Network up? Carriers on deck with wireless for All-Star Game

iPhone fans can use the free Wi-Fi hot spot at AT&T Park, site of the game

Baseball fans may be watching Barry Bonds to see if he clobbers another home run at tomorrow night's Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but the nation's major wireless carriers will be busy watching cellular network congestion in downtown San Francisco.

AT&T Inc. said it will be ready for fans who have already converged on the city over the past several days to make calls, send and receive text and picture messages, download music and do all the other things their cell phones are capable of these days. It simply wouldn't do if a fan couldn't wirelessly forward a photo taken with a cell phone camera of Bonds cracking another home run.

And AT&T needs to be ready, because the downtown ballpark is named AT&T Park, and the carrier just launched the wildly popular Apple iPhone, which runs over the AT&T EDGE network.

The iPhone also uses Wi-Fi, and AT&T has had a free Wi-Fi hot spot inside the ballpark for the past three years to help handheld users call up baseball stats wirelessly over the Internet from the Giants Digital Dugout site, said Ted Carr, an AT&T spokesman.

"Our partnership with the San Francisco Giants has enabled us to create the best ballpark in America and a great venue to showcase AT&T technology," Carr said. Not wanting to miss the fan hoopla, AT&T is also providing free local and long-distance phone calls from a nearby park and free Internet access. A free concierge service for visitors to the Bay Area has been created as well.

Verizon Wireless last week touted its own preparedness for the crunch, saying that it had boosted its stadium and downtown area calling capacity by 40%. A Verizon Wireless spokesman today said the added capacity is not temporary, like the cellular-on-wheels capacity wireless companies sometimes provide during major disasters. Four major permanent cell sites in the downtown area received channel hardware upgrades so they would be able to handle more calls, he added.

Sprint Nextel Corp. also said it beefed up its capacity in San Francisco in time for the big game and related events. Some of the festivities kicked off Friday night at the DHL All-Star FanFest at the Moscone West Convention Center, and at the Futures Game held yesterday at AT&T Park. The Home Run Derby kicks off tonight at 5 p.m. Pacific time, featuring Bonds and seven other sluggers, while the actual midseason classic gets under way at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

All the major carriers said their preparations have allowed cell phone calls to go through during the early All-Star events and predicted, with some hyperbole, that they can handle whatever network demands are thrown at them tomorrow night.

"AT&T customers in town for the big game will have the best and most reliable wireless experience," Carr said, noting that AT&T has spent $650 million on its wireless network in Northern California over the past two years, adding 517 new cell sites, including those near the ballpark. "AT&T will continue to have the best network, and we're confident that fans who use technology at the park will find AT&T will be the only communications company they will ever want."

The major wireless carriers apparently don't care so much whether Bonds will go in the record books with an asterisk next to his home runs if he plows past Hank Aaron's record of 755 homers as expected during the second half of the season. (The asterisk has been suggested as a way of reflecting allegations he used steroids to get the home runs, an accusation Bonds won't discuss.)

Instead, the carriers might wonder what will happen if the Verizon Wireless guy and his entourage from the TV commercials show up to challenge the AT&T guys on their home turf. Maybe Sprint Nextel should referee? Well, maybe it won't matter, since every real baseball fan knows the All-Star Game doesn't count -- not much, anyway.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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