“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 endure in exchange for being in such a beautiful place.
But as conveniences become necessities, tolerance for behind-the-times technology also runs thin. From cellular coverage to cable television to broadband, users in the mountains are often 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 six to eight 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 interfere with signals and speeds, requiring more infrastructure than is necessary in a flatter spot such as the Denver metro area. Mixing the Western Slope’s topography with its low population density creates an expensive predicament.
That’s one reason the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments embarked on a regional broadband study and strategic plan last year — the need to improve services was too great to ignore.
Council Executive Director Liz Mullen said the group received some funding from the Department of Local Affairs and put together an eight-county steering committee of 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.
“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.”
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 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 local businesses suffered $100,000 per hour in lost sales. Chamber CEO Tom Kern told CenturyLink staff at a public meeting, as reported in the NWCCOG Regional Broadband Strategic Plan, that it could have been as high as $1 million per hour if it happened between Christmas and New Year’s.
Equipment failures happen, but a lack of backup systems make problems more severe, Eagle County’s 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. Redundancy, though, requires twice as much on infrastructure and 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.”
A need for competition
That limits consumers leverage. Diana Pearson-Barnett is often frustrated with 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.
Comcast spokeswoman Cindy Parsons said the company provides the same level of products and service to mountain areas as it does to the Front Range. The company has also gone through a digital migration over the course of the last several years.
“For the most part, we have upgraded systems in the mountains,” she said.
The town of Vail renewed its franchise agreement with Comcast in late 2012, but first required a series of infrastructure upgrades, including a switch from analog to digital service. Vail IT Director Ron Braden said a technical audit of Comcast’s system revealed that 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 Vail a regulatory tool to influence Comcast, but the NWCCOG 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 less 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 last several years.