Brazil, the World Cup, and the Olympics: Ready or Not?

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As some of you may know, I travel to Brazil frequently. My wife is from Salvador, and so we spend a month or two there each year.

Working online, and being focused on the internet and its content delivery, gives me a certain degree of flexibility, and as I start this article I am in departures in Salvador airport destined for the UK after several months out here and in Rio.

I get involved in a number of policy debates in the UK through my involvement in various international internet governance groups, particularly those to do with any regulation of telecoms networks for the distribution of content, including the UK’s Internet Service Providers Association. One thing that I have picked up along the way is the UK’s, and indeed Europe’s, tight regulation about the marketing of speeds of internet service provider offerings. There must be a certain amount of truth behind claims that a 50Mbps service actually generally does provide 50Mbps, even if it is contended/shared (as most ADSL services are).

So it is no surprise that in perhaps less regulated, less competitive and less mature (although perhaps many times larger) markets such as Brazil, the marketing claims are far from what they offer. This last journey I took out a pay-as-you-go service for my iPhone, which included a promotional 3Mbps 3G service, uncapped for 15 days. It was awesome. Had I been staying longer then I would probably have opted to sign onto a contract to continue the service.

However 10 months ago when I last was here, I did indeed take out a monthly rolling contract, with a supposed instant termination option. The service was average—comparable to my home option of Three—typically between 500Kbps and 1Mbps with fairly even coverage. Sadly that “instant termination” part of the contract was just not possible: Despite several requests as a left the country the SIM was still active on the last day, and indeed I carried on being charged on a monthly basis for several months until I had to engage my bank to essentially block the charges as fraudulent.

This time I decided I would not take out a new contract, and so opted to simply replace the SIM card I had used for the first 10 days with an identical one with the same promotion. The few people with my number were easy to update with the new one.

Getting back to the story, the dramatic contrast in service I got with the second SIM started me thinking about data services in Brazil. You see, once I simply replaced the first promotional SIM—the one that had been giving me 3Mbps fairly constantly over 3G—with an identical one from the same supplier, my speeds dropped to a crippling 96kbps as an average with a few bursts of 500kbps for a few moments early on in the promotional period. After that I was bombarded with SMS messages saying I needed to sign a contract to continue enjoying full service. So my guess was they picked up my phone’s MAC and worked out that I was promotion-hopping and curtailed the service. Call me cynical.

It wasn’t so much that I felt frustrated at the reduced service compared with the first SIM. It was much more that as I started to ask others near me “Hey, are you getting a poor signal today?” the apathetic response was “Yes, but that is normal; the signal is always all over the place.”

So why is this relevant to the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil?

While I was in Rio I noted an interesting article on the main page of O Globo, one of the main newspapers in the country, that can be summed up in a single sentence: “With record consumption of data expected, mobile internet may fail during the World Cup.”

Since I review and cover cellular multiplexer vendors, I immediately thought of those companies and their planned use of the mobile data networks during the two large sporting events.

It was one of the first times I have seen published data giving any figures for the dimensioning for the Brazilian content delivery market. 

A few of these numbers were odd, in my opinion, and inconsistency (by orders of magnitude) between providers raises more than a little skepticism.

Let’s jump to some of the data in the Globo article. I think I will list the numbers first and then try to reverse some sense out of the raw data:

  • Anticipated 2014 mobile network data traffic 2014 = 19.2 billion gigabytes (annual increase of 65.09% on 2013).
  • Each of 12 main football arenas will have equivalent capacity of a city of 100 thousand
  • Investment specific to these stadiums = 200 real (BRL), about $82 million or £50 million
  • Vivo, the largest operator, has 77.6 million customers
  • Data consumption of journalists at FIFA final draw = 3TB (equivalent to 822,000 HD photos)
  • Data consumption of press room during Confederations Cup = 145TB (equivalent to 39 million photos or 2,900 HD movies)
  • Anticipated data consumption of World Cup is double that of Confederations Cup.
  • TIM – one of the largest operators in the country – claims to have invested R$20m $8.2m £5m) in caching ‘in its own data centres’ which will ‘reduce by 70% the waiting time to watch videos and view photos’. In 2014 it will also invest a further $10m in ‘small portable antennas between Rio and Sao Paulo’.
  • Operator TIM Brazil’s 2014 estimates are for an increase of 120% of data traffic to around 11 petabytes per month
  • Vivo, another operator, claims 35% of all phones in use are smartphones.
  • Claro, yet another operator, says that 60% of all phones sold are now smartphones.
  • Claro claims 75% of its network is fibre “everywhere” reaching 120,000 kilometers after an investment of £800 million and a further investment of £ 1billion for a submarine network that runs from Rio, past Salvador and Fortaleza to the US.
  • 4G is emerging, although no figures were provided.

Interesting data.

Let me throw some thoughts at this data, and add a few insights of my own.

The 19.2 billion GB of annual data is 18,310 petabytes.

Thousands of petabytes...

So to compare: Facebook’s entire image storage is still measured in single-digit petabytes. Microsoft moved into, and that was 150Petabytes for many years of data for many of the users.

More than 18,000 petabytes? On mobile? In one year? I guess it is possible, but it’s an extremely high number. 77 million Brazilians would each have to consume 249GB per year each—about the same as watching an hour of video most work day nights on their phone, already a very frustrating experience given my own experience of 96kbps on their metropolitan networks.

If that is “business as usual,” then the amount they claim will be generated by user demand during the cup will be a drop in the ocean.

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