Will Cell Phone Companies Ruin National Parks by Installing Wi-Fi in the Wilderness?

An environmental group is opposing efforts to bring broadband to the backcountry to attract a new generation of nature lovers.

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Nov 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

How badly do you need to watch that cat video while you wait for Old Faithful’s next eruption? That’s the question posed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which warns that a $34 million fiber-optic network could soon run through Yellowstone National Park if people don’t speak up.

“If we do this, we’d be sacrificing the value of solitude, the idea that parks are places to be disconnected and get back in touch with nature,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group that opposes what it sees as a high-tech gold rush in the parks.

It’s all part of an effort to broaden the usage of the national parks and reach millennials, who are perceived as being unwilling to disconnect even for a day.

Some of the pressure to bring Yellowstone online is coming from park employees, who have been agitating via petitions, newsletters, and meetings to install Wi-Fi service at central park locations such as visitors centers, gateways, stores, and campgrounds.

Because those who staff the snack stands, souvenir shops, and lodges tend to be young, wired, and living at the parks as well as working there, it’s not surprising they’re clamoring for a bandwidth boost. The message got through, it seems, and a pilot project is under way to experimentally expand Wi-Fi at five national parks.

At issue in Yellowstone is a cluster of proposed projects by cell phone companies aimed at bringing 4G digital service into the park. Prime among them is a proposal by CenturyLink that would bury fiber-optic cable under and along roads leading through Grand Teton National Park and into Yellowstone.

AT&T has proposed a truck-based system to provide 4G access at the Old Faithful geyser. Verizon has already installed additional equipment on its tower near Mammoth Hot Springs to make 4G available in that area. The proposed projects came to light in a data search by PEER, which hopes to arouse public outrage and is circulating a petition opposing the initiatives.

So why wire the national parks?

The motivation is, of course, primarily economic, as cell phone companies compete by promising customers faster Wi-Fi, wider coverage networks, and fewer dead spots—no matter where they are. Yellowstone already has five cell phone towers, the last of which was approved in 2013, and cell service is available in 75 percent of the park, according to PEER.

Now it’s all about bandwidth. After all, what’s the use of taking the perfect selfie with the world’s biggest buffalo if you can’t Snapchat it to your friends? So the National Park Service hasn’t been shy about embracing digital technology.

In March the NPS announced a “Go Digital” initiative as part of its A Call to Action plan, unveiled in March in preparation for the 100th birthday of the national park system.

Just the opposite message is coming out of the U.S. Forest Service, which has been urging families to get off the grid and connect with nature. It seems officials have taken to heart the pleas of psychologists, who in the past few years have begun warning parents about the risks of so-called “nature-deficit disorder.

At Yellowstone, though, it seems clear that technology is here to stay.

Follow Old Faithful on Twitter @GeyserNPS and get alerts predicting the next eruption. With your smartphone you can scan QR codes, which link to an online trip planner. There’s even a wildlife app, which you can use to find out about recent sightings of elk, wolves, buffalo, and other wildlife. In other words, even more chances to get that perfect selfie.

Just don’t do it with a bear. The U.S. Forest Service last week warned visitors to stop trying to take their picture with bears lest the wild animals photobomb them. And not in a good way.