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Medaling in messaging: The communications complications facing the Rio Olympics

Every victory tweet, every uploaded photo of a weeping competitor strains the city’s already infamously weak mobile infrastructure just a little bit more.

Olympic fans pose for selfies in front of the Olympic rings on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, on July 30, 2016.
Leon Neal / AFP / Getty

Have you ever been to a major event — a big game, concert or conference — and tried to make a call or send a message? Odds are, you had trouble getting through because of the heightened service demand. Now imagine that same concept magnified 30 times over and balanced upon one of the most infamously unreliable mobile infrastructures in the world. That’s the situation that’s about to descend on Brazil in the form of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

That’s not to say the Brazilians are unprepared — quite the opposite, in fact. The government worked with its chosen service provider, Claro, to bring in 180 mobile stations and 40 dedicated coverage stations in anticipation of the high communication volume. But that still may not be be enough to match the aspirations of the hundreds of businesses, applications, tourists and social groups that will be participating in the Olympics and looking for ways to communicate on a massive scale.

The upcoming games have thrown the problems with Brazilian communications networks into sharp relief, exposing weak infrastructure and a regulatory system that can sometimes hamstring efficiency and innovation. The combination could result in a disaster for organizers in Rio if nothing changes.

Dios Rio!

Every Snapchat, every victory tweet, every uploaded photo of a weeping competitor strains the mobile infrastructure just a little bit more (and Rio should be ready for a lot of straining, with an anticipated 27 million voice calls and three million SMS texts). The Olympics are particularly problematic because the venues are geographically somewhat dispersed, and the concentration of demand varies depending on which events are happening where.

Brazil’s mobile service has gotten a bad rap, but it also faces some fairly unique challenges. At almost 3.3 million square miles, Brazil is the fifth-largest country by area in the world. That’s a lot of space to cover, and it isn’t all created equal. There are huge swathes of rural countryside between cities that require some degree of coverage but don’t have the same demands as the cities. The urban centers themselves are also made particularly difficult to service by their massive populations (Sao Paulo is home to more than 11 million people).

Communication capabilities in one of the most hectic environments on earth are probably not worth skimping on.

Those obstacles have made made Brazilian telecommunications services infamously unreliable and expensive (SMS texts cost 55 times what they do in the U.S.), and the Brazilian people haven’t been particularly willing to tolerate the inconsistencies. Brazil is something of a poster child for the free messaging service WhatsApp, with 96 percent of the population using it as their primary channel of communication. If you want a reservation at a chic restaurant in Brazil, you can use WhatsApp to make one.

The Brazilian government hasn’t rested on its laurels in terms of combating bad service. In 2012, it passed legislation that severely limited sales to under-delivering telcos. Unfortunately, although the intention behind the move was positive, its impact was minimal, and the government’s involvement in monitoring communications isn’t always beneficial.

In fact, legislation is a large part of the problem. Government regulators only consult with operators and consumer groups — not the businesses using the same networks at a much broader scale. As a result, they end up trying to control too much about the way communications services can and can’t be used, and those controls can end up adding up to lots and lots of messages left undelivered.

For example, one little-known rule about SMS in Brazil is that the character limit per text is 157, rather than the standard 160. It’s not a big deal until you send a 160 character message that happens to end with some critical piece of information, like the time an event is taking place or a password reset. Rules like that could be devastating to organizers coordinating through mass texts during the games.

How to get the gold medal in cell service

There’s no magic cure for an impacted network, but there are steps that government, businesses and individuals can take to help minimize impact. The most important thing is to bring in physical reinforcements — new towers and fiber to power more connectivity — something that’s already well under way.

The next step is education. Businesses and even individual users should learn about the potential obstacles facing them in Rio, and come up with different strategies to use should an issue arise. That might mean defaulting to using Wi-Fi, working with partners, or opening new channels (like chat apps) so you can have a multi-pronged messaging strategy. The more ways you have of reaching people, the greater likelihood you have of finding one that works.

Businesses and even individual users should learn about the potential obstacles facing them in Rio and come up with different strategies to use should an issue arise.

Having a plan (and a contingency plan) is key. Travelers should keep to public Wi-Fi whenever possible and rely on landlines for emergencies. Organizations should identify their company’s communication needs for the event and make sure those needs don’t conflict with local regulation. If they can get the government to participate in the conversation, they stand a much better chance of avoiding a potential showdown down the line.

Lastly, invest in a good quality mobile plan. Anyone who has ever bought popcorn at the cinema can tell you that price isn’t always correlated with value, but in communications, it absolutely is. When considering plans in Brazil, consumers should know that they’ll get what they pay for, and communication capabilities in one of the most hectic environments on earth is probably not worth skimping on.

Preparing for big events like the Olympics games is a Herculean effort. In terms of economic calculations, transportation and logistics, it’s simply exhausting. Yet countries do it anyway, and often even fight for the privilege, because it ultimately opens new doors. Similarly, the mobile situation in Rio, though daunting, is also an opportunity for government, operators and businesses to work together to build a better, more sustainable system.

David Vigar is the director of carrier relations at Nexmo. David has managed relationships in the messaging and voice space for nine years. He built carrier relations in voice for Tele2 and at iBasis-KPN during their $93.3M merger, where he also developed internal process and reporting. David led the early development of iBasis’ SMS business. David holds a BA in Economics with Legal Studies from the University of Exeter. Reach him @david_vigar.

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