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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Ten years ago, when San Francisco's AT&T Park became the first sport's stadium to offer free Wi-Fi to fans, it was considered a novelty.
Fewer than 100 people connected to the network per game that first season, and those that did, did not necessarily endear themselves to their fellow Major League Baseball fans.
"Back then, people would kind of laugh at you if were using your laptop and popped in a Wi-Fi card (during a game)," said Bill Schlough, senior vice president & chief information officer for the San Francisco Giants.
Fast-forward to Sunday's World Series game, when half of the sold-out crowd at the waterside stadium connected to the Wi-Fi network, and it's plain to see that wireless technology has gone from novelty to necessity for fans.
Thousands of jubilant orange and black-clad Giants fans held their phones out during the ninth inning on Sunday night, trying to capture the final out of the final home game of the year.
To keep up with the growing demand for bandwidth, the ballpark will install hundreds of additional under-the-seat Wi-Fi antennas during the offseason as well as some in hand rails, Schlough said.
Doing so is an expensive and labor-intensive undertaking, but one that is necessary to cater to the Bay Area's tech-savvy baseball fans, who consider being able to post photos and videos from the games on Facebook, Twitter, Vine and other social networks instantly a key element of the experience.
“That’s what it’s all about when you get to the biggest event in our sport -- letting all your friends know you were here and sharing that experience with them,” Schlough said.
While the number of Wi-Fi users has jumped, it’s the surge in the volume of data, driven by rapidly evolving cell phone technology, that’s truly astounding.
When the Giants appeared in the World Series in 2012, 38 percent of those in attendance connected to the network, but the total amount of data transferred through the Wi-Fi network was 370 gigabyte.
On Sunday the number of WiFi users rose by about 12 percent, but the total amount of data transmitted by fans through the same network jumped nearly five-fold, to 1.57 terabytes.
“We’re reaching something of a saturation point in terms of the number of Wi-Fi devices, but people are doing more and more with video and photos on their devices,” Schlough said.
The advent of high-quality video technology as well as the proliferation of video sharing websites is a chief reason why the ballpark has to continually expand its broadband capabilities.
“In 2012 when we won it all, there was no video. Vine wasn’t around, Instagram video hadn’t come on yet, GoPro was something we didn’t use,” said Bryan Srabian, director of social media for the Giants.
“So video has definitely increased in terms of us creating short, sharable features in real time.”
It is fitting that the city viewed by many as the crucible of technological innovation sports some of the country’s most high-tech venues, including the San Francisco 49ers' brand new Levi’s Stadium in Silicon Valley.
The Giants tech team knows there is a lot riding on the wireless systems working correctly. A system crash during a high-profile game would be disastrous to fans and to AT&T, the communications behemoth which works side-by-side with the Giants to ensure fans can post and text without incident.
This year’s World Series games also served as the first major stadium test for the Apple iPhone 6’s new Apple Pay system. After seeing it in action, Schlough said there is no going back.
“It’s revolutionary. I don’t see people with iPhone 6s ever pulling out their wallet again at a stadium,” he said.
The success of the wireless systems at AT&T Park, which also includes an LTE network that services AT&T, Verizon and Sprint customers, has caught the attention of stadium operators around the world.
“I’ve got people out here all the time from all the sports,” Schlough said, adding that he was flown to South Korea to speak at a conference and has fielded questions from Australian stadium operators this year, too.
He is always comparing notes with his counterparts in the United States as well.
“When we turned the ballpark into a WiFi hotspot in 2004, we anticipated a future that’s come to fruition. Now we’ve got 900 games under our belt and a lot of experience meeting our fan’s needs,” he said.
Editing by Frank Pingue