Red Sox add IP telephony to the lineup

Boston Red Sox Director of IT Steve Conley has lived through four years of communications upgrades for fabled Fenway Park, culminating this spring in a voice-over-IP network expansion to the team's Fort Myers spring training camp.

The system serving Fort Myers and Boston, based on IP telephony gear from Avaya, has cost the Sox nearly US$500,000, including wireless features, handsets and network infrastructure, he said. It serves about 200 end users.

The new system has replaced an older Centrex phone system in Boston that was turning into a hodgepodge of upgrades that didn't suit the needs of the new owners, who bought the team three years ago, Conley said in an Avaya Enterprise Mobility Roundtable with reporters.

Traveling team personnel and scouts may have seen one of the biggest benefits of the IP telephony through use of softphones on their laptops, which are used when they check into hotels on the road, Conley said. Toll calls from remote locations are eliminated, and even a player academy in the Dominican Republic can be reached for virtually no cost, he said. The savings is about US$3,000 per month per user, he said.

Eliminating local phone calls to the Fenway press room has also saved the Sox about US$40,000 a year. Instead, reporters can use IP voice connections as well as a Wi-Fi network, he said.

A big benefit of the IP gateway in Fort Myers, which was installed in February, is that Sox managers and other staff can access all their voice mail using the same phone number they are accustomed to using in Boston.

Conley said the upgrades have resulted in savings that he has not totaled. A complete return-on-investment analysis hasn't been completed, but "we definitely care about costs," he said.

There are some challenges with the upgrades, he added. While the quality of the softphone calls is good, sometimes there is an echo that sounds like the calls are being made underwater, he said.

In an interview, Conley said he is also somewhat worried about what will happen if a single phone number used by a Sox employee over the IP system is made public and abused. Last season, Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein's cell phone was posted on a New York Yankees fan Web site, resulting in so many calls to his phone that Conley had to quickly get Verizon Wireless to change Epstein's number.

In the next two years, Conley wants to try a new capability from Avaya allowing dual-mode cell phones that work in the cellular WAN as well as a future Wi-Fi hot spot in Fenway.

Conley said wireless hot spots in every major sports venue are inevitable, including Fenway, although he said he sees challenges to working with wireless.

For example, when broadcasters converge on Fenway or Fort Myers to beam TV coverage over microwave transmitters, they interrupt the limited wireless functions for the press room and concessions already in place, he said.

"I'm excited about the technology, but there are so many hurdles to overcome with wireless," Conley said. "Wireless is not as easy to troubleshoot" as a wired network, he said.

The roundtable also featured analysts and wireless experts including Boston College Carroll School of Management professor Mary Cronin, who described the range of new wireless and mobile technologies as an increasing challenge for IT staffs in large businesses.

Cronin said many businesses are providing wireless and mobile computing capabilities as "point solutions" that are "not very well integrated" into corporate systems, such as stand-alone sales force or delivery applications. She said wireless systems in large businesses are often disorganized.

Part of the reason for the lack of integration of devices and applications with security and corporate back-end systems is because "the technology is changing so quickly," Cronin said. While wireless service providers and equipment vendors may describe 2005 as the "year of viability" for wireless, she predicts viability will be reached in perhaps the next three years.

IDC analyst Abner Germanow added that despite the reported success of Wi-Fi inside offices, the penetration throughout an organization is fairly low. He said as many as 80 percent of organisations in IDC surveys have a Wi-Fi network, while less than 30 percent of the workers in those companies use it.

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