Technology in the mountains: Why it’s not up to speed

Lauren Glendenning
CMNM Editorial Projects Manager
Photo by Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times
Aubree Dallas |

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series about technology shortfalls in the mountains.

“Can you hear me now?”

Anyone who lives in or visits the Western Slope likely utters those words on a regular basis. It’s one of the inconveniences we all have to endure in exchange for being in such a beautiful place.

But as conveniences become necessities, tolerance for behind-the-times technology also becomes nonexistent. From cellular coverage to cable television to broadband, users in the mountains often are forced to accept shortfalls that wouldn’t fly in metropolitan areas.

Eagle County Information Technology Director Scott Lingle said two broadband service outages in recent months, each lasting roughly 6 to 8 hours, literally disconnected the region from the Internet.

“Internet quality and access drives business decisions — it’s a big economic driver these days,” Lingle said. “It’s important that it works all the time. If you can’t do business, that’s a big deal.”

Mountains create a topography that interferes with signals and speeds, requiring more infrastructure than what’s needed in a flat area such as the Front Range. Throw that obstacle in with a region low in population density, and you get an expensive predicament.

That’s one of the reasons why the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments embarked on a regional broadband study and strategic plan last year — because the need to improve services was too great to ignore.

Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Executive Director Liz Mullen said the group received some funding from the Department of Local Affairs and put together an eight-county steering committee — the organization’s five member counties (Eagle, Summit, Pitkin, Grand and Jackson), plus Rio Blanco, Routt and Moffat counties.

The process included workshops, surveys and a lot of research, in which the group tried to understand all of the available technologies, costs, limitations and policy barriers standing in the way of better broadband service throughout the region.

“We’re significantly behind the Front Range in terms of government, school and library speeds,” she said. “And Colorado as a state is significantly behind about half the other states in the country.”

There were some encouraging surprises found along the way, though, too.

“We discovered we have a lot more fiber (optics) in our area than we thought,” Mullen said. “Some is being used, some not, and some not as fully as it could be. … It’s hard to make decisions and figure out how to make things better unless we understand the landscape.”

Lagging behind

When a broadband system is so overloaded that businesses can’t run credit cards or people can’t make phone calls, it affects everyone. Tourists might not want to return to the area if they feel disconnected, and businesses could lose out on thousands of dollars in sales.

During an Oct. 31, 2011 CenturyLink outage, the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association estimated that the outage cost local businesses $100,000 per hour in lost sales. Chamber CEO Tom Kern told CenturyLink staff at a public meeting, as reported in the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Regional Broadband Strategic Plan, that it could have been as high as $1 million per hour if it happened between Christmas and New Years.

Equipment failures happen, but it’s when there are no backup systems in place that the problem becomes so severe, Lingle said.

Lingle points to the need for what information technology people refer to as redundancy, which essentially means the network is configured so that multiple paths can back each other up in instances of breakdowns. But to provide redundancy, you have to spend twice as much on infrastructure and hire more staff, he said.

“The organization I like to use as a model is Amazon. Their website is never down — it costs them a lot of money if their website is down,” Lingle said. “They’ve invested a lot into their computing infrastructure.”

Investing money is something companies can do when the return on such investments warrant it, but in the case of the rural resort region, the return often isn’t compelling enough.

“There’s a lack of competition, and that’s because it’s expensive to provide,” Lingle said. “And compared to a metro market, it’s not as attractive to invest that money. That’s normal business, and that’s understandable, but you’re very limited with what you can do as a consumer if you’re not happy with service.”

A need for competition

Consumers know it all too well. Diana Pearson-Barnett is often frustrated with the Comcast service in the Vail area. She said the signal frequently goes out and technical support usually isn’t helpful. OnDemand, she added, works “most days.”

“It’s too bad they have a cable monopoly in the Vail area,” she wrote on the Vail Daily’s Facebook page. “They can provide poor service because there is virtually no competition.”

But Comcast spokeswoman Cindy Parsons said the company provides the same level of products and service to the mountains — the mountain areas where Comcast offers service — as it does to the Front Range. The company also has gone through a digital migration over the course of the past several years.

“For the most part, we have upgraded systems in the mountains,” she said, adding that new high-definition channels are launching soon along with the Xfinity home product in the mountain region.

The town of Vail renewed its franchise agreement with Comcast in late 2012, but it first required a series of infrastructure upgrades, including a switch from analog to digital service. Vail Information Technology Director Ron Braden said a technical audit of Comcast’s system revealed things like cables and wiring were in a “very degraded state.” The town waited to renew the new 15-year franchise agreement until the problems were fixed, he said.

The franchise agreement gave the town of Vail a regulatory tool to influence Comcast, but the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Broadband Strategic Plan outlines a potentially more influential tool: collective community bargaining for franchise agreements. The collective voice from the region could give it better bargaining power for broadband services, which have fewer free-market competition in the mountains.

While the private enterprises that provide broadband in the region are mostly limited to CenturyLink and Comcast, a more competitive market exists for cellular service. When Verizon became the first carrier to bring 4G service to the region in late 2012 and early 2013, the race was on for other cell carriers to follow suit. It was the impetus for infrastructure upgrades that have vastly improved cell service in the mountains over the past several years.

Read Monday’s paper for part two in this technology series, which will focus on planned or proposed technology upgrades throughout the mountain region.


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