Residents in sections of Summit County know the frustrations of spotty or even nonexistent cell service all too well, and, at least for now, it seems they’d better get used to the lack of bars and resulting static-filled exchanges.
That’s according to a forthcoming report set to be released in the next month from a consultancy the county hired to investigate options and alternatives. Despite a prior Northwest Colorado Council of Government (NWCCOG) study showing the Lower Blue River Basin north of Silverthorne, Montezuma and further upgrades in the Summit Cove area as priorities, the region’s largest phone carriers do not intend to make any tower or other infrastructural upgrades in the near future.
“It’s really disappointing,” said county manager Scott Vargo. “AT&T has been very clear it has no plans at this time and nothing on their planning schedule, so to speak, to provide any sort of capital investment in those areas. Verizon has not been quite as definitive as that, but there’s not a lot of reason to feel optimistic.”
Citizens of Summit approved a ballot measure this past November to override Colorado Senate Bill 152, which granted the county an exemption for how it must develop broadband and cellular networks according to state law. (Breckenridge will have a similar question on the ballot for the general election this November.) In turn, the county tapped communications consulting firm CTC Technology and Energy in part with a $25,000 Colorado Department of Local Affairs grant to find new ways to encourage new towers going up.
AT&T pulled out of initial agreements this past summer to place two new towers, one between Keystone and Summit Cove on Landfill Road and another on Johnson Road north of Silverthorne. Verizon, meanwhile, installed a low site at the Lake Dillon Fire Rescue station in Summit Cove about a year ago and also plans to locate two others in Silverthorne including one at the clubhouse at Raven Golf Course. Talks continue for another low site on a CDOT camera tower along Interstate-70.
The problem is that those locations don’t service the areas in the county with the most pressing need. And that previous fire station addition, according to a number of Summit Cove residents, has not had the desired effect in this densely populated area, particularly for those with slightly older phones.
Low sites are about half the expense of larger towers — a couple hundred thousand dollars compared to half a million — and are also easier to maintain, but do not provide near the coverage area. Still, even with the county’s willingness to offer incentives and a few private citizens in these dead-zones stepping up to offer their properties for a tower, there’s no takers.
“In most of the rest of the world, this is considered a utility,” explained County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. “But we’re not getting any cooperation from the big providers, and there’s just absolutely no interest because it’s not in their business interests, to make a profit, to provide services to rural areas.”
With no cell service for these areas, however, safety concerns remain. Car accidents and wildfires have been incidents to occur along the Lower Blue, the longest stretch in the county with no cell service.
“Real lives are at risk,” said Stiegelmeier. “Often someone has to run to their home to get on their landline to make a 911 call.”
Other considerations from this local deficiency include a chilling effect on economic development for the community outside of traditional mountain-resort sectors. With limited phone service, and frequently coming with that reduced internet strength, entrepreneurs cannot function out of their homes, nor small businesses out of their local offices.
In the parts the county where coverages are more suitable, those too suffer from limited signal strength during peak times. On a Sunday afternoon during the ski season, for instance, it’s not uncommon for the systems to overload. On the drive back to the metro area on I-70, it can mean motorists unable to contact emergency services because of an accident, or in one case a few years back, when a pregnant woman’s water broke in the car. In less serious, but still annoying, situations, the credit card machines for area restaurants have been known to go down.
Though feeling discoursed after receiving the primary carriers’ cold shoulder, the county intends to move forward and explore further options. The CTC report won’t be finalized until at least mid October, but already county staff is planning to reach out to third-party and lower-tier providers to at least offer roaming potential for calls. Finding ways to entice companies like Google to install more fiber cable and towers to increase internet bandwidth capabilities is another possible avenue. If a tower is placed for this purpose, one of the major cell companies may consider piggybacking off of it with its own equipment to create a dual benefit.
Those conversations are still being had, and there are many unknown factors regarding costs, locations and logistical question marks. Which means for now, in these specific areas, Summit residents and those passing through should not expect their calls to go through.
“This is not the answer anyone wants to hear,” said Vargo. “But unless there’s any change that mandates the providers provide that coverage, we’re not terribly optimistic.”