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Cardinals join VoIP league

The St. Louis Cardinals will open the 2006 season with a new player on the team -- Internet Protocol telephony from SBC Communications and Cisco Systems

When baseball begins again in St. Louis next spring, the St. Louis Cardinals will be playing in a new $400 million ballpark designed to look old, the latest among many retro stadiums built in the past decade.

The team's loyal fans would probably say they don't need new high-tech gizmos to bring them to the old ball game. But thanks to Internet Protocol (IP) telephony services being installed in the new Busch Stadium, fans could soon be calling up the stats for first baseman Albert Pujols or ordering their beers and brats, for that matter, without stirring from their seats.

Negotiations for integrated voice and data services began more than two years ago, in the early planning stages for the ballpark, said Joe Abernathy, vice president of stadium operations for the team. "We were faced with an opportunity and the challenge of getting the most out of our dollars for the technology at the new ballpark. We could put in a full-blown network in the building for Internet access and a phone system or consider IP telephony, where essentially the wiring is the network," he said.

Abernathy turned for help to SBC Communications Inc., its longtime phone provider and a big corporate presence in St. Louis. The company took Cardinals management on a field trip to SBC Park in San Francisco to show off the system there. That network, which uses equipment from Nortel Networks, has spilled from back-office operations to the stadium, one of the world's largest Wi-Fi hot spots. The San Francisco Giants host a Web site where fans not only can order food and access player statistics from their laptops or any other wireless-enabled device but be served up a stream of advertisements for tickets and other paraphernalia.

Impressed by the neat applications, Abernathy said his first priority was buying a network that could reliably address the team's business operations, from office communications to the all-important job of selling tickets. Valued by Forbes at $370 million, the Cardinals posted revenue of $151 million in 2004, $73 million from gate receipts. "Selling tickets is the lifeline of our business, so having the ability to handle those calls in a quick and timely manner is very important," Abernathy said.

Steve Busselman, integrated solutions specialist for SBC, agreed. "If we design a system that has all these great bells and whistles but doesn't act as the phone does, it would be a failed installation."

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Into the woods with VoIP

After reviewing several providers with SBC, including Nortel, the Cardinals decided to go with Cisco Systems' Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data (AVVID) platform for the guts of the system. Abernathy said he was impressed with the reliability of the Cisco equipment, as well as the service support. "They could assure us that we would get the plain old telephone quality with VoIP. And we put some particular language in our agreement with them that ensures that quality is going to be there," he said. The deal comes with four Cisco servers and more than 700 Cisco phones, including color LCD touch screen phones for the all important, revenue-generating luxury boxes. The Cardinals will use Cisco's IP contact center for their call center.

In addition to voice and data services, the integrated platform has the bandwidth to handle the club's video camera surveillance requirements, Busselman said, saving the Cardinals the cost of laying cable or paying for additional bandwidth.

For Cardinals employees on the road, the speed dial will follow them wherever they go. Personnel from the team's minor league facilities will be able to punch in their personal codes to any Cisco phone in the St. Louis ballpark and operate as though they were in their own office. There will also be VoIP connections to the spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla., Abernathy said. And while the franchise is not sure when it will start offering up fan services, the infrastructure is there, including the potential for IP TV and a feature in the new family play area that will allow kids to game against each other over the Internet.

The deployment presented big-time logistical challenges. The new St. Louis ballpark is being built around the old Busch stadium, with demolition and the final construction scheduled for after the 2005 season. The Cardinals needed a "plug-and-go" application that could move to temporary offices whenever its season ended, and be up and running in the new ballpark by opening day.

Given the Cardinals' spectacular regular season this year, SBC felt pretty sure it would have a little cushion to get everything ready before there wrecking ball hit, but the company wasn't about to take any chances, SBC's Busselman said. The entire system was built in advance at SBC's staging facility in Memphis, Tenn. SBC is "burning in all the gear," making sure all the software is functioning properly and the equipment has the right software loads, he said. The end of baseball came in game six against the Houston Astros. The wrecking ball hits in November. Said Busselman: "The minute the Cardinals have the occupancy permit to move into the new stadium, we will be ready and waiting."

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