FIFA plans 'lite' IT strategy for German World Cup

If there's one thing Germany doesn't lack, it's advanced communications infrastructure. So why is FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) crafting an IT strategy that calls for using as little local infrastructure as possible for its 2006 World Cup soccer tournament in the country?

The answer is Africa, which FIFA is favoring to host the 2010 tournament. The continent struggles with some of the most underdeveloped telecommunications and IT infrastructure in the world. And with little prospect of that changing dramatically over the next several years, FIFA aims to use the German tournament as a testing ground for wireless data communications, relying on the technology far more than it did at this year's tournament held in Japan and South Korea.

Gérard Gouillou, head of IT projects at FIFA, referred to the association's technology strategy for the German games as "IT lite," reflecting the group's interest in developing a portable, self-contained communications system.

"I know it sounds strange to say we don't want to take advantage of Germany's advanced communications infrastructure," Gouillou said in an interview Wednesday on the sidelines of the The Burton Group Corp.'s Catalyst conference here.

"The fact is, we need to see how much of our data communications can run reliably and securely over wireless LANs in preparation for the African games. We know that in Germany, if anything should go wrong with our wireless strategy, we can always fall back on the country's great infrastructure as a backup," he said.

For the World Cup games in Japan and South Korea earlier this year, FIFA tested the waters with WLAN (wireless LAN) technology. It used the technology to transmit photos of goals from the sidelines of pitches to newsdesks of papers and Web sites around the world while games were still being played. WLANs were also deployed at the international media centers in Seoul, South Korea, and Yokohama, Japan.

"The technology worked fine; not one single journalist complained, so we feel pretty comfortable about taking wireless one step further," Gouillou said.

In Germany, the goal is to see whether most, if not all, data communications can run over WLAN systems.

"We may try to put our entire operations on wireless systems," Gouillou said. In addition to the media centers, these operations include office administration, volunteer management, press and service-group accreditation and statistical data for broadcasters.

One of the trickiest challenges with an all-wireless strategy, Gouillou said, will be delivering a highly reliable, fast statistical feed for broadcasters. "This is an area where we can't afford to make mistakes," he said. "Broadcasters work in real-time; they can't deal with delays the same way IT people can."

While admitting that each World Cup has seen the use of new telecom and IT systems, Gouillou said he is the last person to experiment with entirely new technologies. "Technology is always evolving and, in that sense, we're moving with the flow," he said. "But we aren't interested in testing entirely new things. Someone else can do that. We have too much at stake."

The World Cup games in Asia generated billions of dollars in broadcasting rights, endorsements, ticket sales and more. And the German games -- in the heart of soccer-fanatic Europe -- are expected to generate even more.

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