Feb 17 2022

Street Smarts: Resort Town Vail Carves the Smart Tech Curves

Infrastructure advancements set up the town for fresh smart city deployments.

In Vail, Colo., you can access free Wi-Fi to check your email as you stroll down a Bavarian-style street or view current fish activity in Gore Creek, all transmitted live via Vail’s wireless network. Debating whether to relax indoors or hit the slopes? You only need to look at the current lift wait times, which a local resort calculates using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals emitted by guests’ phones and other devices as they progress in line.

Given the municipality’s size of roughly 5,300 permanent residents and 5,000 vacation property owners, Vail offers an impressive number of smart tech solutions.

The thousands of travelers who regularly flood the popular destination catalyzed and enhanced the town’s tech and connectivity capabilities in recent years, according to Vail IT Director TJ Johnson. For example, the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships drew more than 220,000 spectators.

“In my short time here, we’ve upgraded our bus system, and we replaced the majority of our public Wi-Fi network access points,” Johnson says. “For a small town, we have a vast technology infrastructure and application network. We’ve got a real focus on staying up to date on our tech.”

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A Strong Framework Provides a Foundation for Smart Functionality

Vail’s technology is supported by its underground fiber backbone; its Wi-Fi network components include Ruckus ZoneFlex access points and cloud-based Virtual SmartZone High Scale controllers, which offer redundancy if a hardware failure were to occur.

In addition to the free public Wi-Fi network, which covers approximately 10 square miles, Johnson says a separate network transmits data that relates to municipal functions, such as automated fountain controls and public safety surveillance efforts involving Axis Communications megapixel cameras and video monitoring software from Milestone Systems.

Wireless carriers Verizon and T-Mobile also use dedicated strands of fiber in the conduit and antennas they’ve added to Vail’s cellular node network over the years to provide consumer service to the area.

“We reuse the same infrastructure to run numerous municipal Internet of Things devices around the town,” Johnson says. “Our irrigation systems are run off that. We’ve got a pretty robust camera system; some of those feed through that wireless network.”

Connectivity can be an issue throughout the state due to its geography, according to Colorado Smart Cities Alliance Executive Director Tyler Svitak, who is also a former Colorado Department of Transportation employee. He says mountain corridors are one of the department’s primary challenges.

“The area around Vail actually is one of the biggest connectivity gaps for CDOT,” Svitak says. “A lot of the things they might use to monitor avalanches or road conditions aren’t reliable. That is a big barrier, and outside of mountainous corridors, there’s a lot of bandwidth and latency issues for some of the communities that don’t have access to their own fiber networks.”

RELATED: How will 5G networks enhance smart city solutions?

Town’s Network Equipment Fills Potential Transmission Gaps

Vail’s infrastructure, however, supports a number of smart tech-enabled services, including the RideVail Transit intelligent system it unveiled in November, which allows residents and visitors to view the location and current capacity level of buses through the ride.vailgov.com website. 

Cradlepoint wireless edge routers on each bus transmit location-based data and provide Wi-Fi access for passengers using an SD-WAN architecture. The city also uses operations management software to assist with dispatching vehicles and collecting time-related route performance and other data that can potentially help inform planning decisions.

Vail hopes to add QR codes at bus stops that riders can scan with their phone cameras to easily access the system’s website.

“As long as you have your phone’s location services enabled, it can tell you where you are and when the bus next bus is coming,” Johnson says. “For real-time information, there’s no better way to go.”

Kim Langmaid, Mayor, Vail, Colo.
Data and monitoring are increasingly important to managing the Vail destination as visitation grows.”

Kim Langmaid Mayor, Vail, Colo.

Transportation, according to Svitak, is a top smart tech priority for several Colorado towns, particularly in mountainous areas.

“We’ve seen a ton of pilots and large-scale projects,” he says. “We know mountain communities have issues with traffic coming in and out and getting people to and from I-70. And that’s why many of them were supportive of what CDOT’s doing with connected vehicle deployment along I-70 to try and improve safety along that corridor, reduce accidents and ultimately increase traffic flow.”

EXPLORE: How does real-time data analysis benefit transit agencies?

Vail Examines Prospective Smart Tech Applications

CDOT is in the process of deploying about 400 miles of connected vehicle infrastructure tied to fiber throughout several of Colorado’s main interstates, including I-70. Vail, too, is testing new transportation-related tech solutions. The town is conducting a proof-of-concept project involving cameras with AI capabilities that can distinguish vehicles from pedestrians. The cameras have been placed at key locations, including roundabout intersections, where they’re being used to count cars for traffic flow purposes.

Vail also is using smart technology for some ecological endeavors, such as reducing water waste using rain sensors to help prevent the town’s irrigation system from being run unnecessarily, Johnson says.

Smart tech’s surveillance capabilities, according to Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid, may help address future environmental and other needs the town may have as a travel retreat.

“Data and monitoring are increasingly important to managing the Vail destination as visitation grows and we bump up against capacity issues related to use of our surrounding public lands, whether it’s skiing in winter, hiking in summer or participation in special events year-round,” Langmaid says.

Vail has plenty of incentives to continue building up its connectivity and other technological resources. Between residents, municipal employees, businesses and tourists looking for a luxury experience, the town’s smart technology ultimately serves a unique mix of end users who all stand to benefit from the convenience it can provide.

“Our business owners, visitors, residents — everybody’s relying on tech to keep their lives moving forward,” Johnson says. “All of that lends itself to an appetite for leveraging technology whenever we can to make our town more attractive to visitors and an easier place to live and transact business. We’re as hungry for technology as anybody.”

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