Cell phone service to Aspen-area wilderness only a matter of time
ASPEN – On a rainy afternoon in July, likely the first cell-phone call for a cab ever placed from Maroon Lake near Aspen successfully reached a taxi service.Visitors to the Maroon Bells today won’t get a cell signal, but that day is coming, according to Jim Stark, winter sports administrator with the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.Various efforts have been under way to get cell service to the Maroon Creek Valley and, potentially, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area extending beyond Maroon Lake.Earlier this summer, a system was installed that allowed limited cell service near the interpretive center at Maroon Lake. A federal grant to purchase hybrid buses for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s Maroon Bells service provided some dollars to set up the cell service. The system was tested, and apparently worked, Stark said, but it is not presently operational.Its use awaits a formal agreement between the Forest Service and RFTA, he said.The idea was to give such agencies as the Forest Service, its campground hosts, RFTA and Mountain Rescue Aspen access to cell service, particularly in the event of emergencies.Meanwhile, AT&T is looking at installing a small tower at the top of Loge Peak at Aspen Highlands that could improve cell coverage at points around Aspen, and potentially blanket the area at Maroon Lake with cell service, Stark said.Both RFTA and the Forest Service currently use radios to keep in contact with the outside world – Aspen is roughly 10 miles away. The goal for the Forest Service, Stark said, is to quit dominating the airwaves with Maroon Bells radio traffic and to have access to another means of communication in the event of an emergency.The prospect of cell service, however, has generated a philosophical debate within the agency. The sound of cell-phone ring tones and visitors chatting it up on their phones may not be compatible with what has traditionally been the Maroon Bells experience.”We want to keep the character of this place,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest, standing on the path around the lake on Friday. Hence the original vision of limited service.”It wouldn’t be for the world to use,” he said.But if AT&T erects a tower, broadly accessible service is coming, Stark said.”I hope so,” he said, “and I was in the camp saying that it would really be a bummer if you go up there and everyone is on their cell phone.”If and when service is in place, it’s likely the Maroon Lake area will be posted as a “no cell-phone zone,” and visitors will be urged to forego use of their phones, Stark predicted.Rescuers, however, look forward to the day that communication in the wilderness near the Bells is improved, he said.”If it could save someone’s life, I think the argument could be made that it’s worth it,” Stark said. “I have no doubt that for lots of emergencies up there, it might make a difference.”Alex Huppenthal, founder of Aspenworks, a telecommunications consulting company, installed the cell system for RFTA and the Forest Service that got a trial run this summer.He said he built a network to relay a signal from the only spot both Aspen and the Bells interpretive center can “see” – the top of Aspen Highlands. The Aspen Skiing Co. cooperated with the placement of equipment at the Highlands ski patrol shack atop Loge Peak, he said.Huppenthal said he successfully placed a 911 emergency call from the interpretive center to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center when he tested the system.On the day he tested it, however, everyone had access. Visitors who were unaware cell-phone service is not typically available at Maroon Lake were able to make calls. One couple summoned a taxi when it began to rain, he said.”During that testing, I think there was a broader span of use than we had envisioned,” said Scott Snelson, Forest Service ranger in the Aspen-Sopris District.It was a taste of what’s invariably to come, Stark said.
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