Updated: National Park Concessionaires Want Expanded Cellphone, Internet Service In The Parks

Editor's note: This updates with NPS comment on the proposal.

Greatly expanded cellphone and Internet service will be tested at five to 10 units of the National Park System as part of a pilot program to see if visitors want that service and if the National Park Service can both cut costs and provide more immediate information.

The trial period stands to generate a philosophical debate over whether places such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Shenandoah, and Acadia national parks should provide a measure of sanctuary from the Wi-Fi crowd, or if connectivity in the parks should be as ubiquitous as in a coffee shop or airport terminal. Some see it as an unwelcome intrusion, while others see it as providing a safety blanket of sorts for dealing with emergencies.

Calling spotty, and in many places non-existent, cellphone and Internet service in the National Park System a possible "irritant that adversely shapes memories of a park visit," the National Park Hospitality Association motivated the Park Service to consider expanding Wi-Fi across the system.

Jeff Olson, a spokesman in the Park Service's Washington, D.C., headquarters, said the list of parks to be involved in the pilot program should be determined within the coming week.

Expanded Wi-Fi service could save the Park Service money by making available electronically materials now printed and handed out to park visitors, such as park newspapers, he said. Beyond that, alerting visitors to impending changes in the weather, construction projects, or other issues in the parks could be done more quickly and effectively via Wi-Fi, the spokesman said.

“If we have a portal that people can access, we can offer them just about real-time information about what’s going on in the park that day. Are there construction projects to avoid, are there bear jams, what’s the weather?" said Mr. Olson. "So there are some information and safety things that we could have a lot fresher information about.

“We’d be able to print a lot fewer park newspapers, park brochures, flyers, that would save us money. That would be a green thing to do," he added. "That would save some space in a landfill. So those are a couple of things that we’re interested in finding out about.”

As envisioned by the NPHA, which represents park concessionaires, expanded Wi-Fi could also be a possible money-maker for concessionires, as they could charge a fee for access to service beyond a basic tier that links users to the park's website.

Officials at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Thursday called the plan "a giant step toward ‘Disney-fying’ park interpretation, replacing rangers with corporate icons as your guides."

"Solitude values of parks will go by the board, as lodges, tents, trailheads and other park locations become just another place to fiddle with electronic devices," feared Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

But Derrick Crandall, counselor for the NPHA, immediately decried that description, telling the Traveler "there is NO discussion about replacing rangers with corporate icons. Period."

NPHA in past months has portrayed poor cellphone and Internet service as an impediment to interpretation and enjoyable visits in the park system, and proposed a Wi-Fi system that would allow concessionaires to work with national park friends groups and the Park Service to develop cellphone apps that could bolster interpretative and information services in the parks.

Under the proposal that dates at least back to September, NPHA would like to see the Park Service expand at least a basic, free level of Internet and cellphone service "at all major, developed visitor areas in the National Park System." Areas identified by the group as in need of such service range from visitor centers and along most park roads to trailheads.

How to mitigate visual impacts of cell towers, and whether to provide coverage in officially designated wilderness, are topics that need to be discussed, the group said.

A higher level of service, available to park visitors for an unspecified fee, would enable visitors to access "official park apps" developed by concessionaires, the NPS, and national park friends groups, according to the group's newsletters.

In its September newsletter, NPHA bemoaned the poor cellphone and Internet service currently available in the parks.

Smartphones go everywhere with Americans – and with people around the globe, including those who visit our nation. But in many of America's national parks, these prized smartphones are little more than cameras because cell and data service, even at visitor centers and lodges and other developed sites, is poor – or worse.

Poor connectivity is especially relevant as the National Park Service and its partners, including concessioners, seek to invite all Americans and more international visitors to visit and experience the natural, historic and cultural treasures managed by the National Park Service. Many of these nontraditional visitors will not find poor cell and data service understandable or attractive – and in fact it may be an irritant that adversely shapes memories of a park visit. Poor service will also handicap NPS and partner efforts to harness smartphones as a means to deliver interpretation and other important information to park visitors.

NPHA's October/November newsletter calls on the Park Service to "design a system that is financially sustainable, generating revenues adequate to install, maintain and upgrade internet access. To do this, concessioners are offered the opportunity to develop and operate these systems, either individually or through a collaborative venture with other concessioners."

Mr. Ruch said NPHA's proposal has sailed under public scrutiny and amounts to "a disturbing stealth scheme to wire our national park system."

More so, he said, “(E)xperiencing the natural wonders of our national parks should not require a smartphone.”

According to PEER, Park Service Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell has invited NPHA to nominate the first five parks to be wired, with the final “winners” selected sometime in January. Park Service Director Jon Jarvis also was said to be reviewing an NPHA-drafted system-wide policy promoting connectivity, and a joint “strategy session” is slated for February.

At the Park Service headquarters in Washington, Mr. Olson wouldn't say the lack of extensive Wi-Fi service in the parks has been a detriment to visitors' experiences.

"But offering the most timely information that we can is what we want to do. That’s the way the world is moving," he said. “We’re not trying to get people to use cellphones. That’s something that's already happening. People show up at the parks with their cellphones, their iPads, and their other wireless technology."

As for public comment on the proposal, the spokesman said that would be permitted under the Park Service's usual compliance methods, such as public meetings and comment periods. Information on such meetings and periods will be made available in the months ahead, he said.

Comments

Doing research or checking facts, be it a guide book, map, Chimani apps, etc.. can be easy on a smartphone. This does not always work with out cell service. Some people look at going to the parks as going back in time. Nothing beats talking to a ranger that has good knowledge. I have fond memories of tips and advice from them. But I find I use my smart phone more and more to find out information about anything I find interesting. I have been to museums that have headphones that make you able to get info on what you are looking at. I suppose it's not much different. I think the real precident would be to encourage users of phones to do it in a manner that is courteous to others.

I don't have any problem with Wi-Fi hot spots in places that already have structure, i.e visitor centers, restaurants, drive in campgrounds, etc but I wouldn't want to dot the landscape with towers to cover the park or enabling babbling on the phone in areas that people go for peace and quiet.

Personally, I hardly use the smart phone to talk on...mostly use the text feature, and internet for info. I agree with ecbuck on this one, I do not want to hear people on the phone either when I want peace and quiet. Hopefully they will be there for the same reason.

There should be some analysis of whether more telecommunications towers would be needed to provide the service contemplated. It's one thing if existing towers could do the job. It's quite another if more towers would be erected, impairing scenic vistas and historical areas.

This is the perfect way to reduce crowds. The NPS should not put more towers up, as there are legitimate questions about the safety to humans and honeybees regarding cell phone towers. If these people need cell phones in a park, they don't really need to go to a park in the first place. I personnal don't want to see more human infrastructure in a park that is supposedly being preserved for future generations.

What concessionaires want, concessionarres get in the NPS. It is their money that drives the system so i say be prepared for "fake" cell phone towers. The disneyification of our National Parks has begun.

Not always the case, I believe. I've seen some some pretty bad actions taken by NPS in response to questionable performance by concessionaires. The underlying motives are to remove all possible concessions and many opportunities for the public. Get the feeling that the ultimate preference would be to eliminate public access altogether and not be bothered. A feeling that comes up more than I'd like. There are parks where concession employees are automatically viewed as suspects with much increased scrutiny. I see the problem laying at the foot of both concessions and NPS. Of course the public is down the ladder of concern.

In truth, the Disneyfication of the national parks started long, long ago. Read the history and you'll learn that it probably started with none other than Steve Mather himself.

But perhaps it was a necessary evil.

Trailadvocate, please give us some examples of your statement that "the underlying motives are to remove all possible concessions and many opportunities for the public."

Kurt, in some cases it's just two different worlds (NPS/Concessions). Some managers just have a thing about eliminating the competition of cultures. I'll admit I have a fondness for many of the inholding operations that were allowed to remain at many parks inceptions while one by one they have been forced to leave turning them into museum pieces when before they were vibrant, living, culturally significant examples. No argument from me that there are issues with concession operations that could be improved (in some cases). Examples where opportunities for the public to experience the most transformational adventures of their lives (they would tell me) were greatly curtailed and in some cases eliminated because a Superintendent and concessionaire could not agree on an issue. Public lost in that power battle.

In a way Hubbell Trading post evidenced how difficult sometimes the NPS culture (or individual leaders) have in appreciating cultural differences than their own, again, relegating it nearer to the museum model that seems to be most comfortable to many.

You can argue that Drakes Bay Oyster Co should stay or be eliminated. The underlieing tone of the argument that it should vacate is the same one that was evident with Verkamps at South Rim after 100+ years of family operation. Kolb's Studio for decades was targeted with elimination but eventually saved by Congress. The spirit of the Kolb Bros. and their adventures in the Canyon are now exhibited (very well I might add) while their real life contributions were curtailed and finally eliminated. The Mule Rides into the Canyon that they chronicled are but a token presently with the Superintendent responsible publically stating that it was one of his notable achievements.

The thread runs through NPS in some degree or another, I believe, influenced by overreaching environmental political campaigns. I'd like a truly balanced approach that values Living History and Geography. Just seems like the ultimate win/win to me.

Hey, I remain hopeful, Kurt:).

Trailadvocate, Drakes Bay was not a concession. Hubbell Trade Post continues to operate as an active trading post, not a museum.

I would also note that there's a new concession in Yellowstone that will take folks down into the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake for kayaking and overnights.

The mule rides goes more to your point, though park officials have said the number of rides continues at "historically high levels." The difference is that far fewer rides go into the Inner Gorge of the canyon than in the past. Part of the rationale was the high cost of maintaining the trails the mules went down.

So again, I'd have to ask for specific examples to support your statement that there are "underlying motives ... to remove all possible concessions and many opportunities for the public."

Now, you might argue that the proposed Merced River Plan calls for removal of the ice rink and the horseback riding concession in the Yosemite Valley, but it also boosts campsites and day-use parking, as well as would add an RV campground.

I just don't see evidence to support your claim.

I agree with ecbuck also. It's OK to have cell/wifi access in the built up areas (inclduing lodges) so people can communicate with the outside world. Out on the trails, it's a distraction to people who want to hear something besides nitwits talking and a possible safety hazard if the user is distracted.

Haven't commented in a while Kurt but I am still here.

Glad you're still lurking, Steve! You're one of about 999,980!

"The "remove all concessions," was definitely a mistake in my post.

re: cell phones on the trail. It is a little known fact that talking on a cell attracts predators. While you are distracted, the grizzleys and mountain lions can get reeaally close... :-)

While it is interesting and important to discuss the impact of cellphones and wifi on the "experience" of those IN the park, I think it is also important to consider the possibility that there are those who AREN'T in the park at all or are significantly curtailing their stays in the park because of the absence or low quality of such services. At least in some cases the folks who can't live without being connected don't have good reasons, but in other cases they do. I can see why the hospitality folks are concerned. And while keeping people away may seem like a good way to deal with crowds, in the long run it may weaken public support for the parks. --Jeff

I believe that added connectivity through Wi-Fi and especially cellular data connections could be a major boon for the traditional and next generation national parks visitor, while allowing the NPS to take vast strides toward staying current in a rapidly changing world where the danger of falling behind and being viewed as a relic or museum rather than an accessible resource is very real. Whereas I don’t necessarily agree with concessionaires being able to charge for Wi-Fi services, the added ability for users and visitors to stay connected through cell towers and their associated devices could do wonders for the ability of the national parks to connect more easily with the public. What better way to foster stewardship and public support in a world of declining budgets and staff resources than to be able to reach out to a nearly unlimited audience in essentially real time and be able to provide the most current and relative information? Mixing that with the added safety it could provide, and waste it could help reduce, I have a hard time seeing the downfalls. I don’t believe that the NPS, or even most of the concessionaires are in any way trying to ruin the image or beauty of our national parks, or would dare to encroach on protected wilderness areas, or the pristine natural areas and ecosystems that are found deep within many of the parks, but adding cellular connectivity or Wi-Fi to many of the more accessible and family friendly trails and attractions is a great way to reach out to users and continue to attract a healthy stream of visitors.