For all that we complain about them, we have it pretty good with our cell phones. After having driven all the way across the United States and back, and to a few other countries besides, I can honestly say that that the list of places where there isn’t at least some form of coverage is becoming smaller and smaller. (As for the quality of that coverage, that’s a much longer and boring technical discussion that I’ll spare you from.)
One of the stops I made last year was to Yellowstone National Park. When I pulled into the Old Faithful area and parked the car, I glanced at the phone to discover that I had service. Not just barely-there service, but full 4-to-5 signal strength bars of service no less.
Despite being a faithful outdoorsy guy, I’ll admit to being a bit elated at being able to send a text message off to the family. My parents are big fans of Yellowstone, and promptly replied with a couple of suggestions of things to do in the Old Faithful area. It was a nice way to touch base after having not had contact for over a week.
But the question is: should we have been able to contact each other at all?
At the moment, there are four areas in the park where cell service is available: Canyon, Grant Village, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Old Faithful. The reason that I’m writing about it tonight is that I came across a news article about Verizon’s proposal to build a fifth tower in the Lake Village area. According to the NPS news release, the tower would be built at an existing utility location, and would be a gray lattice tower 100 feet tall.
As with most anything, the proposed addition of the tower (and the pre-existing four) is controversial. On the one side, there are those who argue that cell phones have no place in wilderness areas such as National Parks. On the other, that people expect (even demand) that service be available, and that cell phone service adds to convenience and safety.
I can see both sides. I admit, readily, that one of the reasons that I love to escape into the outdoors is to get away from the seemingly endless yammering that’s taken over our society. Who knew, before the cell phone came around, that we all needed to talk so much? And I’ll admit as well to having been disgusted, from time-to-time, when I’m enjoying a bit of scenery only to have to listen to someone yapping away on their cell phone about how beautiful it is. Usually at the top of their lungs.
Still, the areas where coverage is available in Yellowstone now aren’t really what one thinks of as wilderness. Old Faithful is a good example: the area has three hotels, a massive visitor center, a post office, a gas station, gift shops, a grocery store, restaurants, and parking lots galore. Not exactly pristine wilderness.
The signals themselves don’t tend to get far outside of the Old Faithful area, either: the topography of the land and large amounts of vegetation pretty much kills any signal outside the immediate area. Of course, I recognize the importance of detaching ourselves from our technology, especially as it applies to children. I also recognize that generations of children are growing up with that technology in their hands practically since birth, and that its become an integral part of their lives. If a kid is able to Tweet how amazing watching Old Faithful erupt is to all of their friends back home, does that make them closer to the experience of being in the wild country of a National Park, or further from it?
At this point, there’s no system-wide guide in the National Park Service on how to deal with the issue; it’s left up to the individual parks. Since each park is different and unique, perhaps that’s a good thing. For Yellowstone, I have little problem with the system as it currently exists: cell phone coverage at already highly-developed sites, no coverage everywhere else (particularly in the backcountry). It’s a balance that probably leaves no one happy, which means it’s probably the most balanced solution. (In fact, I’d go a step further and show the approximate cell coverage area on the park maps, so as not to give people a false sense of security that cell coverage is widespread outside of the five current, developed areas.)
What do all of you think? Should cell phones be available everywhere, nowhere, or some combination in-between? What would your preference be for a wilderness near you?