Sunday, November 11, 2012

Municipal Wireless in Eagle county, CO

I spent most of this past Friday in Vail getting the cook’s tour of the reinvigorated municipal wireless network. I was most impressed!

Lets go back a few years when municipal Wi-Fi appeared to be the wave of the future in terms of ubiquitous internet access. Since then, no fewer than 19 state legislatures (including Colorado) have banned municipal internet anything much less Wi-Fi or broadband.  Fast forward to 2012 and Town of Vail in partnership with the ski corporation, Aspen Wireless and Crown Castle International has reconstructed a form of municipal wireless that underlines the “Vail experience”. That is, not only does the visitor’s Netflix work, so do all the apps on the iPhone. Contrast that with some other ski towns where the telecommunications infrastructure fails to meet the demands of a seasonal influx of urbanites who expect a digital experience on a par with their home cities (think Lower Manhattan or the Bay area). Fail to meet those expectations and the high margin clientele will not return.

Before being spun off to CenturyLink, the Vail Wi-Fi network had 18 nodes of which only 1 survives. The new network not only offers ubiquitous, free Wi-Fi, it also has a cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) to ensure cell coverage everywhere in the Vail Village. This DAS is somewhat akin to an open access network where any cellular provider that wishes to participate, makes a small contribution in hardware to ensure their subscribers are cared for.   

So how does this project line up with the “5 A’s” of Colorado Community Broadband (see ):

1.     Aggregate experience: partners include Crown Castle (one of top 3 tower companies in the world); Town of Vail (they’ve been here before and have more sales tax revenue than you know who, not to mention a real smart IT manager, also the savings in moving the town telecom off wireline and onto wireless) Aspen Wireless (they’ve been in the business for over a decade), Vail Resorts (the “Vail experience”) and the Big 5 cellular providers.
2.     Assess the broadband (wireless) environment: would big names like this be doing this if there wasn’t a clear need?
3.     Assess and aggregate demand: would big names like this be making this investment if there wasn’t a clear business case?
4.     Adopt existing resources and technologies: there are no “unsightly” cell towers, generators, etc; the devices fit neatly into the architecture. Speaking of resources, a ski corporation and high end lodging vendors can come together for the common good in building a muni wireless network that benefits their tourism-based economy, “its for the visitors (economy), stupid!”
5.     Adapt for sustainability: given the deep-pocketed partners and the fact that these players came back to the muni wireless models years after CenturyLink took it over and killed off the network, its plain to see the community commitment (yes, a publicly traded company like Vail Resorts is a member of our rural Rocky Mountain community!) to the network points to long term sustainability. I expect the other ski towns to read, weep and make plans for their muni wireless networks soon.

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