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Wi-Fi at SBC: A Giants innovation

Baseball fans may have to wrestle with their consciences a little this year, as one MLB team is the latest business to use Wi-Fi to augment its traditional business.

Fans of the San Francisco Giants may have to wrestle with their consciences a little this year. That's because the new wireless network installed at SBC Park makes it just a little too possible to play hooky from the office without anybody knowing. Just think: A gorgeous afternoon at a game with a cold Anchor Steam, a basket of garlic fries -- and the ever trusty laptop or PDA for regular e-mail check ins. Who's really going to know that you're cheering on Barry Bonds instead of crunching out that spreadsheet?

The Wi-Fi idea has actually been percolating in the Giants' headquarters ever since the new part was built, said Bill Schlough, vice president and CIO at SBC Park.

"We've been thinking about it for a number of years," he said. "In fact, back in 2000, we had two different companies approach us about setting up Wi-Fi." While the proposals looked good on paper, the Giants took a pass, thinking that user demand didn't justify the investment.

But last year, the ballpark got a new name, switching from PacBell to SBC. The telecom giant, along with Nortel, another huge sponsor of the Giants, wanted to showcase a Wi-Fi network at the park.

"They were huge drivers," said Schlough. Nortel provided nearly all the Wi-Fi and networking hardware, such as routers, switches and 802.11b wireless access points. SBC provided four T1 lines to connect to the outside world, while SBC subsidiary Freedomlink provided the wireless access. Anybody who brings a wireless-enabled device, be it a laptop or PDA, is free to use the network.

Although successful office truancy is of course an outstanding byproduct of the Wi-Fi network, "Wi-Fi is about more than work," said Schlough. "It's about enhancing the game experience wherever you are. Wi-Fi uses can tap into information they might not otherwise see."

For example, Wi-Fi users get Internet access, but they can also access SBC's Digital Dugout, an interactive application designed to enhance the game for fans, said Schlough. Luxury suite denizens can access Digital Dugout via the computers and flat panel displays installed in the suites. No need to break a sweat toting laptops for them. Digital Dugout offers game highlight videos, real-time statistics from other games courtesy of MLB.com, interactive games, team information, and SBC Park and local information.

Schlough said he brings his laptop out to the seats quite a bit, and he generally has several windows open, such as a window showing the MLB.com scoreboard, a game cast of the Giants game so that he can scrutinize every detail, and another window with a live video of another league game being played. "It really takes the game experience to the next level," he said.

Setting up a network of this magnitude was not simple. At 121 access points, the SBC network is considerably larger than the average airport or hotel Wi-Fi installation; in fact, it's one of the largest public hot spots in the world, said Schlough.

"We're in third, with lots of concrete and different levels, so we had to guesstimate the demand," said Schlough. "It was really tough, as it's never been done in a facility of this scale."

Presently, the network will support about 15 people per location accessing video. "We could probably have about 3,000 people accessing the network if they were distributed properly," said Schlough. "It's a starting point, and right now, we average in the low hundreds per game" when it comes to wireless access. The network covers the entire facility, from the gates at Willie Mays Plaza to the waters of McCovey Cove. (No obstructed access seats here!)

As more and more PDAs start coming equipped with wireless cards, Schlough expects demand to grow, and the network will grow to keep up. He's also busy planning more content for the Digital Dugout. For example, they're trying to figure out a plan by which fans can use the Wi-Fi network to order food and have it delivered seat side, an amenity currently limited to the luxury suites. Another idea is the ability to pull up replays on the laptop. "We're looking at the future and how to deliver the content that fans are going to want," he said.

Granted, the purists might not like the added distraction, thinking that fans should be there to watch the game. But as Schlough points out, "Not all 42,000 people in the park are going to watch every pitch. We've got to keep people engaged, and that's what we're doing."

Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer in Wellesley, Mass.

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