The first full day of London 2012 competition produced an embrassing failure in GPS data transmission technologies to games organisers LOCOG, as TV audiences were denied vital information on the progress of the men’s cycle road race on Saturday.
Timing gaps between competing riders, as measured by GPS devices attached to their bikes, was supposed to be relayed to broadcast media; vital in order for commentators to know how the race is progressing. Commonly in the Tour de France, such live date is shown on screen so you can know, for instance, whether a breakaway groups is being caught by the peloton. On the approach to central London however, BBC commentators had to guess whether British favourite Mark Cavendish was or was not catching the leaders in the approach to finish at The Mall.
Failure blamed on the million or so spectactors rather than use of public networks
Possibly to deflect criticism in relying on the same networks as used by the public or an error in planning, LOCOG blamed the failure on the million or so spectactors that lined the streets of south-west London and Surrey, in particular their use of social media via mobile networks.
According to BBC’s Technology Correspondent Rory Cellen-Jones “Privately, the networks say they were never asked by the games organisers to provide an "Olympic lane" for race data traffic, so they cannot be blamed for any problems.
The BBC also reported that International Olympics Comittee communications director Mark Adams said around one million people had lined the roads with many using Twitter which effectively jammed transmissions of race information. Spectators should only send "urgent" updates when the peleton passed, he insisted.
Military not civilian GPS jamming foreseen
However, pre-games planning documents reveal that LOCOG did foresee the possibility of overloading of networks affecting GPS data, but by the military not the public.
In a 2009 statement ‘The Spectrum Plan for the London 2012 Games’, OFCOM reported on its consultations on loading of mobile networks during the Games. LOCOG stressed their “heavy use of and reliance on GPS technologies for timing and other London 2012 Games purposes, and noted that the MOD occasionally conducts tests on military systems that may result in some loss of service to civilian users of the Global Positioning System (GPS) including in-car navigation devices and networks, which rely on GPS signals”. LOCOG requested “no GPS jamming exercises, which could interfere with their applications, are (to be) carried out during the London 2012 Games.”
Ofcom in stated it would “request through the relevant government committee that no GPS jamming exercises are carried out during the London 2012 Games.”
Although LOCOG foresaw high data useage, resulting in congestiion of data including GPS data, it may be that the concern was not passed on to the Olympic Broadcasting Service when considering their choice of network.
The traditional way couldn't survive the inclement British weather
Just to show the difficulty in planning even for such forseeable issues as rainy British weather for the ‘big event’, there are no reports of GPS issues for women’s cycle Road race on Sunday but the silver medal winning rider Lizzie Armitstead found the traditional method of relaying timing data to the riders - that is a blackbroad carried by motorcyclle pillion passenger - failed as wet chalk couldn't work for writing down the time gaps for her lead over the women's peloton.