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Red Sox pitch mobile voice convergence

The Boston Red Sox face a unique set of voice and mobility challenges, but the team's IT manager says VoIP has helped the team cut costs and increase productivity.

BOSTON -- In his four years as the top IT manager for baseball's Boston Red Sox, Steve Conley has had a hand in overhauling Fenway Park's network, temporarily moving the organization's voice system to Florida and accidentally crashing the entire region's telephone network.

Despite a unique set of challenges, Conley, the Red Sox's director of information technology and telecommunications, has found some similarly unique answers. Conley was one of several featured speakers Tuesday at an industry roundtable on technology and society sponsored by Avaya Inc.

At the top of his list of accomplishments is a recent VoIP implementation. About 18 months ago, the organization abandoned a "hodgepodge" legacy Centrex system in favor of an Avaya IP PBX. Conley said that the upgrade, along with the ballpark's new network infrastructure, is enabling him to push advanced applications out to his users.

 For instance, many in the organization now use IP softphones, enabling managers, scouts and others to make calls on the road just as easily as they do at their desks.

Conley said he expects international use of the softphones to cut $3,000 off of the team's monthly phone bill. He said occasionally a high volume of network traffic will result in some call echoes, but users have yet to complain.

"IT is always seen by the budget people as a cost center," said Conley. "Anything you can do to cut down the cost of doing business looks good."

The VoIP gear allowed him to take the Red Sox phone system on the road when the team traveled to its spring training site. Conley said the process is like "taking 40% of your office, driving it down to Florida and getting it operational in a weekend."

The difference this year was that team officials and members of the media were able to use the same phone numbers that they use while operating out of Fenway Park. Voicemails weren't lost or forgotten because users no longer needed to log into multiple accounts while in Florida.

Additionally, the VoIP system has allowed Conley to bridge team officials' cell phones with the Avaya IP PBX, meaning calls to an office line can be automatically rerouted to a cell phone as the user wishes.

Last October, Conley faced a much more harrowing telephony experience. The Red Sox were about to claim victory in a seven-game American League Championship Series, which unexpectedly put the wheels in motion for a World Series ticket sale. Unfortunately, the greater Boston telephone system wasn't ready.

On the day tickets went on sale, tens of thousands of fans flooded the phone lines, with as many as 60 calls per second to the team's main phone number. The onslaught was too much for Verizon's call-routing network to handle and in minutes the entire phone system for the 617 area code crashed.

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 "One router overloaded another, which overloaded another," said Conley, who said the problem was largely a result of accidental miscommunication between the team and Verizon. "By the time [Verizon] knew what was going on, it was too late." Fortunately the outage lasted only a few hours.

Looking forward, Conley said ongoing renovations at the nation's oldest major league ballpark are a constant challenge, but preparations for Monday's home opener are proceeding much better than last year, when he and his staff spent nearly a week working 22-hour days.

Future plans also include turning Fenway into a Wi-Fi hot spot for visitors. Conley said Major League Baseball and its affiliates are encouraging all clubs to implement wireless LANs so that fans may once day use Wi-Fi-enabled devices to watch video replays and participate in trivia contests.

"I think it's inevitable that every [professional] stadium you go to will eventually be a hot spot," Conley said. "If the [San Francisco Giants] can prove that they can make money from it, that'll only push it further."

The organization already employs limited use of Wi-Fi, but extending it could be complicated. Conley said the microwave satellite broadcast trucks used by television stations often interfere with the signal, "and there's no work-around for something like that."

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