Buffering in Paradise: North Routt internet still in slow lane
June 24, 2017
On a recent Friday afternoon, a group of tourists was sipping beers on the back porch of the Hahn's Peak Roadhouse when a member of the group raced to the internet on his smartphone to settle a nagging debate:
Why do we only see one side of the moon?
Without a Cliff Clavin from Cheers to swoop in and provide an answer, Wi-Fi and Google quickly answered the question that could have consumed the tourists' time for hours.
Meanwhile, inside at the bar, a man who traveled to this rustic, picturesque community to unwind and fly-fish in Steamboat Lake also found himself firing up his laptop and turning to the digital world for help.
He needed to check his email for a passcode to activate his bank card.
Even in the shadow of Hahn's Peak, where visitors enjoy solitude, silence and panoramic mountain views 32 miles from the nearest stoplight, an internet connection is craved, and expected.
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"It's a different world now," Roadhouse owner Carroll Zamzow said. "We have to have the internet, or they won't come."
But the internet that fills the airwaves in North Routt isn't the internet most of the developed world is accustomed to.
The man trying to get his bank information gave up after 20 minutes of buffering on his email connection.
And Facebook pages were riddled with error messages and empty white boxes in place of photos that just couldn't load.
Roadhouse employees have a not-so-family-friendly acronym to describe the speed of their $600 per month connection.
It's SAS, or Slow As S#$!.
The Wi-Fi is so slow a webpage that would have measured exactly how many megabits-per-second the connection could carry was still trying to load after 20 minutes of buffering Friday.
Still, Zamzow often sees people sneakily park their cars at the front of the bar and desperately try to log onto the internet.
Just up the road, at the Steamboat Lake State Park Visitor Center, a group of park employees burst into simultaneous laughter when asked about the quality of their own internet connection.
It's like a "black hole," a supervisor said with a wry smile.
Wi-Fi is the most popular request from campers at the state park. But, for the foreseeable future, the prospect of Wi-Fi there will remain a funny pipe dream.
North of Clark, Netflix users who don't have connections fast enough for streaming still get DVDs in the mail.
Pandora is silent.
And the North Routt Community Charter School had to bail on an online homework system because not enough parents had internet connections fast enough to support it.
"It's the price you pay for living in paradise," said Stephanie Wilson, director of hospitality at Vista Verde guest ranch. "You're sort of signing on the dotted line when you choose to live in this remote place."
North Routt residents pride themselves on being tough, friendly and self-sufficient.
Some are even content forgoing the power of the web at their fingertips.
But, in a world that is increasingly dependent on smartphones and the cloud, the lack of high-speed internet is turning off some visitors and causing headaches for local residents.
Miles away — Worlds apart
Seedhouse Road, just north of Clark, is only a 25-minute drive from Steamboat Springs.
But when it comes to the availability of internet, it's feels like it's on another planet.
Vista Verde, a rustic dude ranch nestled between mountains in the beautiful Elk River Valley, pays $800 per month for an internet connection through two T1 phone lines.
The overall connection speed is a measly three megabits per second.
By comparison, One Steamboat Place, a luxury lodging property at the base of Mount Werner in Steamboat Springs, pays $1,019 for a connection that is 427 times faster.
One Steamboat Place's fast 1.25 gigabyte-per-second connection accommodates as many as 1,200 or more unique electronic devices connected at a single time during the busy Christmas tourism season.
There, guests can easily stream high-definition movies and TV shows, chat with family on Skype and sync their Fitbit data to their computers.
By comparison, the slow connection at Vista Verde does not allow guests to stream movies or use Skype. That's because the little bandwidth Vista Verde clings to isn't just for its 50 guests.
The ranch depends on it to run its payroll, reservation and payment-processing systems.
"We have to have a firewall that blocks streaming and other services," Wilson said. "Otherwise, the streaming and downloading would shut the business down. We hear guests express their frustration all the time."
Despite its remote location and reputation as a rustic guest ranch, Wilson said many of the guests expect an internet connection to stay in touch with family and work.
And, when guests get to the ranch and experience how slow the connection is, some accuse the ranch of being stupid, or nefarious, for not being able to tap into a faster connection.
"They think we're doing it on purpose, that we're choosing to shut it down so they can all disconnect" without the internet, Wilson said.
But Vista Verde is in the same situation as many other businesses and residences that lie north of Clark.
Because they are not tapped into the fiber that runs through Steamboat, North Routt residents and businesses have to pay hundreds of dollars more per megabit.
And many residents don't have the option of even getting a reliable, high-speed connection in the first place.
About eight years ago, Wilson said she got a quote for nearly
$1 million from CenturyLink to bring a faster connection in.
A tech industry executive who recently bought a luxury ranch in the Elk River Valley also got a case of sticker shock when he got a quote of $980,000 to construct the infrastructure needed for high speed internet.
Going without it
The great internet crisis in North Routt elicits both passionate speeches in favor of change and shrugs along the shores of Steamboat Lake.
Some residents, like Carolyn White and Judy Zehner, of the Hahn's Peak Historic Society, are fine without internet in the Netflix and Twitter era.
In early June, Zehner was content sewing a quilt and showing off treasures of Hahn's Peak's past at the local museum, which boasts an authentic stagecoach and other relics of the town's mining history.
The women will even let you step inside an old steel jail with the promise of not locking you in.
White sometimes connects her iPad to the internet via a cell phone data signal. But it's not a headache for her if that signal doesn't come.
But for others, the lack of reliable, high speed internet is causing problems.
Katie Bessey, owner of the Hahn's Peak Cafe, said the outside world's reliance on internet creates challenges for parents of local schoolchildren in North Routt.
She faced a delay in registering one of her children for kindergarten in Steamboat because the online registration system requires parents to upload personal documents, such as immunization records, to a server.
"My Verizon hotspot connection couldn't handle it up here," Bessey said.
So, like many other North Routt residents before her, she hopped in her car to make the drive to Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat to register.
There is no Wi-Fi at Bessey's bar and restaurant, but she said she has lost track of how many guests inquire about it.
Bessey estimates most of the people who live in Hahn's Peak Village also go without internet.
Some choose to forgo it, while others don't want to pay a premium for an unreliable, slow connection.
"It would definitely make life easier if we had a better option," Bessey said.
Haves and have nots
Former Steamboat Springs City Councilman and IT guru Jon Quinn is very familiar with North Routt's internet struggles.
As owner of Northwest Data Services, he helps businesses like Vista Verde set up their limited internet connections.
Quinn said last week he likes to shake the tree whenever he can to try and advocate for better options.
But so far, he said, he's heard crickets from the county when he asks what steps they plan to take to bring the power of high-speed internet farther north.
"We do have the resources in terms of the financial resources and the intellectual resources, but we just don't have buy-in at the county level," he said. "The county needs to be the champion."
The county has secured grant funding and broadband improvements in recent years, but Quinn argues those advances have solely benefited internet users in Steamboat Springs and other areas that already have access to high-speed internet.
"If I were a taxpayer in North Routt, I would feel that, so far, all of that money is going to parts of the community already best served by fiber services and the availability of broadband," Quinn said. "If there is a real crisis in terms of availability of access in the county, so far, we have not made a dent to meet those needs and goals."
He pointed to other counties, such as Rio Blanco County, as governments that have done more to ensure all their residents have access to high-speed internet.
While that county is on track to help Gov. John Hickenlooper meet his goal of providing every Colorado resident access to reliable, high-speed internet, Quinn said Routt is not.
Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan said the county is taking steps that could help North Routt residents tap into faster internet connections in the future.
For example, he said, the county is currently working to draft a policy that would allow private internet providers, such as Zirkel Wireless, to use a county communications tower for a service connection.
Recent fiber projects have also brought a point as far north as Steamboat Springs Airport, Sullivan said.
Sullivan suggested providers could tap into that point and continue north in the future.
"Once we get this fiber project done through town and actually turn it on by July, the Northwest Colorado Broadband co-op will start looking to see what we can do with small service providers to provide services to more rural areas of the county," Sullivan said.
Quinn said North Routt's isolation from reliable internet connections is an economic development issue.
Valuable land and homes aren't being sold sometimes because there isn't the possibility of a high-speed internet connection.
And the lack of internet might also be keeping location-neutral workers and even seasonal workers from seeking housing up north because of the technology limitations.
Could the private sector step in?
The internet situation in Willow Creek Pass casts some doubt.
There, CenturyLink offers some residents a 1.5 megabit-per-second DSL connection.
That speed won't even stream a standard definition Netflix movie without buffering.
But there's a waitlist to get even that level of a connection, because, according to Quinn, CenturyLink won't make an investment and expand the service to more homes.
That's because the math isn't there for the company to make a profit.
Some North Routt residents are looking up at 10,824-foot-tall Farwell Mountain, which is only 15 feet shorter than Hahn's Peak, as a possible solution.
Local internet provider Zirkel Wireless wants to put network infrastructure on top of the mountain that would allow more residents in the area access to high speed internet.
The company is even lobbying the state to help expedite the process.
But the company has been told by the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the site, that the approval process for putting network infrastructure on the mountain will take at least two years.
And District Ranger Chad Stewart has several reservations about the site.
"It's a tough site to get to because of how high it is and how much snow we get," he said.
And so, North Routt residents carry on and adapt.
"It just makes everything cumbersome," said Wilson, of the Vista Verde guest ranch. "But you don't want to complain, because you're choosing to be in this beautiful, remote setting. And the internet is not necessarily a human right, but it's becoming one."