The megabytes racked up with the medal count, it seems. Besides Usain Bolt's swansong, a diving pool that inexplicably turned a lurid green and the shaming of US swimmer Ryan Lochte, the just-finished Rio Olympics also featured an explosion in mobile data usage that will serve as a wake-up call for telcos in other countries due to host major events.
Perhaps the most startling statistic is about the growth in data on mobile devices consumed per user per day since the soccer World Cup of 2010. Hosted in South Africa, that event saw a typical user gobbling through four megabytes on a daily basis. In Rio, operators were looking at average daily consumption of about 150 megabytes, according to Pablo Mlikota, the president of the Americas region for technology vendor Syniverse.
Syniverse Technologies LLC worked with three of Brazil's four big operators to ensure that network infrastructure was ready for the Games. That largely entailed putting in place the systems that would facilitate 4G roaming between those operators and the hundreds of others whose customers traveled to Brazil to compete in or enjoy the show. Given a sharp increase in the usage of video services since the 2010 World Cup, there was a particular focus on minimizing the latency that can hinder the mobile viewing experience. Providing support for WiFi offload was another key requirement, according to Mlikota.
Data that Syniverse has shared with Light Reading indicates that inbound LTE roaming to Brazil -- measured in terms of the volume of IMSIs (or international mobile subscriber identity numbers) -- rose by more than 200% in the run-up to the Games and during the first few days, compared with levels just one month earlier. The graphic below provides more details of daily increases.
Deploying the infrastructure to support these users will not have come cheaply. "From a capex perspective, operators have been increasing their budgets significantly," says Mlikota. "This was partly about brand exposure for those companies and they wanted to make sure everything was done right."
Yet investments will have been tough to bear for all of the country's operators given recent hardship. América Móvil-owned Claro, a Syniverse customer, blamed a 1.2% year-on-year dip in revenues during the last three months of 2015 on Brazil's "weak economy." In euro terms, adverse regulation led to 1.5% fall in 2015 revenues at market leader Vivo, which also flagged "negative impacts associated with the macroeconomic situation" in its earnings report. Mobile networks vendor Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), meanwhile, held an economic slowdown responsible for declining sales of mobile broadband equipment in Brazil last year.
Nevertheless, América Móvil S.A. de C.V. spent about 164 billion Mexican pesos ($8.9 billion) across its various Latin American markets last year, up from MXN149.7 billion ($8.1 billion) in 2014. In its quarterly earnings reports, the operator does not break out expenditure on a country-by-country basis, but it did highlight "important investments to expand and optimize our fiber networks and backbone" in Brazil. Claro also poured funds into expanding mobile and particularly 4G coverage and capability in the country.
As for market leader Vivo Participacoes SA , it reported a 3% increase in euro-denominated capital expenditure last year, to €2.1 billion ($2.4 billion), after stripping out any spending on frequency licenses. Those investments equaled nearly one fifth of the operator's revenues, and were "mainly devoted to expanding coverage and improving capacity in 3G and 4G mobile networks, as well as to the deployment of the fiber network both in transport and access," said the operator, a subsidiary of Spain's Telefónica .
All operators naturally hope an increase in roaming revenues during the Games will have helped them recover some of these investments, according to Mlikota. That sales impact will not be known until the next earnings round, of course. But the infrastructure rollout should also benefit operators in the long term, as data usage grows and technologies like 5G start to appear. "Some of the discussions with operators were about that," says Mlikota. "Remember that 5G is an umbrella network that will link WiFi with mobile and operators want to get that footprint in place."
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading