In the back of the network

15 Jun 2006

Football might be a relatively low-tech sport on the field, but off the pitch it’s a different story.

To say the World Cup is logistically complex is a bit like saying Brazil have some decent players. In addition to the 12 stadia dotted around Germany for this summer’s event, there are also the hotels, airports, train stations and information desks, all of which have to be co-ordinated and connected.

The star player for this particular part of the tournament is the business telecoms firm Avaya, which is providing a different kind of football kit, having developed, built and implemented all the hardware, software and technology services needed for Germany 2006.

The current project, which went live on 9 June to coincide with the opening match, took three years to prepare.

Doug Gardner, managing director of Avaya’s World Cup programme, set out the scale of the task. “The network has to perform absolutely flawlessly. It’s not acceptable to have two or three minutes of downtime because it impacts on so many people.”

We’ll be bombarded with statistics of a footballing kind over the next month but in this context, here are some more: a team of 256 technicians worked on setting up more than 4,500 internet protocol (IP) phones and 656 wireless access points, across some 70 venues including the stadia, FIFA offices, airports, team hotels and train stations.

In total, some 100 tonnes of equipment was shipped to various locations around Germany in preparation for the tournament.

This converged communications infrastructure carries all of the voice and data traffic circulating around the country on a purpose-built network, which Avaya estimates at 15 trillion bytes.

This includes team announcements to all accredited press staff in the minutes before kickoff, to the live match information that is collected during the course of every game, from the scores and scorers to the number of free kicks and yellow cards.

Security clearance and accreditation information for players and officials is also relayed via the network.

“You name it, it’s being captured in the system,” said Mike Kelly, head of FIFA IT solutions. “It’s one of the biggest large-scale, short-term implementations that I have ever seen.”

Wireless networks within each stadium mean that, for example, photographers at pitchside can beam their pictures instantaneously to the journalists working in the press box, to their newspaper editor back at the office or directly to the web.

The communications network contains ‘extension to cellular’ technology, which means that people are instantly contactable — if they don’t happen to be near their desk phone, the call is routed seamlessly to their mobile.

All points in the network are redundant, which in IT terms means that if one part breaks for whatever reason, there is an immediate substitute and the voice and data traffic is intelligently rerouted — a luxury that you suspect Sven-Goran Eriksson would dearly love.

“You have to plan where your weak points are, anywhere on the network,” added Kelly. “If we lose a box or if there’s faulty cabling, we can ensure the user won’t lose their telephone and their data.”

Technology permeates other elements of the World Cup: each one of the 3.2 million tickets is embedded with a RFID chip, which is read by the electronic turnstiles that fans pass through on their way to the stadium.

For the first time, the broadcast feed will be fully in high definition (HD) format, which is five times better than standard definition TV.

It’s also in widescreen, although for broadcasters with no HD service, cameramen are instructed to capture the images in such a way that the main part of the action will be visible to anyone with a 4:3 ratio TV set.

This also allows FIFA to produce tiny ‘cut-outs’ of the action and repurpose them for download on websites or to be viewed on mobile phones.

The TV and IT networks are separate and distinct, although both share a home at the International Broadcast Centre in Munich.

From the FIFA IT Command Centre located there, the entire voice and data network is monitored. On the eve of the tournament, all of the active network points displayed on a large screen were reassuringly and appropriately green.

Andrea Rinnerberger, head of Avaya’s World Cup programme, was calmness personified in the hours leading up to kickoff. “I’m more worried about tickets,” she quipped. “I’m not worried about the technology.”

When it comes to running a World Cup network, Avaya is no Theo Walcott. As part of a contract with FIFA signed in 2001, the firm also performed a similar role for the tournament in Korea and Japan four years ago as well as the 2003 Women’s World Cup and last year’s Confederations Cup.

According to Rinnerberger, Avaya paid US$100m for the deal, which expires after the final on 9 July. It was paid for through a combination of cash and largely ‘value in kind’ — the cost of supplying the hardware and services.

In return, Avaya gets the benefits that accrue to the chosen few FIFA partners, including pitchside advertising at every match and the rights to use the World Cup logo in its promotional materials.

The longer term strategy is that Avaya hopes the kudos of having such a high-profile and large-scale customer reference will help it to establish its brand to, crucially, win more business.

Regardless of the outcome on 9 July when the referee blows the final whistle in Berlin, one team at least will be toasting success.

By Gordon Smith