Technology forum explores growing digital traffic in Steamboat

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— Here in the Yampa Valley, where frontier days persisted right up until 110 years ago, smartphone pioneers today are using their handheld devices to clock their speed on ski runs, check the latest fishing reports, exchange smiles on FaceTime and post tweaked sunset photos to Facebook via Instagram.

However, cellular telephone providers and the lords of Internet backbone systems in NFL-sized cities may be underestimating the amount of digital traffic swirling around Steamboat Springs.

Union Wireless Director of Engineering Kevin Kleinsmith told an audience of about 40 people here Thursday that larger cellphone providers who rely solely on Census data might place the local population at about 12,356 people. That would lead them to assume that one or two cell towers would be sufficient to serve the community, when really three or four are needed. What they don’t realize, Kleinsmith said, is the impact that vacationers have on local communications infrastructure.

He used Google research tools to discover that during a big summer tourism week here, 32,000 one-way vehicle trips come through the center of Steamboat Springs.

“I’m amazed at how many cars are going through Steamboat,” Kleinsmith said. “And another 4,000 are going to Oak Creek, as well. Tourists and cars don’t show up in the Census.”

He said his company knows that on average there are 1.2 people in every car and that 60 percent of Union Wireless’ calls are coming from a car.

Kleinsmith was among a panel of speakers during the third event of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association’s Economic Forum Series. Thursday’s forum was devoted to technology.

Union Wireless, based in Mountain View, Wyo., is a relatively small cellular provider specializing in providing service in some of the more remote regions of the area — think Muddy Pass and Browns Park. Mountain View, south of Interstate 80 between Green River and Evanston, is as remote as those aforementioned locations.

Resort Broadband President Evan Biagi agreed with Kleinsmith that tourism plays a big role in the region’s demand for broadband Internet connections and wireless telecommunications.

His company, affiliated with the Resort Group and its property management arm here in Steamboat, understood early on how important it was to bring high-speed Internet to hotel rooms and condominium projects.

In addition to bolstering health care systems and public safety, improved broadband connectivity supports tourism, Biagi said.

“I used to have to convince people to put Internet in hotels and condos,” Biagi said. “Now, it’s a very necessary utility in the hospitality industry. It allows people to stay longer or have a working vacation. How many people went on vacation this spring and didn’t check their emails?”

Even the vacationer who posts powder photos on the Internet is unintentionally contributing to the resort community’s marketing efforts, he added.

Kleinsmith’s company makes the frequent claim that it has more cell towers in place to extend coverage to the remote areas of Northwest Colorado, northern Utah and southern Wyoming. Many customers of AT&T and T-Mobile who venture outside Steamboat city limits are roaming on Union Wireless towers without realizing it, he said. However, he was quick to acknowledge that his company is hustling to add the higher transmission rates of a 3G network to its system, driven by the awareness that the growth of data transmission is overwhelming.

“We have 350 cell sites, what we don’t have right now is 3G,” Kleinsmith said.

And he’s certain his company needs a new cell tower on Steamboat’s west side.

“Why do we need more cell towers?” he asked rhetorically.

“People want broadband. They want to do everything on their phones. It’s actually ridiculous.”

People are shopping with their phones today, Kleinsmith said, and he suggested that sales in the commercial district on Lincoln Avenue would be bolstered by arrangements between cell service providers, who would offer guarantees of security, and owners of private Wi-Fi hotspots who are willing to open them up to shoppers. People shop with their phones, he said, scanning coupons, checking product reviews and comparing prices with their handheld Internet devices. If they can’t do that, they are likely to go elsewhere.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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