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.