwest Communications International Inc.’s experience is exemplary of Olympic technology requirements. For the Salt Lake City, Utah, Winter Games in 2002, the Denver-based service provider operated a 50,000-kilometre-long fibre optic network capable of supporting 400,000 voice users at a time.

Before Vancouver and Whistler get around to implementing the network, the municipalities must choose a service provider to manage the infrastructure.

Stuckert said the team in 2005 would enact a request-for-proposal (RFP) process, wherein companies interested in participating would mull over the network requirements and vie for the opportunity to operate the system. The Bid Corp. would select the winner before the end of that year.

“When the Torino (Italy) games (in 2006) are finished, what comes out of that are new system requirements.…Then we’ll redo the system plan and start implementing.”

Stuckert said any of Canada’s service providers might try for the contract.

“Bell is the incumbent for the Canadian Olympic Association,” he said, adding that this fact does not mean Bell has a leg up on the competition. “And in fact, neither does Telus, even though they were the sponsors for the Bid Corporation.”

Telus Corp. could not be reached for comment.

Greg Davey, Toronto-based associate director of technology development at Bell’s video division, described the digital system that his team built for the 2002 Winter Games.

“We extended our digital video network right into the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) and carried back (video for broadcasters) CTV French and English, TSN and RDS,” he said, adding that efficiency and network resiliency were key aspects of the service.

Bell used existing infrastructure to send video from Salt Lake City to each television station’s headquarters in Canada. “We used standard SONET facilities and our MPEG technology.…We had our people right down there at the game site to set it up and maintain it.”

Regarding network availability, “within the equipment itself, there’s redundancy with the MPEG encoders,” Davey said. “We have redundancy with the I/O cards, the system controller cards.…We have centralized management and alarming of that whole system. And we’ve got trained people on either end, so if we do have a problem, it’s very easy to swap out a card or switch over to a spare.”

There are no guarantees that Bell will get the chance to strut its digital stuff in 2010. One past Olympic sponsor said the process by which the games’ organizers choose technology partners is long and arduous.

“These sponsorships are negotiated years in advance,” said Denise Panyik-Dale, spokesperson for Murray Hill, N.J.-based Lucent Technologies Inc.

Lucent was a telecom technology provider for the Salt Lake City event. Panyik-Dale said the vendor negotiated the contract in 1998. Come 2002, Lucent didn’t even have control over the division that was supposed to provide some of the equipment. Avaya Inc. was its own entity by that time. “We kept the sponsorship, because it had been negotiated so far in advance,” she said.

A lot can change between now and 2010. The service provider landscape in Canada might have more or less to offer by way of competition. Vendors could come and go. But one aspect probably won’t wane: enthusiasm.

“It’s a lot of work,” Davey said, recalling his group’s time in Salt Lake City, “but it’s really cool to be part of it.”