Should National Parks Offer Wifi and Cellular Coverage?

Is cellular coverage inevitable in U.S. national parks, some of the nation’s last wireless hold-outs?

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That dreaded phrase of signal-searching—”Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”—threatens to invade U.S. national parks, which are one of the last places still off the digital grid. Under pressure from telecommunication companies and disgruntled visitors, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks announced plans to consider network coverage, Reuters reports. And no doubt, other parks will follow if Yellowstone and Glacier opt to forge ahead with digitizing. Reuters:

That prospect has given pause to a more traditional cohort of park visitors who cherish the unplugged tranquility of the great outdoors, fearing an intrusion of mobile phones – and the sound of idle chatter – will diminish their experience.

But the world, some point out, has changed. Technology is part of daily life, and future visitors may be deterred from paying homage to the country’s wilderness if cell phones and email cannot be a part of that experience.

The agency’s mission statement requires it to protect park resources and the visitor experience, but each individual experience is unique, said Lee Dickinson, a special-uses program manager for the Park Service.

“I’ve had two visitors calling me literally within hours of each other who wanted exactly the opposite experience: One saying he didn’t vacation anywhere without electronic access and the other complaining he was disturbed by another park visitor ordering pizza on his cell phone,” Dickinson said.

The decision to offer cell service is up to each of the system’s 300 individual parks, monuments and other sites under the National Park Service’s purview. Verizon argues that a proposed 100-foot tall cell phone tower in Yellowstone would be an asset for visitor safety by providing them means of reaching out for help in an emergency. Verizon also points out that cell phone apps can enhance experiences by providing maps, plant and animal guides and the ability to instantaneously share memorable moments with others.

Members of the opposite camp argue that others yammering or fidgeting with phones would be annoying, and that cell phones may give backcountry adventurers a false sense of safety in the wilderness that may lead to reckless behaviors.

A Chicago Tribune op-ed argues:

The problem is that some people don’t appreciate the difference between a national park and a theme park. It’s one thing to use your cellphone to warn your pals that the line at Space Mountain is two hours long. It’s another thing entirely to tweet the coordinates of a baby moose sighting.

People who can’t live without their cellphones aren’t just the wrong demographic for Yellowstone. They’re the very demographic the rest of us go to Yellowstone to escape. Let’s not encourage them. The call of the wild doesn’t need a ring tone.

But really it seems only a matter of time before networks are welcomed to the parks. Yellowstone, for example, already offers limited coverage in select areas, and park officials there say they regularly field complaints from many of their 3 million annual visitors who find the lack of coverage disconcerting.

Those left behind may also benefit from coverage, according to Reuters.

Park spokesman Al Nash said he routinely fields calls from anxious relatives of Yellowstone visitors unable to contact their loved ones.

“They say, ‘My gosh, my niece, daughter or parents went to Yellowstone, and we haven’t heard from them for three days,’” he said.

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