As skiers grow closer to smartphones, Colorado ski areas upgrade wireless infrastructure |

As skiers grow closer to smartphones, Colorado ski areas upgrade wireless infrastructure

Skier Brandon Scharn, of Dallas, checks his work email on his smartphone on Friday afternoon outside of the Thunderhead Lodge at the Steamboat Ski Area. Ski areas are upgrading their wireless infrastructure to accommodate a generation of skiers that has grown closer to smartphones.
Scott Franz

— Cell phone charging stations at Thunderhead Lodge and Wi-Fi connections on gondola cars in Vail would have seemed silly, even ridiculous, a decade ago.

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But as smartphones become more and more popular, ski areas across Colorado are upgrading their wireless infrastructure to accommodate a generation of skiers and riders that expect and depend on data connections while they enjoy the outdoors far away from home.

Selfies must be posted.

Facebook statuses must be updated.

Runs must be tracked and recorded with apps.

“It’s an interesting evolution,” Doug Allen, vice president of mountain operations at Steamboat Ski Area, said as he described the technology installed at the ski area over the last two seasons that are geared toward smartphone users.

The upgrades include the charging station at Thunderhead and more reliable cell phone data connections and the addition of free Wi-Fi at all of the ski area’s restaurants on the mountain.

The ski area also has improved its smartphone app that allows skiers and riders to track their runs and view trail maps and lift statuses, among other things.

“I think that our customer is getting more and more used to all of it,” Allen continued. “Vail has Wi-Fi on the gondola. When we redo our own gondola, I’m trying to get it on ours as well.”

The ski area last ski season installed a distributed antenna system, or DAS, at Thunderhead, Rendezvous Saddle and Four Points Lodge that allows cell phone carriers to offer better data connections in and around the facilities.

Allen said DAS systems are commonly used at stadiums and other facilities where a large number of people congregate and have the potential to overload cell phone infrastructure by using up data on their phones.

Towers only can handle so much Pandora streaming or Facebook picture posting at a time.

“What ends up happening is if you have 15,000 people on the mountain and a lot of them are using their smartphones, it overloads the site trying to service the community and everybody suffers,” Allen said. “What this does is it takes the additional data traffic from skiers and shifts it off the normal cell site.”

AT&T is the first cell phone carrier to utilize the ski area’s new DAS system, and it is designed to accommodate other carriers in the future.

In addition to Steamboat, AT&T recently flipped the switch on 4G LTE DAS systems at Vail, Aspen Meadows and Arapahoe Basin.

The addition of more antennas and Wi-Fi connections has obvious benefits to both skiers and ski areas in this smartphone era.

Never off the grid

Spend an afternoon walking outside of Thunderhead, and it’s easy to spot a number of people talking on their phones or using them to send texts and browse the web.

With a better data connection, skier Barndon Scharn on Friday could check his work emails on his smartphone at Thunderhead and text his friends to see where they were before heading out for the next run.

Ski areas themselves win because powder day photos posted by riders on the mountain become free marketing and can entice others to come to the slopes.

There are also the safety benefits.

Linda Leonard, visiting Steamboat from Chattanooga, Tennessee, remembers a time she and her husband, Chip, used to take walkie talkies on ski vacations to stay in touch.

She said it’s great that skiers and riders now are able to make calls on the slopes and find one another if they get lost, saving ski patrollers some time and effort.

Last year, she said it also was nifty to be on the slopes in Steamboat and still get a call from Delta Airlines announcing a flight cancellation because of a snowstorm.

“We had more time to change our plans,” Leonard said.

As nifty as all the extra connections are here in Steamboat, Chip Leonard said he won’t forget why he and his wife are here on vacation in the first place.

“Yes I’ve got my phone, but I won’t use it unless I absolutely have to,” he said. “I didn’t pay to come here to play with my phone. I came here to ski.”

Skiers and riders using both Verizon and AT&T reported good connections on Friday in places like the gondola and near Thunderhead.

For some Colorado ski areas, even basic cell phone coverage has been a new addition.

Adrienne Saia Isaac, communications manager for A-Basin, said prior to the 2012-13 season getting an occasional cell phone signal at the ski area was the result of pure luck.

Isaac said a new microwave connection from AT&T changed that and brought more reliable service.

“I don’t think we’re a Wi-Fi on the lift type of ski area, but it’s all about providing some level of connectivity to our guests,” Isaac said. “When we were able to offer (better cell reception), it was a great help.”

Prior to the expanded coverage, A-Basin Chief Operating Officer Al Henceroth blogged about the cell phone issue and shared some of the mixed feelings he heard about the pending upgrades.

“Over the years I have received lots of comments about our lack of cell coverage,” Henceroth wrote. “The majority of that feedback encouraged us to get cell coverage, but a chunk of the feedback relished not having coverage. It strongly reminds me that A-Basin can be a lot of different things to different people.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

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