4G and Beyond

Yellowstone National Park now finds its existing commercial cellular infrastructure unable to support movie downloads, multi-player games and the high-speed access promoted by cell companies.  In response, the Park is scrambling to accommodate bigger bandwidths to meet perceived consumer demand.

At issue is the push by telecommunications companies to provide visiting subscribers with access to 4G LTE (Fourth Generation Long-Term Evolution) service in Yellowstone. In late 2013, the Park permitted the fifth cell tower within its boundaries but they mostly lack sufficient backhaul to handle the much larger data transmission needs of 4G systems.

Among plans under review –


CenturyLink proposing to lay a $30 million network of fiber optic cable.  The company is looking for partners, including the Park Service itself, to help finance burying a fiber optic cable network along existing roads and power line rights-of-way; 


AT&T is seeking approval for a COLT (cell on a light truck) for placement in the Old Faithful area. Other locations for COLTs are under consideration; and
Verizon has installed LTE antennas and a microwave path to support 4G at the tower at Mammoth Hot Springs, the only site in the park where such an upgrade is currently feasible.

These unfolding plans strain the limits of Yellowstone’s Wireless Plan adopted back in 2009 which promised that “Wireless communications in Yellowstone will be allowed in very limited areas to provide for visitor safety and to enhance park operations.Yet, 4G has nothing to do with park operations or visitor safety.

 In addition, these plans for bandwidth upgrades raise questions about –

  • How far a tax-supported agency should go to accommodate private companies seeking to use public resources to service their paying subscribers?
  • Whether Yellowstone is obligated to accommodate increasingly sophisticated services, from 4G to 5G and beyond.   Is meeting “visitor expectations” a never-ending electronic treadmill? and
  • At what point does constant access to enhanced coverage change the park visitor experience?  Does this expanded capacity encourage visitors to experience natural vistas through a device rather than their eyes?  And do these ever more engaging devices compete with and distract from Yellowstone’s natural wonders?

PEER is pressing the National Park Service to seriously address these questions before accommodating commercial pressures for more and more bandwidth.