Seamheads seek free Wi-Fi
Here in Seattle, seamheads and even casual fans who carry Wi-Fi-capable devices to Safeco Field would benefit from stronger support — and we're not talking about adding another big bopper to the team's roster.
Special to The Seattle Times
Play ball, watch ball!MLB.COM AT BAT isn't the only game in town when it comes to baseball apps. Others include:
• ESPN's iScore Baseball Scorekeeper is useful for scoring a baseball or softball game.
• ESPN's ScoreCenter lets you select specific teams you want to follow and receive alerts.
• Stats junkies may also find fulfillment at Baseball Reference, Wikipedia, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News.
• Nintendo portable devices can use Wi-Fi at Safeco Field. In addition, you can "rent" a device on — site at no charge, if you leave a credit-card number. Check the kiosk at Section 143.
• Other apps can be found at www.pcworld.com/article/
• Word of caution for people absorbed by their mobile devices at the ballpark: Stay on the lookout for live balls.
Go to a Major League Baseball game these days, and you're likely to see some spectators looking as intently at a cellphone or device screen as at the action on the field. They may be checking a batter's stats, tracking the movement of a pitch, or watching an instant replay. Or simply checking their e-mail.
A big key to any of this, of course, is some kind of online connection, and here in Seattle, seamheads and even casual fans who carry Wi-Fi-capable devices to Safeco Field would benefit from stronger support — and we're not talking about adding another big bopper to the team's roster.
The missing player is a free Wi-Fi network open to all devices, an amenity that's turned into a huge hit at the Giants' AT&T Park in San Francisco. It's also catching on at a number of other modern parks, including Minute Maid Park in Houston, Miller Park in Milwaukee and Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. At Safeco, the only publicly available Wi-Fi is dedicated to certain Nintendo devices.
Wi-Fi is typically faster than cellular networks. Also, fans with Wi-Fi devices needn't worry about draining fee-based data plans — a potential issue now that AT&T has introduced tiered pricing to subscribers. Last but not least, iPod touches and some iPads are built to connect to the Web with Wi-Fi exclusively.
AT&T Park has been offering free Wi-Fi since 2004. "These days, over 10 percent of our fans access the [Wi-Fi] network every game," said Bill Schlough, the team's vice president and chief information officer.
When 40,000 fans, many of them carrying smartphones, show up and make calls or surf the Web, the load on cellular networks can be overwhelming, Schlough said, and the Wi-Fi network offers relief.
As applications become more attractive, the demand for bandwidth likely will increase. Over the All-Star break, for example, Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the league's Internet and interactive branch, upgraded MLB.com At Bat, one of the top sports-category downloads (in pay and free versions) from the iTunes store.
The upgrade exploits the GPS built into iPhones for social-media purposes, enabling fans to "check in" and locate each other at the ballpark. It also provides "pinch-able" maps to zoom in or out and locate restaurants, first-aid stations and restrooms, among other things.
The beefed-up pay version ($14.99) offers live audio broadcasts, a free At.Bat.TV "game of the day," searchable video archive by team and player, a news archive by team and in-game video highlights.
At Target Field, the Minnesota Twins' new ballpark, the team doesn't have a firm timetable for offering Wi-Fi, but it is part of the plan, according to John Avenson, vice president for technology.
"We want our fans to participate in many ways, and Wi-Fi should definitely be one of the conduits," he said. "We want folks to be able to use MLB.com's brand new At Bat app, and we want folks to be able to call their baby-sitter. The equation is not just about Wi-Fi, even as the carriers are adding 4G to the connectivity soup."
At the new Yankee Stadium, free Wi-Fi is available only to fans in premium seats, but the team intends to make it available to all, said Mike Lane, senior director of technology. He had no timetable.
Meantime, content on the Giants' "Digital Dugout" portal is wide open but exclusively available to fans on the AT&T Park Wi-Fi network, meaning it can't be accessed via cellular networks. "This ensures that we can maintain a high level of service for our fans, which might be less predictable if we opened this up to cellular networks with less bandwidth/throughput," Schlough said.
"Our philosophy is to make it as easy as possible for fans," he said, adding that the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 was a game changer. "We instantly saw a huge ramp up."
"The killer content for us," he added, "is the [instant] replays." Major League Baseball bars teams from showing controversial replays on the stadium's big video board.
Other Digital Dugout "mini-apps" include closed captioning of public announcements, a pitch tracker and a food finder showing what kind of chow is available.
Mariners spokeswoman Rebecca Hale said Safeco fans can enjoy many of the same services. The catch is, they must use Nintendo units (DS, DSi, DSi XL) they own. Or they can rent DSi's at no charge at the ballpark with a credit-card number to secure the unit.
About 70 units are available, Hale said, adding, "we have never had all of them checked out." Those who rent also gain access to a password-protected Wi-Fi network that works only for the Nintendo devices.
Hale said the team is mindful of its "commitment to this service association with Nintendo," which is the controlling ownership partner in the Mariners. (A Nintendo of America official said the company would not object if the Mariners wanted to set up a free Wi-Fi network open to all devices, but would "want to work with them on any technical changes they may decide to make at Safeco Field.").
Hale said Safeco's existing Wi-Fi bandwidth already is taxed by demands from the media, concessions stands, ATM cards, and other operations. She also questioned how the Mariners would benefit from providing Wi-Fi at no charge.
"What part of that business model fits for us to provide that to them for free?" said Hale, who also said cellular networks are getting faster and moving toward other technologies, including distributed antenna systems, to improve their coverage.
Peter Lewis is a freelance writer