The National Park Hospitality Association, a national trade association that represents businesses that provide lodging, food services, equipment rentals, transportation and other visitor services in the National Park System, is strongly advocating the expansion of cellular and internet “connectivity” inside national parks. This upcoming March the association will be holding it's annual meeting in Washington DC. Among the six agenda items is "Cell and WiFi access enhancement efforts". In their December 2012 Newsletter, the NPHA published this news item:
NPS/NPHA EFFORTS TO ENHANCE CELL AND WIFI SERVICE IN PARKSOpponents of the connective service argue that intrusive technology goes against the idea of parks being a refuge from modernity. That it interferes with solitude. A press release from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility even stated that the plan was "a giant step toward ‘Disney-fying’ park interpretation..."
Verizon and a team involving ViaSat brought temporary top-notch internet and cellular telephone service to Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim for NPHA’s Grand Thoughts at the Grand Canyon. The infrastructure was nearly invisible and the resulting capabilities were widely praised – and prompted NPS Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell to propose a pilot effort in five parks as a team. NPHA members submitted a list of 11 parks to NPS along with a project overview which included the following goals:
1) Provide a basic level of non-fee internet access at all major, developed visitor areas in the national park system.
2) Provide basic cell phone service at all major visitor areas in national park units, as well as along most roads and at major sites such as trailheads.
3) Deliver timely, park-focused information within national parks through smart phones, tablets and computers.
4) Give individual parks discretion on where cell phone service is available, and whether the service provides full or emergency-only service.
5) Identify and employ best available and practical technologies that minimize visual impacts of cell and internet access systems.
6) Create special gateway zones at park entry points using downloadable data to replace both low-power radio systems and printed material hand-outs.
7) 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.
8) Offer additional bandwidth where possible to park visitors on a fee basis.
9) Coordinate efforts of the NPS, concessioners and friends organizations to create official park apps which can be readily downloaded to all major mobile channels, and which work to aid park visits, even when not connected to the internet, through GPS and other technologies.
Deputy Director O’Dell delivered the recommendations to the NPS Regional Directors and assigned John Wessels (NPS Intermountain Regional Director) and Sue Waldron (NPS Assistant Director for Communications and lead for the NPS “Go Digital” component of A Call to Action) to work with NPHA. The list is now being reviewed by the regional and park teams and final selections of five (maybe more!) sites will occur early in January. A strategy session in February involving NPS, NPHA and communications firms is likely.
There is also the concern of distracted drivers on national park roads. There are reports of wildlife being killed as a result of drivers texting and talking on cell phones in some of the larger parks.
Then there's the argument that outdoor adventurers have, and will continue to abuse the increased connectivity to call for unneeded rescue efforts. There's a sense that some people are more willing to engage in reckless behavior, knowing that there's a safety net of emergency responders just a phone call away.
What are your thoughts? Do cell phones belong in the wilderness? Are Wi-Fi hot spots important to have in certain areas, such as near visitor centers? If you've reached a scenic overlook, or the top of a mountain after a tough hike, would you feel that some of the wilderness experience has been degraded if several people around you are talking on cell phones?