Spark Salon Conversation Starters

August 20, 2013

Baseball’s Data Crunch

With connected fans streaming video, socializing and playing fantasy leagues in stadiums, the need for more bandwidth is dire. Here’s how one ballpark is preparing.

Dan Fost is a sports writer and author of Giants Past and Present.

If you’re playing for the San Francisco Giants, the most important rooms at AT&T Park might be the clubhouse, the dugout, the batting cages and even the trainer’s room. But if you’re Bill Schlough, the team’s chief information officer, the most critical rooms sit behind two nondescript green doors underneath the stands, marked with the obscure acronyms MPOE and IDF. 

In these two rooms, brightly colored cables snake in and out of racks of servers and electronic boxes the size of refrigerators. The rooms are the Minimum Point of Entry and the Intermediate Distribution Frame—essentially the place where Internet pipes enter the park, and the place that sends those Wi-Fi, 3G and LTE signals out to access points so fans can engage with the game in new and different ways. 

And are those fans ever engaging. They’re sharing the joy and torture of baseball fandom on Twitter and Facebook, they’re posting photos and videos to YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest, they’re watching replays on MLB.TV, charting pitches on the MLB At Bat app, and checking the At the Ballpark app for the nearest specialty food, such as Crazy Crab’s sandwich stand, a center-field delicacy in San Francisco. 

Connecting Fans in 30 Ballparks

Although the increase in connected fans presents a sizable challenge for AT&T Park, the Giants organization is encouraging them, opening a first-of-its-kind social media center at the ballpark, the @Café, where fans can connect, charge their devices, and (naturally, for coffee-crazed San Franciscans) get a gourmet Peet’s coffee.

Major League Baseball, through its technology arm, Major League Baseball Advanced Media (a separate for-profit company jointly owned by MLB’s 30 teams) not only enables all that extra use, but it also makes sure the teams have the tools to meet the demand. MLBAM is embarking on a two-year study to evaluate the viability of Wi-Fi, 3G and LTE access in every MLB ballpark. 

One of the big challenges is quickly fluctuating bandwidth demands, according to Matthew Gould MLBAM’s vice president of corporate communications. He says:

If there’s a near no-hitter underway in Atlanta, MLB.TV could go from 30,000 viewers to 300,000 in less than a minute.

Gould adds, “You can’t say, ‘It’s buffering right now, come back later.’ It’s got to work when they want it to work and on whatever device they’re using.” 

The tests aim to make sure there’s a baseline of service that is offered in every ballpark— and MLB ballparks are vastly different environments. Older stadiums like Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park are made of construction materials that aren’t even used anymore, Gould says. While most ballparks are open-air, Tampa Bay has a fixed dome, and several other teams have retractable domes. 

MLBAM isn’t sitting around waiting for the test results, however, to move stadium technology forward. It is developing new apps and features, like the one being tested in six ballparks this season that enables fans to purchase seat upgrades during a game.

Wi-Fi Challenges

As Schlough tells it, keeping up with Wi-Fi users at AT&T Park has followed two growth curves, offering a cautionary tale for other organizations. 

Trying to maintain enough Wi-Fi access points to meet that need was Schlough’s first challenge. Through the first 22 home games this year, Schlough says, 12,068 fans have connected to the Wi-Fi network each day. The Giants and AT&T now have 821 access points throughout the ballpark, both overhead and under the seats. 

Even with that equipment response, Internet traffic per device at the ballpark is exploding, growing 74 percent in the past year as fans go from calling and texting to streaming video and other data-hungry tasks. 

“The number of devices has leveled off, but each device has been doing so much more,” Schlough says.

That’s where the MPOE and IDF rooms come in. 

Test and Test Again

The IDF room was Schlough’s storage room when the ballpark opened. “Nobody ever envisioned teams would have to put in their own distributed antenna systems,” he says. “On Opening Day in 2009, there was barely anything electronic in this room at all.”

On one typical game day, Schlough is walking the aisles hours before a game, and two AT&T technicians are there with laptops making sure the network works. The trickiest issues are with the 3G and LTE networks, which operate on a DAS (distributed antenna system)—a network built just for the ballpark to augment the macro network that covers the rest of the city. A separate mobile network in the stadium is necessary because of the geographic concentration of thousands of devices, which can cause poor service on the city-wide network. Wi-Fi has no such problems, because there is no macro Wi-Fi network. Schlough says baseball’s heavy schedule—81 home games, plus exhibitions and possible playoffs—makes it possible to constantly tweak the system.

“Thank God we’re not in the NFL or, even scarier, the Olympics,” Schlough says. “There you have no margin for error. You can’t test the Wi-Fi in an empty stadium.” To illustrate the point, Schlough says that the Giants have played more than 800 home games since launching Wi-Fi in 2004, the equivalent of “100 NFL seasons.” 

Marching Forward

Looking toward the future, Schlough says it’s hard to predict which technology is going to replace the previous.  

“We are spending a lot of money now to wire all of these access points,” he says. “Down the road, I’m sure there will be a simpler and cheaper way to do it. Someone will laugh and say, ‘The Giants drilled 850 holes in their ballpark, and all they needed to do was install some satellite dishes,’ or whatever the technology is. But try explaining that to the 40,000 smartphone-toting fans who visit AT&T Park for every Giants home game. They’re not willing to wait around for wireless infrastructure costs to go down.” 

Disclaimer: Qualcomm announced a partnership with MLB to study the viability of wiring every stadium with 4G LTE.

This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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