Yellowstone’s Cellular Bandwidth Dilemma
Telecom Companies Push Plans to Wire Park for New 4G LTE
Washington, DC — Like the proverbial tent with the camel’s nose thrust in ever more obtrusively, 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 cable companies and the park is scrambling to accommodate bigger bandwidths to meet perceived consumer demand, according to records released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Among plans under review is laying a $30 million network of fiber optic cable to deliver the latest generation of cell services in much of the iconic park.
“Yellowstone’s original decision to allow cell towers is like a gateway drug, hooking the park to an unending electronic mainline,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out the park is using public resources to benefit private subscriber services. “This will only help visitors avoid Yellowstone’s natural wonders by keeping their noses buried in ever-present and ever more engrossing devices.”
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. Last year, 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. Three telecom carriers are pursuing varied approaches –
- Perhaps the most ambitious, CenturyLink is recruiting partners to finance a $30 million fiber optic cable network buried 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.”
“4G has nothing to do with park operations or visitor safety,” added Ruch, noting that the “vast majority” of the park’s 911 cell calls today are misdials. “Its Wireless plan was premised on the fanciful notion that Yellowstone would keep the lid on this cyber-Pandora’s box just slightly ajar. Clearly, these companies want their subscribers to be able to stream movies and download the latest music even in the world’s most famous natural areas.”
Another factor driving cell expansion is the upcoming 2016 centennial of the National Park Service which it sees as a platform for reclaiming its “relevance” with millennials. To that end NPS is toying with ways to increase “connectivity” on parklands and has unveiled a centennial logo featuring a hashtag. By contrast, the U.S. Forest Service has an ad campaign urging visitors to unplug and “Reconnect with Nature.”
“The National Park Service will not find its institutional relevance on the internet,” Ruch concluded. “Our national parks risk their unique role by striving to become just another consumer-driven entertainment provider.”