Why has cell service around Steamboat Springs been so slow this winter?
Verizon says recent increase in network traffic is ‘unprecedented’
Just as U.S. Highway 40 can bog down with traffic when Steamboat Springs is busier, residents say cell phone service in the Yampa Valley can be slow as well.
Steamboat area residents have been discussing recent negative impacts to cell phone service for the past month, including dozens on local Facebook groups, after experiencing dropped calls and low cell signal service.
“While our network is engineered to handle voice and data traffic well above normal peak times, the recent increase in network traffic seen in the Steamboat Springs area has been unprecedented,” Verizon Consumer Group Communications Manager Heidi Flato said Thursday, Feb. 23. “This has, at times, led to congestion, which has impacted network performance for some customers.”
“While I’m not able to speak to future build plans, we are aware of the situation, and we are aggressively working on several projects that will improve the experience in the short term,” Flato said. “We are also working on numerous longer-term projects that will come to fruition later this year and into 2024.”
Flato provided an informal overview of cell phone capacity issues in tourism-based communities with fluctuating use levels and with the added factor of more full-time residents moving to rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. She used the analogy of a communications company building a highway for typical maximum traffic, but those cellular highways may get overwhelmed during rush hour-style congestion.
“They (Verizon technical staff) are always looking at our traffic; that’s part of the ongoing analysis that happens on a daily basis,” Flato said. “During the pandemic, when we saw people moving out of the urban area, that has had a big impact on our network. There is probably some residual effect of that.”
Steamboat Pilot & Today has reported on cell phone capacity issues since 2001, when towers moved to digital service.
“Cell site implementation must follow specific safety protocols, logistics and approval processes that ultimately require time and patience,” Flato added.
Routt County Emergency Communications Manager Jim Cullen said the fluctuating cell phone service has not caused any safety issues when people are calling 911 since those calls are handled on different, more robust routing circuits.
Since Cullen has an AT&T cell phone for work and a Verizon cell phone personally, he knows neither cell network has perfect coverage throughout rural, mountainous Routt County. Cullen is among various residents who have reported lowered cell strength from their homes near the Steamboat Resort area this winter.
“It just makes no sense to have an amazing signal one day and then the next day a poor signal in the same place,” Cullen said.
Routt County residents and businesses employ workaround options when cell phone service is inconsistent such as maintaining phone land lines, utilizing Voice over Internet Protocol phone service, sending text messages when calls do not connect, using wi-fi enabled calling on cell phones when at a stationary wi-fi location or scheduling phone calls via video conferencing services.
High visitation in North Routt can also impact cell service during the summers.
“We find that when we have a lot of users in the area, cell service is not as good. We hear that in the summer when we have lots of people,” said Julie Arington, manager at Steamboat Lake State Park.
When the Steamboat Lake area gets busy with more cell phone use from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the electronic payment kiosk system that operates via aircard cellular data can be limited, so customers may be asked to pay by check or cash, Arington said.
Josh Nowak, operations manager for 10 years at Zirkel wireless in Steamboat, while not a cell phone technology expert, has followed local cell phone capacity issues.
“There are times when there are very, very noticeable capacity bottlenecks, that often happens during the busiest times of year,” Nowak said. “The cellular networks do quickly become overloaded. There’s time where I am checking my signal from my phone to the tower, and it’s a good signal to the tower. But ping time and latency are through the roof.”
Jim Kimberly, director of corporate communications for AT&T, only noted, “Our wireless network in Steamboat Springs is operating normally.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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