Vail well-positioned for 5G cellular expansion after 2015 Worlds
It’s been almost three years since Vail and Beaver Creek hosted the World Alpine Ski Championships in February 2015, and the reviews are all in: Cellular and Wi-Fi upgrades ahead of that event dramatically improved both coverage and speeds at both resorts. And, oh yeah, Mikaela Shiffrin and Ted Ligety won gold medals.
Basically free of charge, Vail got 29 small cells, one macro site and a hub site for equipment on land that was provided by the town — all at the expense of Houston-based Crown Castle. The 4G LTE (long-term evolution) upgrades immediately improved service throughout the year and especially during peak season, and now it’s time to start talking 5G.
“5G is next,” Vail IT director Ron Braden said. “The carriers want it. Crown wants it. Crown gets pushed by the carriers now, and so sometimes they’re playing catch-up because the carriers are like, ‘Hey, it’s your infrastructure, let’s go.’”
The nation’s largest provider of wireless infrastructure picked up the tab for the $7 million project in 2014, recouping those expenses from cellular carriers AT&T and Verizon. Vail gave Crown Castle the right of ways for its antennas — some on new 35-foot poles and others on existing utility poles — and Crown gave Vail much better cell service.
“The resistance was pretty low,” Braden said of the approval process that started as early as 2012. “Everybody realized what we needed. The cell service was so bad that they were just like, ‘Give us anything.’ In the end, it actually worked out really well and everyone was happy, and once it was up, nobody complained because it just blends in with the landscape.”
The biggest disruption involves digging to lay fiber optic cable.
“We literally designated Crown Castle as a public utility because we believe cellular now is a public utility,” Braden said. “It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a you-have-to-have, and we view Wi-Fi the same way.”
Talks about upgrades are happening all the time, Braden said.
“It’s been a great relationship with Crown,” he said. “They did what they said that they were going to do. We talk to them still on a regular basis about Wi-Fi upgrades, about adding additional carriers, about upgrading. AT&T just did a recent upgrade over the summer that they’ll be turning up soon.”
Even when Vail and Beaver Creek aren’t hosting major international ski-racing events with upwards of 150,000 spectators, the resorts combine for more than 2 million skier days per season, making them some of the busiest ski areas in the nation. That drives the demand for streaming video, photo sharing and even public safety communications.
The Vail Valley was the second place in the nation to test out D Block LTE FirstNet for public safety, with four nodes in Vail and a site at Race City in Beaver Creek that was D Block-enabled for LTE public safety.
The area’s mountainous topography and intense visitation makes it a great testing area for small cell solutions (SCS) that Crown Castle is now known for throughout the country, having installed more than 14,000 SCS “nodes” nationwide over the past 10 years.
SCS uses toaster or microwave-oven-sized antennas on new or existing street lights or utility poles that bring cell service down closer to the user at street level, typically using public right of ways through agreements negotiated with cities and towns.
Crown, which also installs much taller traditional cell towers, has done SCS installations in Denver, Lakewood, Cherry Hills, Greenwood Village, Centennial and Colorado Springs and now is gearing up for more than 1,000 new small cells throughout the Denver area, including Federal Heights, Aurora, Northglenn, Commerce City and Edgewater.
“Where the growth is happening across the country is the demand for 5G services,” said Tanya Friese, manager of government relations for Crown Castle. “That network in Vail is flexible. It can easily be expanded in the future to add 5G, to add locations, new services, equipment and everything.”
That’s critical for Vail continuing to host events such as the Burton US Open in March and the GoPro Mountain Games in June, as well as annual World Cup ski races and bike races such as the Colorado Classic next summer — basically anything where 20,000 people with smartphones are packed into two square miles. Maybe even the 2026 or, more likely, 2030 Winter Olympics.
“It’s fairly common for seminal events like Super Bowls and things of that nature for the cities to take a hard look at their communications infrastructure and for the carriers to take a hard look at their infrastructure,” said Daniel Schweizer, Crown Castle’s director of government relations for small cell for the western region. “We build the infrastructure, the event goes off, and hopefully really well, and then the community is left with all the lingering benefits.”
Friese notes that wireless infrastructure can be a key component in economic development — for instance, attracting businesses. Denver recently landed on the top-20 list for Amazon’s HQ2.
“It requires an infrastructure be in place,” Friese said. “It’s not just roads and workforce, it’s wireless capabilities and cellular coverage that businesses need.”
Those units are all deed-restricted, meaning that only people who work an annual average of 30 hours per week can live there. That keeps the apartments out of the short-term rental pool and available to local residents.