Technology in the mountains: Upgrades happen at a slower pace
April 15, 2014
This is the second part in a two-part series about technology in the mountains.
Head up any drainage in and around Aspen and cell service disappears. In Summit County, some homeowners in relatively developed areas can't get a signal. And in Eagle County, anyone who drives along Interstate 70 or skis at Arrowhead knows where the dead spots are.
"It's amazing to me that Keystone, Dillon, Frisco and others all have full-service LTE cell phone connection," Lauren Forcey said. "However at my house in Summit Cove, I'm lucky if I can make or receive a call without dropping the signal."
Cellular service is a different animal than wireline broadband because cellular towers require straight-line connections. In the town of Vail alone, construction is underway to install 23 new cellular poles, or small towers, through a distributed antenna system (DAS). Seven of the towers have been installed in the Vail town core already, with the remaining set to go up between now and December. The project also includes the installation of new fiber optics strands from Vail Village to each tower.
"In order to get the speeds and capacity you need for 4G in our region, you need a DAS system," Vail IT Director Ron Braden said.
In Vail's case, a company called Crown Castle International is building the towers and leasing that infrastructure to cellular carriers like Verizon and AT&T. In Aspen, a similar project is in the planning stages with a company called American Tower, said Assistant Pitkin County Manager Phylis Mattice.
Local governments like Pitkin County can't get involved beyond things like land use provisions or franchise agreement regulations, but officials trying to grow broadband and other technologies throughout the mountain region hope to change that. The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Broadband Strategic Plan outlines a need for legislation that would allow rural government entities to step in where they're currently not allowed.
Senate Bill 152 prohibits Colorado government entities from providing telecommunications services, however the The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Strategic Plan shows that some rural mountain communities have little else in the way of telecommunications options.
"It may be prudent for the region to establish a telecommunications cooperative to manage assets and improve broadband throughout the region," according to the Strategic Plan. "A telecommunications cooperative could manage infrastructure implementation and continue to provide operations and maintenance support. A telecommunications cooperative may provide a means whereby implementation projects can happen within the constraints of Colorado law."
On Wednesday, a package of bills aimed at easing telecommunications regulations in the state glided through the state House of Representatives with a 277-43 vote. House Bill 1328 proposes to redirect $54 million earmarked for basic phone service to a new broadband-development fund for underserved communities. Accompanying bills propose to eliminate state sales tax on broadband equipment, deregulate Internet-based services like Skype, deregulate basic phone services and enable better access to public rights-of-way for infrastructure projects.
The thinking behind these bills is happening regionally already — that government can and does have a role in making telecommunications upgrades easier and more inviting for the private sector without going so far as to provide the actual services.
"Philosophically, cities should be averse to deploying a monopoly system and should shun the idea of delivering services themselves. Rather, they should perceive for themselves a more traditional municipal role — providing infrastructure," the The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Strategic Plan reads. "The actual delivery of services should be left to competing private service providers — as many as are qualified to serve the market. This model ensures that a publicly owned infrastructure is made available to a wide variety of competing private firms for the delivery of goods and services."
That's why Aspen and Pitkin County are revising land-use codes that in the past limited telecommunications towers to 40 feet, Mattice said. Now the limit is based on what is determined appropriate for a specific location rather than an arbitrary number, she said.
"In some places it might be OK for an 80-foot tower on the side of a mountain — make it look like a tree," she said. "Land use is what we can bring to the table."
'Small fish in a big pond'
There's an undeniable natural evolution in that technology advances where you can impact the most customers first, said Meagan Dorsch, corporate Verizon Wireless spokeswoman.
"Therefore, the major metro areas would typically get the 'new' technologies first," she said. "However, we consider the major ski resorts a very important area and a high priority, so there is little lapse in time to getting new technology to these areas."
A new cell antenna was recently approved for the base of Buttermilk ski area, and two new cell towers are being proposed this month around Aspen. AT&T also provided temporary towers during the Winter X Games in January to try to better the overloaded system during such a high-use time.
In Summit County, a tower was approved recently for the Lower Blue River Valley after residents tried for years to improve cell coverage. The gap extended north of Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir, an area where Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said concerns are high for wildfires and emergency response. And in Summit Cove, just east of Keystone, there's a lot of frustration about cell service.
"The most important thing is public safety," Stiegelmeier said. "If there's an accident you want to call 911, you don't want to go find a pay phone — which doesn't exist — or go knock on somebody's door."
And as more people work out of their homes, the economic development piece becomes more important. Telecommuters need good broadband and good cell service.
"The cell tower at our landfill area should resolve that problem," she said. "We hope to see it go up this spring or summer at the latest."
As cell towers sprout up throughout the region at a relatively fast pace, wireline broadband remains the regional issue that lags behind. But Eagle County IT Director Scott Lingle said it gets complicated when you start using the word "broadband," because you also can get data over cellular technology. The emphasis of the The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Broadband Strategic Plan is really on broadband Internet access, he said.
It's realistic to assume that we're not going to be as high-tech as a big city, he said.
Comcast continues to improve its mountain speeds and Xfinity service, and CenturyLink's version, called Prism, is launching in Western Eagle County soon. CenturyLink spokesman Randy Krause said the company is able to provide 40 megabit service in many areas with gigabit service "coming in the future."
The Colorado Department of Transportation is continuing to install more fiber optic cables this year, which is what precipitated some of the broadband upgrades the region has seen in recent years. A $15 million CDOT fiber optics project is underway from Vail to Glenwood Springs, which follows the completion of fiber installation over Vail Pass in recent years.
The fiber optics upgrades allowed Comcast to deliver faster speeds to the Western Slope, as well as more high definition channels and additional capacity, Comcast spokeswoman Cindy Parsons said.
The upgrades over the years are helping, but more needs to be done, The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Executive Director Liz Mullen said. She hopes that a new regional broadband coordinator — she posted a job opening for the new position early this month — can serve as the liaison between the counties, service providers and the state to identify ways to implement some of the ideas in the Strategic Plan.
"We're a small fish in a big pond sometimes, but having eight counties working together I think makes us a little bit bigger and more interesting to (service providers)," Mullen said. "We really want to work with the service providers — we're not looking for towns to run their own services."
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 970-777-3125.