Mobile data and a “kiss on the balcony”

Smartphones powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor courtesy Qualcomm

When Formula E arrives at the track this September, it has promised to usher in a new era of immersive spectator experience, from augmented reality features to using social media to unlock interaction with the race itself. Much of this technological landscape will be built on mobile data delivered through smartphones or tablet devices. However, assuring seamless and uninterrupted connectivity for fans, not only at the trackside but at home too, could pose challenging.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: it’s bad news if you’re an international, globe-trotting superfan. Formula E’s goal of turning each race into technological wonderland will not translate into free and unlimited wireless data for your mobile phone. Roaming will still very much apply.

“We’ll be dependent on existing networks,” confirms Graeme Davison at Qualcomm, the technology company that is providing expert telecoms advice for each event (along with a whole array of other responsibilities, such as wireless battery charging for the electric safety cars).

“The circuits will all be inner city venues, and will be ad hoc tracks, built specifically for the events,” Davison goes on. “So we’ll be relying on the 3G and 4G networks already available. Our job is to work with the race coordinators and the local mobile network operators to anticipate loads in advance of each race, and to help them set up to meet demand ahead of time. But it’s the operators that will make it all work.”

Qualcomm is already off the mark with circuit analysis and is busy working out what operators can expect to see at Beijing, the first race. The city has been rolling out 4G since last year.

“We have the Beijing track plans in more detail than has been released to the public, including where the grandstands will be, location of the hospitality suits, the main entrances and feed points and so on,” says Davison.

The company isn’t disclosing expected attendances, however. “We are working towards a figure that Formula E organiser FEH has supplied,” comments Joe Barrett, a senior marketing figure at Qualcomm. “We know the total capacity of the grandstands and the other fixed areas. But because of the nature of the track and its location in the heart of the city, an almost unlimited number of people could turn up.”

Beijing is home to more than 11million people, although some reports indicate that Formula E audiences are likely to be the low tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. But as the Beijing race will be the very first race of the new series, there’s no specific historic data to work from. The mobile operators may rightly be more than a little worried.

“It’s a bit like the UK’s recent Royal Wedding,” Davison explains. “Everyone knew there would be a kiss on the balcony, but when would it be? The mobile operators had to be prepared for a sudden surge in network demand with pictures, texts and social media posts when it happened. While there won’t be a kiss on the balcony at Formula E – as far as we’re aware – there will be exciting moments that lots people want to capture at the same time. That’s what operators will have to be prepared for.”

There are ways that mobile operators can boost short-term capacity to cope, according to Davison: “There are parameters that can be tuned, and temporary infrastructure can be installed, such as cells on wheels – which we call “cows” – or distributed antenna arrays. Many operators have agreements in place to be able to share infrastructure too.”

Demand for mobile data will vary from city to city too. “Market penetration of smartphones changes depending on the country,” Davison points out, “as does the proportion of smartphones versus feature phones.” In China, smartphone penetration is expected to reach 90% and almost 1bn handsets are expected to be in use this year.

All the more reason to leave arrangements in the hands of local operators, rather than attempting to bring a complete hardwired private network to every event, which, in any case, would run the risk of getting bogged down in all sorts of regulatory problems.

The operators themselves have no plans to offload data via wired connections either, it seems. “There will be some WiFi, but this will mainly be in the VIP suites, the E Village showcase area and the media centre,” Davison says. Exactly who will provide WiFi connectivity hasn’t yet been decided, apparently, although the inhouse broadcasting team, Aurora Media, may pick up the tab as a means to pipe sponsorship messages into the VIP areas.

Bad luck for those at trackside seeking to minimise their data use, though Davison says that FEH is keen to install as many large TV screens at each circuit as it can, to alleviate any mobile network overloading issues.

That won’t help with the interactivity quotient of course, which is significant given FEH’s plans to allow social media voting to influence the racing. There’s also reported to be a fan-operated 360 degree car-mounted camera in development for Formula E, accessed through an app. That might well prove popular with spectators, but video streaming is notoriously data intensive.

Too, fans may expect to see the all sorts of other accompanying data in this new world of smartphone-friendly racing, such as track positions, speeds, and instant replays – all of which will make using mobile devices all through the race a compelling prospect for fans, and a headache for network operators.

The series organiser has also stated its intent to offer a real-time computer game, built on live race data. Trying to access such a game via tablet at trackside could drain your data faster than a Flappy Bird u-turn.

Qualcomm is also keen to roll out augmented reality features, to create a more immersive experience for fans. Here, the company has a trick up its sleeve to address mobile data challenges: “We can preload up to 100 images into the app itself,” Davison explains. “That means that the trigger reference – whether that is a ticket, a brochure, or part of the track itself – can activate the features without the mobile device needing to communicate with the network.” Features may include graphics, videos, articles, 3D models, or even links to upgrading seats, purchasing merchandise or booking a cab for the way home.

Augmented reality systems may not be in place by September, however, but Davison doesn’t see that as a deal-breaker: “There won’t be just one Formula E app; there will be a series of apps. FEH has been drip-feeding features, and there’s no reason that can’t continue.”

Delivering high quality mobile data to prevent the Formula E show grinding to a halt will be challenge, but it isn’t an impossible task. Qualcomm has a vested interest in seeing substantial use of smart devices, of course: its Snapdragon processors power many of today’s high-end devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Sony Xperia Z2, and the company is keen to ramp up consumer awareness of its chips to bolster commercial prospects. Poor event mobile performance would be something of an own goal.

Davison believes that, for all the glitz and glamour of the new championship, Formula E poses no greater difficulties for telecoms networks than already faced daily.

“Strip away the motor racing excitement and the electric cars, and a Formula E fixture is just a bunch of people coming together in one place,” says Davison. “This happens all over the world, thousands of times a year, for music, business or sports events. It’s very manageable.”

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