Steamboat Springs People come to Steamboat Springs to have fun, spend time with friends and family, get away from it all and unplug — but only in the literal sense of Ethernet cables. Wi-Fi still is a requirement.
That’s what Northwest Data Services is trying to address with Steamboat Cloud: a reliable, cohesive wireless network for Steamboat Springs.
A few years ago, wireless Internet connection hardly would factor into trip planning or decisions about where to eat, shop, etc.
“Things have changed,” said Jon Quinn, of Northwest Data Services. “Now, a family of four may have 12 Web-enabled devices.”
That might include laptops, tablets and smartphones. Some of those devices might have their own cellular data plan, but that doesn’t make Wi-Fi any less important.
As metered data plans and bandwidth throttling become the norm, Quinn said, people look for Wi-Fi because it’s typically faster than their cellular connection and it’s free.
People treat wireless Internet almost as a utility, Mainstreet Steamboat Springs Manager Tracy Barnett said. The expectation for uninterrupted connection is there.
And the first place Steamboat Cloud is looking to ensure that connection is downtown.
The latter part of Steamboat Cloud refers to the most attractive part of the venture: using remote computing resources to replace costly hardware and scale the network quickly and easily.
Quinn said the plan is to use virtual wireless LAN technology from AdTran to set up access points and VMware to manage the network.
The setup being considered by Steamboat Cloud could support 48,000 concurrent connections and 1,500 access points, according to Quinn. And that scale — however unlikely in Steamboat — could be reached with the relative ease of plugging in an access point and managing the installation centrally.
The ID would remain consistent across the network (so a device could remember the connection), but the experience can be customizable to a granular level at each access point.
The business model is sponsorship based: a business pays a monthly fee to host an access point. What they get in return are advertising and impressions from users accessing the network at that point.
When logging onto the network, users will see what Quinn calls a “splash page.” If you’ve ever accessed Wi-Fi at a Starbucks or at an airport, you’ve seen it: a screen that asks users to accept the terms and conditions in exchange for Internet access.
The splash page will present a message, coupon or advertisement from whichever business is sponsoring that access point. The physical location of the access point likely will have the right of first refusal, Quinn said, but that doesn’t mean the business hosting the access point has to be the sponsor. Or, conversely, businesses without an access point at their location might sponsor an access point somewhere else.
Contracts and solid figures aren’t ready, Quinn said, but Steamboat Cloud is shooting for a sponsorship fee in the neighborhood of $95 per month.
The technical details of the sponsorship still are somewhat in flux, as well. Sponsors might be asked to “bring their own bandwidth,” Quinn said, which nearly 100 percent of businesses already have by virtue of existing in 2012. In a BYO-bandwidth situation, there would be minimum requirements of the connection to ensure a consistent user experience, Quinn said. A plus of this option would be natural redundancy by virtue of downtown businesses having different Internet service providers, he said.
The network also could be set up using dedicated bandwidth from a single provider. A hybrid of the two is a third option.
Businesses that already offer Wi-Fi would benefit from Steamboat Cloud managing the network and increased security, Quinn said. Customization on the splash page also could include collecting user data such as an email address or through use of a tracking cookie.
Steamboat Cloud also is planning a website that would act as a browsable collection of sponsor ads to increase the amount of exposure for the businesses.
“If we get to 30 commitments, we’ll roll it out,” Quinn said.
He said they’ve seen enthusiasm from downtown businesses, but now it’s time to see if that translates into contracts. If it does, initial testing could begin in December, but rollout of the network is projected to be June 1.
Barnett said Mainstreet Steamboat Springs is an advocate of the project starting off downtown.
“Having downtown Wi-Fi would be a tremendous amenity,” she said.
And while Steamboat Cloud is focused on getting this first part of the project off the ground, Quinn said, the greater idea is to eventually extend the network to as much of the city as possible.
If Steamboat Cloud can make it into hotels, vacation rentals and other lodging properties, visitors could connect to the same network in their room as in a restaurant or coffee shop.
“It’s really about a connected community,” Quinn said.