Building Upon a Decade of Deploying Small-Cell Solutions to Improve Connectivity

Denver, Colorado

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After successes in Colorado ski towns and canyon dead zones, there’s a new push in Denver as the metro area moves toward 5G.

VAIL, Colo. — Crown Castle, which bills itself as the nation’s largest provider of wireless infrastructure, has a history of installing traditional cell towers that dates back to 1994 and now numbers more than 40,000—mostly located in the nation’s top 100 markets.

But two Colorado success stories in particular highlight the Houston-based company’s decade-long push into small-cell solutions that set the stage for a boom in 4G LTE shared networks and now the Denver metro area’s growing move toward 5G.

“Where the growth is happening across the country is the demand for 5G services,” Tanya Friese, manager of government relations for Crown Castle, told Route Fifty in an interview. “We’re really at the beginning of kind of the hockey-stick deployment here of the number of sites needed.”

Small-cell solutions, or SCS, are toaster or microwave-oven-sized antennas on new 35-foot poles or existing street lights or utility poles that bring cell service down closer to the user at street level. They typically use public right of ways through deals negotiated with local jurisdictions. Crown Castle has installed more than 14,000 SCS “nodes” nationwide over the past 10 years.

In Colorado, the company has installed small cells in Denver, Lakewood, Cherry Hills, Greenwood Village, Centennial and Colorado Springs. Now Crown Castle is gearing up for significantly more installations throughout the Denver area, including Federal Heights, Aurora, Northglenn, Commerce City and Edgewater, to name a few.

“So, what we’ve done in the last five to 10 years is nothing compared to what’s in the pipeline now and what we’re seeing in the near future across the existing networks in the Denver market,” Friese said. “What we’re seeing now and what our current deployment is is about a thousand small cells throughout metro Denver and some of the surrounding communities.”

That will require about 130 miles of new fiber, she added, and that’s just for new Crown Castle installations. Other cellular infrastructure providers will likely be just as active.

“That’s a huge commitment right there, and we’re just at the beginning stages of that deployment right now—the permitting and everything with all of the jurisdictions,” Friese said. “It’s multiple municipalities that we have to educate on small cells and working in the right of way.”

But before the Denver boom, two projects really demonstrated Crown Castle’s capabilities in a state with some serious topographical challenges for line-of-sight cellular services. First, Crown Castle worked with Clear Creek County and the Colorado Department of Transportation to provide small cell coverage along U.S. Highway 6 in notoriously windy Clear Creek Canyon.

The major route between Denver and the casino towns of Blackhawk and Central City, Clear Creek Canyon had no cellular coverage in an area known for accidents. First responders were reportedly elated to finally have cell service.

“It has vastly improved communications in the canyon—formally a true dead zone,” CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson said. “We have lots of cameras in the canyon now, as well as cell coverage, and we have the ability to connect electronic message boards if and when we decide we want one or more in the canyon. Emergency service communications and, in turn, response time, has greatly improved.”

Then Crown Castle pulled off another major public-safety project that had the added benefit of significantly improving both cellular service and wifi coverage in one of the nation’s most iconic and heavily trafficked ski towns, like Vail.

“We started talking to Crown Castle in 2013 because we were having huge cell issues with all the carriers,” said Vail’s IT director, Ron Braden. “We knew what was coming and we knew we had a huge problem. [Coverage] was horrible.”

What was coming was the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships—second only to the Olympics in terms of alpine ski-racing prestige. Vail and nearby Beaver Creek were expecting in excess of 150,000 additional guests, and that’s at ski resorts that typically do well over 2 million skier days combined each season, with up to 20,000 snow riders on busy days at Vail.

The town inked a deal with Crown Castle in 2014 and the race was on to install 29 small cells, one macro site and a hub site for equipment on land that was provided by the town. Crown was also part of a project to upgrade coverage at nearby Beaver Creek—host resort for most of the races.

“We needed broadband as we looked down the road, the future of LTE,” Braden said. “It had to be LTE-based. We needed to have a ton of both coverage and capacity, and then we augmented it with the wifi system. So, Crown also paid for retrofitting our public wifi system.”

The town chipped in some in-kind services, public right of ways and a little land for the hub site. Other than that, Crown picked up the entire $7 million tab, which it will recoup in long-term contracts with AT&T and Verizon, Braden said. The coverage has been remarkably improved throughout the upper Vail Valley.

Braden says the need to upgrade Vail’s cellular service also had a lot to do with public safety during an international sports event.

“We actually were the second ones in the country to test out D Block LTE FirstNet for public safety, so we had four nodes in Vail and then our site in Beaver Creek at Race City was D Block enabled for LTE public safety as well,” Braden said.

But the project was also aimed at tourists, businesses and homeowners.

“We looked at it from both perspectives—from the full-time residents of Vail who work from home from West Vail to East Vail and pretty much everywhere that needed that broadband and cellular capacity as well, in addition to the guests, the special events, the powder days, the Burtons, the GoPros, where we’re packing 20,000 people into two square miles,” Braden said.

The Burton US Open is arguably the nation’s largest annual snowboard competition, held every March in Vail, and the GoPro Games in June are an annual action sports event that also draws large crowds.

Besides improving the overall business environment needed to attract companies—Denver recently landed on the top-20 list for Amazon’s HQ2—upgrading cellular capacity can be a big driver for landing special events from Super Bowls to Papal visits. Or at least providing for better video streaming, photo sharing and social media connectivity for such events.

“The Pope visited the city of Philadelphia, and Crown and the carriers worked feverishly to improve the network to accommodate the millions of people who came into the area to get a glance of the Pope,” said Daniel Schweizer, Crown Castle’s director of government relations for the western region for small cell.

“The seminal events do commonly increase activity,” he added. “The benefit is that even after the event is concluded, all the lingering benefits of good, robust communications are intact.”

Denver is among three U.S. cities—including Salt Lake City and Reno—currently in talks to bid for either the 2026 or more likely 2030 Winter Olympics.

David O. Williams is a journalist based in Avon, Colorado.

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