Wiring the National Parks


While Congressional Republicans are wondering why the internet needs to be so fast for us users, Congressional democrats are pushing to provide free, broadband, Wi-fi service to users at all National Parks.  I’ll leave the former issue to the techies, but I will address the latter.

More Funding to Wire the Parks

On January 27, 2016,  Representatives Jarod Huffman (D-CA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Niki Tsongas (D-MA), Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Jared Polis (D-CO) sent a letter to President Obama asking him to seek “a significant funding increase for wireline and wireless telecommunications and broadband services within our nation’s National Parks.”  By “wireline” I’ll assume they mean buried fiber optic line, something that will have a limited short-term effect on the quality of our parks.  Likewise wireless towers can be pretty easily hidden among the parks’ existing structures.  Ultimately, I doubt this move will have much affect upon the physical esthetics of the parks unless implementation involves putting towers in remote locations, so the entire acreage of each park is covered.

Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has already pledged to provide public Wi-fi to visitor centers by the end of this year.  The Representatives just want him to have more money to spend on the project.  While I can see the need for park scientists and managers and even businesses within the parks to have decent internet access to perform their duties efficiently,  I wonder why park visitors need Wi-fi.

The Wi-fi Argument

The Representatives say “improved connectivity will help to make our parks accessible and engaging to changing park visitor demographics”, improve public safety, provide greater interpretive services, and meet the needs of the visiting public.  Let’s take a look at these points:

  • Wi-fi Antenna

    Wi-fi Access Point

    accessible and engaging to changing park visitor demographics.  Starting with fourth graders the Park Service wants to bring in more younger kids.  They and their parents are well attuned to having wi-fi and cell phone access continually.  While I am sure these visitors will appreciate this added amenity,  I fear that it will detract from the traditional park experience that has historically involved leaving the TV at home.  A lot of people travel to the parks in an effort to get away from electronic gadgetry, but if wi-fi is available many will still use it.  In fact, some private retreats offer to take away the gadgetry for a significant fee.  I don’t care to prevent people from using their gadgets, but I’m not too excited about spending tax dollars to make it easy for people to miss the advantages of being out in nature.  As I see it,  providing wi-fi does nothing to engage people in the park experience beyond assuring them that they will not lose their social media access.  That assurance may convince some people that it’s ok to go to a park, but that’s as far as I see the benefit.

  • improve public safety.  Issuing warnings about getting too close to the bison or the dangers of a new wildfire probably won’t work very well.  To receive these kinds of messages people would need to be linked into some kind of park app continuously.  That’s not likely to happen.  It’s kind of like the park radio broadcast that you pick up as you are driving in.  You listen to the whole recorded loop and turn it off.  It really takes an on-site ranger to keep the public safe in many of these situations.  On the other hand, wi-fi gives people a way to seek help or report on hazardous conditions, if cell access is not available.
  • provide greater interpretive services.  I’m all for providing more interpretation for park visitors.  The more they know about what they are seeing the better.  This kind of thing can be provided in an app that, for example, plays a recorded message about something when your phone’s GPS tells it that you are near that something.  With wi-fi access and more budget for Park Service personnel, this kind of app could be updated continuously as things in the field change.  In the likely event that park staff will not be increased to do this, the only need for wi-fi is to get the app downloaded in the first place.  I think this is a good argument for wi-fi at park visitor centers.  A visitor scould scan a quick response (QR) code to download the app and walk out the door with a park interpreter in their pocket.
  • meet the needs of the visiting public.  Clearly the century that the public has not had wi-fi proves that the public doesn’t need wi-fi.  We are really talking about what the public wants.  These days, that’s access to their social media, their email and their friends and businesses back home.  What the public needs, for their physical and mental health, is to get away from wi-fi and discover the reality of nature.

Even the authors of the letter don’t seem very convinced of their arguments, so they add one more: “improved telecommunications services at park units can have the ancillary benefit of improving connectivity in neighboring communities.”  This is an effort to link service at the parks to efforts to bring serious broadband service to rural communities across the country.  Even if true, the impact would be on the very tiny population at the doorstep of each National Park.  I don’t begrudge these people broadband internet, but there are many rural areas across the country that also need broadband internet.  The needs of people living near  the parks just don’t add much to the argument for broadband in the parks.

The Way I See It

It seems to me that wi-fi at the National Parks is an ok thing, but any funding that is likely to go into this effort is likely to come out of efforts to reduce the maintenance backlog at the parks.  For me the wi-fi arguments are just not strong enough to override the arguments for getting the parks back into decent shape for visitors.

What do you think?  If you are reading this in an email, visit this post on The Blog so you will be able to offer your comments and tell me what you think.


The photo at the top of this page is Lower Yellowstone Falls by By Rickymgb [CC BY-SA 3.0] modified with the addition of power poles from Digital Juice.

The Wi-fi access point photo is By Robo56 [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]

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