Washington Nationals swing for the fences with high-speed Wi-Fi

Next season, fans will be able to download game highlights to handhelds, among other things

After a first successful season running 802.11n high-speed Wi-Fi throughout their glimmering new ballpark, Nationals Park, officials of Washington's Major League Baseball franchise plan to add more applications for next year, including video clips of game highlights that fans at the park can wirelessly pick up on their handhelds.

"We've got tons of plans" for added uses of high-speed Wi-Fi in the park, said Jason Zachariah, IT director for the Washington Nationals. The faster Wi-Fi has contributed to the "fantastic" early impact the ballpark has had in helping revitalize the overall Southeast Washington neighborhood along the Potomac River waterfront, he said.

Sports venues, such as Major League Baseball stadiums, are turning out to be popular locations for proving the value of cutting-edge communications technology, including emerging 802.11n gear. The New York Mets, for example, are adding unified communications and 802.11n-capable technology to their new Citi Field ballpark, which is opening next spring.

Wi-Fi over 802.11a/b/g, meanwhile, has become fairly commonplace, and it has even started to appear on airplanes in flight.

In addition to sending video clips of spectacular plays to fans at Nationals Park, Zachariah said he hopes the team can have other types of wireless interactions with fans. For example, the team might give fans the ability to send text comments or photos that could be posted on the park's 4,800-square-foot high-definition scoreboard.

Plans also include using RFID tags to track cash bags over the Wi-Fi network as they are carried from a concession stand to a safe, Zachariah added. The tags could also be distributed to parents who could attach them to their children and then use the system to find them if they get lost in the ballpark.

Plans for next spring also include allowing a voice over Wi-Fi system for stadium staffers to use during emergencies when cellular networks might be overtaxed, Zachariah added. Fans could also place food orders over Wi-Fi and have the orders delivered to their seats.

"We're shooting for all these things next year," Zachariah said, nothing that the 802.11n network installed last spring had performed "impressively since Day One." This past season, the network supported wireless ticket-taking, wireless access to player statistics for reporters covering the game, point-of-sale transactions at concession stands and Wi-Fi access for fans with Wi-Fi-capable devices.

Team owner Lerner Enterprises said in a statement that Nationals Park is the first to feature Wi-Fi access across the entire stadium, not just in the press or skybox areas. It is also the first ballpark to use 802.11n for all indoor and outdoor areas.

In all, the Wi-Fi system cost about $280,000 for equipment, planning and installation, Zachariah said. The new Nationals Park was fitted with about 200 Wi-Fi access points last March prior to its April opening. All of the access points are from Meru Networks in Sunnyvale, Calif.; the Meru technology was recommended to the Nationals by Fusion Network Systems of Columbia, Md., the systems integrator that worked on the project.

About 175 of the access points have two radios, one with 802.11n and the other an 802.11a/b/g radio that is upgradeable to n. The other 25 units are rugged outdoor Wi-Fi antennas that can be upgraded to n if needed.

Zachariah said he worked with Fusion in settling on Meru, after evaluating technology from Cisco Systems Inc. and Aruba Networks. "We were impressed with Meru, and it takes a lot to get me impressed," he said. Meru's architecture allows the network to be dynamic, meaning if the ballpark needs to add another access point, it can be done easily.

The network has paid off well already, partly by reducing the need for fixed ticket-taking systems. Ballpark staffers carry Motorola Inc. hand scanners that transmit ticket data wirelessly, and when a gate is crowded, more staffers from other gates can easily move there to help out. The system easily identifies ticket forgeries as well, through a quick comparison with a database.

With a high capacity and fast 802.11n network, sports reporters can show up for a game and have complete access to data, Zachariah said. He noted that the number of reporters is not known ahead of time, and it can vary depending on how well the team is doing and whether it is playing a popular rival.

Adoption of Wi-Fi 802.11n has not been without controversy, since the technology can draw more power than expected and may not produce the network speeds that vendors advertise. But Zachariah said the Nationals' network has performed impressively.

The 802.11n network will provide plenty of capacity for the applications coming next year, he said, but it will also be able to handle more users of new laptops and handhelds that are n-capable.

"We put in a system that was the latest and greatest and ready for tomorrow and not just today," he said. So far, there are no plans to charge for Wi-Fi access in the park; access was free during the 2008 season, he added.

User response to the Wi-Fi system has matched the excitement surrounding the new ballpark, Zachariah said. The ballpark, which seats 41,888, is in the Southeast Washington area and provides panoramic views of the city's landmarks, including the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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