As MLB's (Major League Baseball) worse team in 2008, the Washington Nationals had little on-the-field success to brag about this season. Off the field, however, the Nationals opened a new stadium and became the first MLB ballpark to deploy an 802.11n wireless network throughout the 41,888-seat stadium and its outdoor areas.
Using the latest 802.11 Wi-Fi iteration, the Nationals gained higher throughput and range than the standard 802.11a/b/g configurations for their network infrastructure and used the system extensively throughout the season for everything from mobile ticket-scanning and concession point-of-sale transactions to press box support, guest services and fan Internet connections.
"The challenge for sports facilities such as Nationals Park, where thousands of spectators are likely to be accessing the network simultaneously, is to handle all those users while minimizing or eliminating contention and interference issues," Stan Schatt, vice president and Wi-Fi research director at ABI Research, said in a statement. "The much greater bandwidth and range of 802.11n, along with its enhanced reliability, make it a great fit for this scenario."
Meru Networks, of Sunnyvale, Calif., provided the network for the Nationals. The Meru system uses two access point models. Approximately 175 AP311s, a dual-radio unit with one 802.11n radio and one 802.11a/b/g radio (software-upgradable to 11n), are deployed in the stadium's indoor locations. An additional 25 units of Meru's OAP180 Rugged Access Point are placed outdoors.
While several major vendors are now offering 802.11n hardware and software, Bob Henley, CEO of Fusion Network Systems, a network and infrastructure solutions provider responsible for deploying the Nationals' wireless LAN, said Meru's "virtual cell" approach won him over. With virtual cells, a single radio channel is automatically selected for use across a venue, with additional channels activated only when more capacity is required.
More typically, wireless LAN systems deploy a "micro cell" approach, which assigns different channels to adjacent network cells, significantly raising the potential for co-channel interference.
"Lots of people associate wireless technology with poor roaming and low reliability," Henley said. "Only Meru's single-channel approach addressed our demands for pervasive coverage without gaps or interference. In fact, after we deployed the first 49 of 200 access points, all indoors, we literally had 100 percent coverage of the ballpark - including the outdoor areas."
Henley said the remaining access points were added for greater user capacity. "With any other wireless vendor, we would have had to create a complicated channel plan, constantly worrying about whether the placement of any new access points would lead to co-channel interference," he added.
Ticket takers at the park use lightweight hand-held scanners that send information over the air to a remote database. Henley said the system instantly detects ticket forgeries and allows for stadium employees to be deployed where the ticket traffic is heavy.
"If 10 staffers at the north gate are working as fast as they can, but the west gate is at a third of capacity, you just send more people with their scanners to the north gate," Henley said. "With turnstiles or fixed systems to move, that would have been impossible."
Future plans announced by the Nationals include using the wireless network to support "room service"-style food ordering where fans use their mobile devices to place orders and have them delivered to their seats. In addition, the club plans a stadium staff voice-over-Wi-Fi system for emergency situations where the cellular phone infrastructure is flooded.
"We made a decision early on that the park's wireless infrastructure would offer an unprecedented range of applications and a fan experience that you couldn't get anywhere else," said Jason Zachariah, the Nationals' director of information technology. "Wireless has reached a point where it is not only as reliable as wired networks, but there are things you can do with it that couldn't be done at all with wired."