BT is the official communications services partner of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Jason Stamper talks to Howard Dickel - who is leading BT's technical delivery programme - about the people, process and technology that will be called on to help make the Games a success
To say that Howard Dickel is a man under pressure would be an understatement. More than four billion people are expected to tune in to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and as far as BT's role as official communications provider goes, the buck stops with him.
"Clearly the eyes of the world are on us, and we can't afford to put a foot wrong," says Dickel, whose official title is client partner, BT London 2012 Delivery Programme at BT Global Services. "The environment in which we are delivering this is unique: the sheer scale of it, the style of it. We're in a countdown to the Games and it is the ultimate right-first-time project."
BT's involvement in the Games goes back to 2004, when it supported London's bid to be the host city. It has been working closely with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) since 2008 when it became an official tier-one partner.
The company is tasked with delivering a single communications network across 94 locations, including 34 competition venues, and every official photograph and sports report and millions of calls, emails, texts and tweets will all be carried over BT's communications network. At peak times during the Games, BT's network is expected to be carrying 60GB of information - the equivalent of 3,000 photographs per second. The company is also a key broadcast partner.
So what's it like being ultimately responsible for this huge project? "It's been an amazing journey for me, personally and professionally," says Dickel. "I've grown my team from 12 to 300, and the way you manage a team of 300 is of course different from how you manage a team of 12. But we have tried to keep some of the entrepreneurial, dot-com spirit as we have grown."
That's not to say, however, that the project hasn't experienced bumps along the way. "It would be glib to say it has all been completely fine; of course we have encountered challenges," Dickel admits. "But I have also had the support to bring in the people that I need to."
Naturally, given the size and scale of the project, and the fact it will be played out on a world stage, Dickel was not exactly plucked from obscurity to take on the lead role. With 25 years of experience in the industry working on major projects, he had the knowledge and credibility for the task.
He'd also been involved in the Beijing and Vancouver summer and winter Olympic Games. However, from the moment London won the bid, Dickel threw his hat into the ring to play a key role: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event," he says, "and I made it very clear I was making a bee-line for selection."
At the Technology Operations Centre, BT sits alongside other Games partners such as Atos Origin and Omega. All have been working together on a range of test events, and to date 33 out of 45 have been successfully delivered.
"It's essential we work with other partners as a team," says Dickel, "because if things go wrong we will all be judged. There's clearly a lot of analysis and planning, and since 2010 it has been rehearse, rehearse, rehearse."
BT's job is made no easier by the number of locations that must be covered. Each one is very different, with some being existing venues and festival grounds and others being new-builds or 'pop-ups', such as the show-jumping in Greenwich Park.
A total of 5,500km of cabling brings these together, and much of that will be left behind after the Games. For instance, the high-speed broadband infrastructure in Stratford will remain in place for the East London area.
Security, cost and risk
As well as the need for careful management of power at the various venues to ensure the network is resilient, security is another obvious challenge. "There are two dimensions to security," Dickel explains. "There is the physical security - and our spaces are very secure and behind various rings of security - but there is also the cybersecurity element, for both the network itself and for the London2012.com website.
We'll be getting 200-300 million visitors per day and among this traffic there will almost certainly be some hacking attempts. We have planned for it, but we will of course need to monitor that closely and work with our partners to prevent a successful attack."
There is also pressure on Dickel to bring the project in within budget. "It's interesting," he says, "that with any project there are three key elements: time, cost and quality. But with the Games, we can't change the time of delivery by even a few hours, and we certainly can't flex the quality: the eyes of the world will be on us. That leaves the cost, which we review weekly. In April that review will become daily. It's not only about the core cost but also about how you manage risk, and we do a risk evaluation every month. The reassuring thing is that the risks we identify now are in the same areas as the ones we identified in 2008."
So far, Dickel says the project is very much on track. BT has tested its network at 41 locations, and to date has met 24 contractual milestones (there are 42 in total leading up to the first day of the Games) on time or ahead of schedule, while its London 2012 network has been live since April 2010 and has recorded 100% performance against all service level agreements.
Dickel, though, will not be resting easy. "The biggest challenge is not to become complacent," he says. "We have done tests but so far to about 15% of the busiest periods expected during the Games themselves. We are going to need to move at pace, kill issues quickly, and be completely coordinated."
Perhaps the obvious question is, what will Dickel do when the Games are over - would he work on another Olympics? "I honestly don't know what I'll be doing after the Olympics, but I don't think I would do something quite this big again. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I think it might be the sort of thing you should only actually do once," he laughs.
Facts and stats: BT's London Olympics communications effort
- BT is providing 80,000 connections across 94 locations, 16,500 fixed telephone lines, 14,000 mobile SIM cards, 10,000 cable TV outlets, 5,500km of internal cabling and 1,800 wireless access points.
- A team of more than 800 BT people will be on site.
- The London 2012 website, hosted by BT, will be one of the most popular websites in the world at Games-time, and is expected to have one billion visitors.
- Over 27,000 media personnel will be relying on the company's broadcast and media network.
- The firm has installed a fibre network for the 2,818 flats in the Athletes' Village, making the athletes and coaches who stay there some of the first beneficiaries of superfast broadband.
- It will take 642,000 BT 'man hours' to deliver the Games.