Rural Truckee customers likely to lose internet access
June 28, 2018
Exwire, a local broadband company, has been providing Truckee residents in rural communities with internet service since 2002, using various towers — including one atop Lookout Mountain at Northstar Resort.
In January, Northstar contacted Devin Koch, owner of Exwire, giving him a six-month notice to remove his equipment from their property.
Koch said this would result in 40 customers losing internet service, leaving cellular 4G satellite, what he called an expensive and typically slow service, as their only way to connect to the internet.
"If we don't have Lookout, we need a lot of other sites to do what lookout does," he said.
David Galson is an Exwire customer who runs a computer consulting business from his home five miles east of Truckee. He said if he loses his current internet connection he will have to go downtown to conduct most of his business, as cellular 4G satellite is not an option he will consider.
"My business is a part-time business and I work alone," he said. "This will preclude me from doing my work."
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For the past 10 years there has not been a contractual agreement signed between the two parties. Exwire began using Lookout Mountain for their equipment in 2006, signing a two-year contract with the resort. Although the contract expired in 2008, Northstar continued to allow the equipment on the mountain as long as Koch still paid a month-to-month fee.
When Vail Resorts purchased Northstar in 2010, the agreement between the two companies remained intact.
Environmental, safety concerns
According to Koch, officials from Northstar cited environmental, safety and disruption issues that the equipment caused within the resort as grounds for the removal of the antennas. Koch said an IT representative at the resort claimed there were safety concerns regarding improper grounding of the equipment that could cause harm to guests in the event of a lightning strike. In addition, the equipment that was placed in a tree was not "aesthetically pleasing," he said.
Koch said the resort claimed Exwire had breached the original contract by adding five additional antennas when there was only one in the contract. He said there were originally three antennas. When a fourth was added Exwire agreed to pay an extra $100 a month bringing the monthly fee to $550, he said.
Ultimately, he said the resort told him they wanted to minimize the third party "for-profit" entities on the mountain.
While Galson, an Exwire customer, is concerned about his internet service being disconnected he said he's frustrated with the less than 30-day notice he received from Exwire despite the broadband company getting a six-month notice from the resort.
"This isn't a good guy, bad guy situation," Galson said. "There's a gray area."
Galson said the situation could have been resolved with better communication and collaboration.
"Neither party seemed to be very good at understanding each other's needs and business objectives." However, he added, "it would add more to Vail's brand to be supportive of the community."
Exwire is currently in the process of building new systems elsewhere to provide some, but not all, customers who had been served by Lookout Mountain with an internet connection.
Rural connectivity struggles continue
Obtaining reliable internet service has long been a struggle for residents in rural communities.
Bryce Nesbitt, a member of Heidelmann Lodge on Donner Summit, which once received internet from Exwire's tower on Mt. Lincoln at Sugar Bowl Resort, said small broadband companies often struggle to provide reliable service because of the lack of funds for proper equipment.
Nesbitt said the tower at Mt. Lincoln had stopped operating partly because of poor engineering and was unable to properly operate in the winter. Like Northstar, Sugar Bowl had also failed to come to an agreement with Exwire concerning operations of the tower.
"To achieve the goal of reliable internet requires serious engineering," he said. "Major broadband services have no requirement to provide service to everyone. They'll go where it's profitable."
Nesbitt suggested the Town of Truckee implement a rule mandating broadband services to all customers instead of the ones living in locations that are profitable. "If you serve one resident, you have to serve all."
Multiple attempts were made to reach Northstar California for comment on this story, but resort officials did not respond.
Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com or 530-550-2652.