VAIL — By the time the Alpine World Ski Championships return in February, Vail should be ready to handle anything that rolls down the Wi-Fi highway.
Vail is spending $1.2 million to expand its wireless system to make sure it is. It was tested with the GoPro Mountain Games, when Vail’s Wi-Fi averaged 3,000 simultaneous users.
“It really is rocket science, and it doesn’t always work the first time, so just keep plugging away,” Vail’s IT Director Ron Braden told a gathering at Mountain Connect, a rural broadband conference at the Vail Cascade.
Braden has been working since the mid-’90s on Vail’s DAS project — Distributive Antennae System — cutting edge for its time. Instead of one or two huge towers, Vail used lots of smaller towers. It’s more effective for “challenged” signal areas like ours — mountains, buildings, Braden said.
Vail still has the occasional broadband problem that goes with being a small rural community, five square miles and about 6,000 people.
“We are a rural community, and no one was going to solve this for us. We had to solve it for ourselves,” Braden said.
Riding the Wi-Fi Highway
Vail started down the Wi-Fi highway in 1996 with a TCI franchise. It provided the same service Denver was getting.
“It really saved our bacon in 1999 when the World Alpine Ski Championships came to town,” Braden said.
In 2006, CenturyLink built a Wi-Fi network. In 2008, the Colorado Department of Transportation was trying to put fiber optic cable through the area. CDOT still needed $1.2 million to finish bringing fiber cable down Vail Pass. That’s not chump change, even for Vail, and they brainstormed about how to present it to the Town Council.
Public safety was high on the list of bullet points. That meant Braden and the Vail staff had to hammer out an intergovernmental agreement with other local entities interested in the project. Eagle County contributed, and eventually the Vail Town Council swallowed hard and wrote the check for $1 million. The private sector came up with some of the rest, and the project put Vail on the map for tech services, Braden said.
“Vail is home to 6,000 full-time residents, but will swell to 35,000 on a good day,” Braden said. “That put some cracks in the system.”
If you’ve been around the valley a few years, you remember those cracks. Cell phone systems crashed, forcing people to go old school and use a land line, if they had one.
Braden knew the problem would get worse.
“The system was crashing on a regular basis, and the World Championships were coming back in 2015,” Braden said.
Braden and Jim Selvy, of Aspen Wireless, found each other in 2012 and came up with a plan.
“The timing could not have been better. Truly our system was crashing with every event during the ski season. We were bringing the system to its knees,” Braden said. “An older businessman was taking out full page ads in the local newspaper chastising the carrier. It was a PR nightmare.”
They needed some space to put their smaller towers. The carriers went to some local people and were turned down flat.
“The homeowners associations didn’t want the $3,000 a month income. They didn’t want the cellular equipment on their property,” Selvy said.
Land for connectivity
Vail’s wish list was short but impressive. They wanted fiber optic cable and didn’t want to lay out any cash. What they got was a cellular repeater system in the Vail Transportation Center, updated and expanded Wi-Fi, and all sorts of bells and whistles.
It did cost Vail something, though. Vail gave away 1,200 square feet in the Transportation Center for a hub site, and then gave away 800 square feet more. The new network includes three carriers and provides free public Wi-Fi almost anywhere in town. The system is expanding and will be fully operational before 2015. Once they got the green light, much of the new system was in place in 52 days and crews will continue working on it through the fall.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We are a rural community, and no one was going to solve this for us. We had to solve it for ourselves.”
Vail’s IT director