At 100 years old, Fenway Park brims with new technology

Fenway Park may be 100 years old this season but that doesn't mean the Boston Red Sox baseball stadium is stuck with antiquated technology.

Quite the opposite, in fact. This year Fenway is getting its own Comcast Metro Ethernet fiber connection that has a guaranteed service level of 100Mbps. This will help the ballpark cope with the many demands of modern sports facilities, which invariably include real-time uploads of video footage during games, terabytes of video to be used as scouting reports on opponents and public Wi-Fi hotspots that can be used by fans to stay connected during games.

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Steve Conley, who has worked as the Red Sox's director of IT for the past 11 years, says his goal is to keep Fenway at the cutting edge of technology to meet the rapidly-changing demands of both the Red Sox organization and of fans expecting a digital experience at the ballpark. In this question-and-answer session we pick Conley's brain about what the park's new fiber connection will do to upgrade the park's network, how expectations have changed for what ballparks can deliver digitally and how he expects wireless technology to change the ballpark experience in the future.

Tell me about the upgrades you're bringing to Fenway's network with Comcast Metro Ethernet.

We now have a direct fiber link into stadium. We have a 100Mbps Ethernet circuit and on demand we can change it and scale it up to 10Gbps if need be. I'm not sure we'd ever need to go to 10Gbps but we monitor our usage and it's growing game by game. This is one of those keys to help us provide faster Internet service across the board.

What will the new fiber connection let you do that you couldn't do before?

We have it set up for our normal business operations such as email, remote access and general office functionality. We're doing a lot of connecting back to our minor league facilities and we're also connected directly to Jet Blue Park, our Spring Training facility. Being able to ride over that one backbone makes that office connection seamless between the two parks, since the best we could do before was 1 to 2Mbps connecting between Boston and Fort Myers.

There's also a number of things that happen in-game. We have both the general office connection, but also have the press and photographers who put pressure on the network when they upload material from Fenway into the cloud. And at same time we're starting to look at fan access. What's going to change the most over the next two to three years is that we'll be able to extend our network out to people in our stadium. That's not here right now, that's more forward looking but I think that's something that's just going to grow.

What's your typical peak traffic per game?

We're probably about a good, consistent 20Mbps to 25Mbps, then jumping up to 40mbps during big games. This year we're going to keep a close eye on it and see what correlations there will be. 100Mbps has been a good number for other clubs that we've talked to. We'll have a better feel for it with our biggest games coming up such as the 100th anniversary game and the Patriot's Day game. After that I'll have a much better idea of what to expect, though I'm thinking we're going to peak out at 75Mbps.

What are some of the challenges of building out a high-speed network for an old building like Fenway?

Ten years ago I would have said that doing something like this would have been impossible. But with the renovations that have been done, the building is now much easier to hook up. We have a way to get fiber around the building with a cable tray system so now that's relatively easy. Getting a conduit into the building was relatively easy because the electric companies already have multiple penetrations in the street from manholes in the area. And Comcast had fiber running down the street, so surprisingly enough that was simple. I was expecting a lot worse.

How has your job running IT for the Red Sox changed over the past couple of years? What's been the biggest thing you've had to adapt to?

I've been here for 11 years... and the biggest change has been how quickly information needs to be delivered and who it needs to be delivered to. And really, that's a reflection of what has happened with technology in society as a whole. We always try to be early adopters of the newest technology, whether it's BlackBerry a few years back, then the smartphone revolution, now tablets. First we thought we were just transferring data, now we're dealing with video. When you do an upgrade you might think you're going to be set for five years but in reality you're never going to be set for five years. We've cut down to three-year plans to reflect that.

Speaking of mobile devices, how have smartphones and tablets changed how you do your job?

Every stadium will eventually be a hotspot and fans will expect it to provide dynamic content on their phone or tablet, or to provide in-seat service. These things are now on the cutting edge and it's stuff that you need to get right the first time. If you think right now this sort of technology is two years out, in reality it's probably six months out so you have to be prepared for it.

When I went to games back in college, for instance, no one ever talked about pitch count or pitch speed. Then all those displays started to come up as standard fare in ballparks to provide fans with all those deeper stats. Now when you look at mobility, people want to know what's going on in the game they're watching and they want to know how it impacts their fantasy team or other parts of their digital life, they want to know how can they Tweet out or update their Facebook status with their experiences at the ballpark.

Right now we have around 120 mobile access points, and of those I'd say 80% are enabled for fan Wi-Fi. We still have a long way to go before our Wi-Fi can give a guaranteed level of service for our fans, though. In order to get 30% of fans covered at the same time, for instance, we'd probably need to double our capacity.

Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.

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Brad Reed

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