Posted by: GeekHiker | January 24, 2013

Should You Be Able To Hear Me Now?

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.

No, dude standing next to me screaming into your cell phone, I really DON'T need your insightful commentary on this sunset.

No, dude standing next to me screaming into your cell phone, I really DON’T need your insightful commentary on this gorgeous sunset.

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 large wooden building with the parking lot full of cars?  Not natural features. Surprise!

The large wooden building with the parking lot full of cars? Not natural features. Surprise!

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?



  1. don’t get me started on this 🙂 As someone who is (just) old enough to remember a functional society before cells, I think I’d be okay with less wireless services in exchange for bringing back more landlines. Many pay phones have been ripped out over the last 20 yrs… btw, did you know Yellowstone offers charging stations in the ranger hut?

    • I had no idea that they had charging stations in the ranger hut! I wonder if that’s good, or if further gives people an artificial sense of confidence out in the wild?

  2. I don’t carry a cell phone. I own one but don’t ask me the number – I don’t know it. (This may change because of the family health scares that have occurred lately.). When I went to Yellowstone a few years back I tried to post every day of the vacation. It turned out to be stressful. When I arrived to the lake area where we stayed there was no Wi-Fi and I felt this sense of relief. I prefer to be off the grid out in the wilderness. I do understand the safety issues though. I think my attitude, now that I have a tablet, will begin to join the 21st century but I will be kicking and screaming all the way.

    • At least you have the choice in the 21st century of being able to use the technology or not. Depending, of course, on if you can get a signal…

  3. I remember life before cell phones, and it was mostly good. But I can tell you as a woman who has been taught that no where is 100% safe, that I find being able to make a phone call for help is incredibly comforting. If I was walking around a national park, I’d probably keep my phone in my pocket on silent so I could relax and enjoy the sights. We don’t need to be connected all the time, but it’s nice to know I can dial 911 if it’s needed.

    • But there are large areas of the park that don’t, and likely never will, have cell phone coverage, even for those “if it’s needed” 911 calls. So, the question is, will that lack of coverage prevent you from exploring those areas?

      • It might, depending on how secluded the area was. That is if I were alone. But I never go to parks or wooded areas alone. 🙂 The buddy system is safest 🙂

  4. McCracken took the words right out of my mouth! Yes, I want the option of being able to call for safety reasons. Plus, won’t it be great if search & rescue can pinpoint someone’s location right away because they call for help with the cell phone (hopefully with a GPS app), instead of spending $$$$$ with helicopters flying high and low and hordes of people combing through the woods for days?

    Of course, I understand the cost issue (maintaining towers in remote areas is prob. expensive), the “dealing with a**holes yapping on the phone” headache, and the whole “wilderness should stay wild” rhetoric. They all make sense (I hate yappers). However, hasn’t there been evidence that the number of “young people” visiting national parks is declining? Making it possible to “facebook/tweet/whatever” it from the trail could be attractive to these millennials.

    The truth is, technology is how people use it; it’s not inherently good or evil. I won’t hike without a camera, but sometimes I think taking pictures does take away from the experience (I am more focused on taking the shot than actually enjoying the view).

    • Unfortunately, there never will be that kind of emergency coverage. And remember, too, it’s not just the remote tower: power and signal hard wire cable would also have to be laid out to those towers and maintained as well. But I agree, technology is neither good nor evil, per se…

  5. I’m on board with the other girls’ thinking. I immediately thought it might be good in case of bison charging or bear attacks or who knows what. But I don’t understand why they can’t erect one of the towers that looks like a tree. Sure, they’re not perfect, but they’re a lot better than a lattice-covered grey heap.

    • Well, since cell signals are pretty much line-of-site, a single taller tower will cover a much broader area than the shorter “tree” towers. Since the goal is only to provide service to one specific area, and not blanket the park, I think the single tall tower is probably the best solution. 🙂

  6. Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found a sea
    shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the
    shell to her ear and screamed. There was a
    hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go
    back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell

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