Washington Nats Swing for Fences With Wi-Fi

After a first successful season running 802.11n high-speed Wi-Fi throughout its glimmering new ballpark, Nationals Park officials in Washington plan to add more applications for next year, including video game clips 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 is just one part of the ballpark's "fantastic" early impact 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 to prove 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 stadium, opening next spring.

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

In addition to sending video clips of spectacular game plays to fans at Nationals Park, Zachariah said he hopes to have other types of wireless interactions between fans. Among these is making it possible for fans 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 (radio frequency identification) tags to track cash bags over the Wi-Fi network as they are carried from a concession stand to the safe, Zachariah added. The tags could also be distributed to parents who could attch them to their children, in case they get lost in the ballpark.

Plans for next spring also include allowing a voice over Wi-Fi system for stadium staff to use during emergencies when cellular networks may 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, access to player statistics for reporters covering the game, concession point-of-sale transactions as well as access for fans with Wi-Fi capable devices.

Team owner Lerner Enterprises said in a statement that Nationals Park is the first to provide Wi-Fi access over 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 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 the access points are from Meru Networks in Sunnyvale, Calif., and were recommended to the Nationals by Fusion Network Systems of Columbia, Md., the integrator 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 AP, it can be done easily.

The network has paid off well already, partly by reducing the need for fixed ticket-taking systems. Ballpark staff carry Motorola Inc. hand scanners that transmit ticket data wirelessly, and when a gate is crowded, more staff from other gates can easily move to help. 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 ease in accessing data, Zachariah said. He noted that the number of reporters is not known ahead of time, and can vary depending on how well the team is doing over the season and whether they are 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 his network has performed impressively.

The 802.11n network will provide plenty of capacity for the applications coming next year, he said, but also will be able to handle more users with more of the new laptops and handhelds reaching the market 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, which was free this past season, he added.

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

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