Twitter disrupts GPS systems of Olympic cyclers

Twitter disrupts GPS systems of Olympic cyclers

Summary: Social media prevented broadcasters from getting accurate data about the precise location of Olympic bicycle competitors.

TOPICS: Olympics 2012
Twitter disrupts GPS systems of Olympic cyclers
Photo credit: iStockphoto

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) asked Twitter users to stop consuming bandwidth needed by broadcast media after GPS data transmissions stopped working correctly.


According to the Associated Press:

the Olympic Broadcasting Services service was jammed by “hundreds of thousands” of people sending texts, pictures and updates to social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

Reuters explains how the social media stream interfered with GPS signals tracking Olympic cyclists:

Commentators on Saturday's men's cycling road race were unable to tell viewers how far the leaders were ahead of the chasing pack because data could not get through from the GPS satellite navigation system travelling with the cyclists.

To alleviate the bandwidth issue, which prevented broadcasters from tracking the exact location of cyclists, the IOC asked users not to tweet, saying unless it's an "urgent, urgent one, please kind of take it easy."

The problem arose due to lack of data bandwidth provided by telecom carriers, which did not properly anticipate demand. In a sense, the bandwidth allocation issue is not surprising given the scale of social media during these Olympics. CNET's Zack Whittaker reports that users send almost ten million tweets during the opening ceremonies alone.

Since this blog is about IT failures, we must ask whether this situation qualifies as such a failure. The answer is a definite "yes." Although the cause was human error in planning for sufficient bandwidth, the net effect is a technical glitch that prevents media broadcasters from doing their job as planned.

Many IT failures appear as technical problems even though the underlying cause has no basis in technology. In this instance, planners under-estimated demand for data and did not allocate sufficient bandwidth. In addition, it appears the telecom provider did not prioritize broadcast-related traffic over public access use. As a result, congested data pipes pushed out the GPS signals, creating this particular IT failure.

Update 7/30/12: Just to be clear, the social media network traffic disrupted transmission of the GPS signals to broadcasters. The cyclists themselves were not impaired.


Topic: Olympics 2012

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  • You get what you pay for

    "In addition, it appears the telecom provider did not prioritize broadcast-related traffic over public access use."

    Why should they? Unless the broadcasters pay extra for the privilege. Living in London, I'd be a bit annoyed if the broadcasters' data got priority over my data. I pay for a service as well, and don't want it degraded just so the commentators get up-to-date details.
    • What were they thinking? Guess they weren't.

      Lack of planning on their part doesn't constitute an emergency in everyone elses part.

      Any network person worth any thing would have asked that question. That's what you get with (SOME) voice people trying to unserstand data requirements.

      I say "some" as I continue to watch voice people struggle more with data than data people with voice, especially with VoIP.
  • check the facts...

    Did anyone bother to confirm whether the telcom bandwidth was actually overloaded?
    Or is it just a case of the OBS (the in-house arm of the IOC) covering their butts?
  • Could It Mother Nature?

    I wonder if it was all the people using the bandwidth to transmit back the data or perhaps it was all the trees preventing a GPS fix. Certainly the helicopter shots were often more about trees than bikers.
  • GPS vs. Telecom

    The GPS devices these riders are using depend on the signal from satellites and maps stored on the GPS device. The riders are not dependent on the internet.
    • GPS vs. Telecom

      But getting the position of the motorbikes back to the broadcast centre was dependant on
      1) The bikers getting a GPS fix
      2) The NEMA Lat / long and time fix (no maps involved) being sent via GPRS back.
      3) The broadcast centre needed the fix from the leader bike and the one riding with the peloton at the same time to work out the gap.
  • Very misleading headline!

    It seems the GPS part worked just fine - there was NO interference with the GPS signals by Twitter users. What went wrong was the transmission over the mobile phone network of the positional data calculated by the GPS receivers carried by the riders - the system was overloaded with Twitter and other data users.
  • Get over it

    This is ridiculous. If I'm not mistaken, didn't cyclists complete the race just fine, along with numerous Olympic events, without Twitter/GPS/Facebook for um....120 years? They're in a major city. Are they worried about losing the cyclists to the wandering bands of mountain men or wild animals? THEY'RE IN LONDON!! Chill out.
    James Keenan
  • OBS will correct this ;)

    Extra helicopters for the marathon. Asking IOC to pull military personnel from empty venue seats and stand at street corners with handy talkies.
    Tired Tech
  • And everyone blame the mobile network provider

    10million tweets during the opening ceremony is an incredible peak in demand. The data use has been unprecedented. So far London 2012 has done pretty well. Of course they could do better, and they are probably responding second by second, but that volume of data takes hardware
  • You can't ask someone to stop using your service, and they're paying!

    You can't simply stop ppl who pay you for some services while you don't need them, and ask them to come back later when you need their money. A practical solution is to use tracking services that does not require GPS data immediately, like BuddyTrack, Alohar, Glympse.
  • Broadcasters need a better network

    An intelligent network infrastructure is critical for broadcasters to support peak demand, especially now that anytime/anywhere multiscreen (PC, iPad, iPhone, etc.) viewing is mainstream. And social media activity adds additional bandwidth constraints – this Olympic social media frenzy is just a recent example.

    Broadcasters need to upgrade their networks (or source a network) with carrier-class networking equipment. High-capacity optical networking solutions can allow broadcasters to deliver high-speed services (100GB/s and higher!), on-demand, and can be deployed quickly, efficiently and in a cost-effective manner. Further, a network augmented with service-aware Carrier Ethernet-based solutions can automatically self-adjust to ensure critical applications, such as timing or GPS information, are getting the bandwidth they need—significantly reducing the need for manual intervention—to keep things running smoothly.
    Patrick Scully