VAIL — This past year’s Christmas holiday crush was a tough one for AT&T cellular customers. Demand on the company’s existing system resulted in dropped calls, delayed voice messages and difficulty getting on the internet. This year should be better.
The company this week announced that it has turned on a new system that will bring the latest 4G LTE technology used by the latest smartphones and tablets. The company joins Verizon in providing the technology in Vail. According to its website, Sprint, the third major cell carrier in the valley, doesn’t yet offer the new technology in Vail. On the other hand, Sprint has far fewer subscribers in the valley.
Problems with AT&T’s service earlier this year prompted Vail restaurant owner Ron Riley to place ads in the Vail Daily demanding action. Riley also conducted a survey of AT&T’s Vail customers that revealed a host of complaints, especially during times the town was full or nearly so.
Most of the complaints the survey revealed involved voice and text messages. Some in the real estate business said missed or delayed messages could potentially cost them thousands in lost sales. Others worried that the problems could become severe enough that some visitors might not return to Vail.
Riley said better service in Vail is “hugely important” to residents, businesses and tourists.
“These are common services people have come to expect,” Riley said.
Town of Vail Information Technology Department Director Ron Braden agreed, saying guest expectations were among the primary reasons for seeking out the deal to improve service in town.
Crown castle antennas
Help came this year when the town of Vail signed an deal with Crown Castle, a company that builds cell towers then leases them to carriers.
That system includes a main tower at the town of Vail’s public works department shop, on the north side of Interstate 70 kind of across the highway from the town’s golf course. To augment that tower, the company will also build 23 smaller antenna sites throughout town to boost coverage.
Braden said the first of the smaller sites are nearly complete. Those sites, along with a cell tower on wheels — called a “COW” — will boost service in Vail Village and Lionshead. The remaining sites are expected to be finished by the end of the summer of 2014 and will improve service to most of the rest of town, although Braden said portions of East Vail may remain in coverage holes due to quirks of the local terrain.
The goal for the Crown Castle and AT&T system is to have it fully operational by early 2015, when the World Alpine Ski Championships return to Vail.
Of course, AT&T won’t be the only carrier in town for that event. In an emailed response to questions, Verizon spokesman Robert Kelley wrote that Verizon’s “coverage and capacity in Vail and surrounding area can handle the voice and data traffic as we prepare for the World Alpine Ski Championships.
As we get closer to the actual event, we can increase the capacity of existing sites and bring in additional temporary sites as needed to meet demand.”
Still, Braden said, most people in the valley for the championships will be using the AT&T system.
While time will tell if the new system can accommodate a holiday-filled Vail, Riley said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the new technology.
Beyond improvements in phone service — which, these days, is what most people want — the Crown Castle system is also carrying the town’s free Wi-Fi signal in Vail Village and Lionshead.
“This will hugely improve Wi-Fi in Vail Village and Lionshead,” Braden said. “You go there now and the difference is like night and day.”