Yellowstone National Park officials are reviewing thousands of public comments on a proposal to improve Wi-Fi access in developed areas. Some people who work in the park say it’s important for visitors and employee retention. Others worry it will only distract people from nature and lead to more commercialization in national parks.
Xanterra, the company that runs a handful of hotels, restaurants and campgrounds in Yellowstone, reached out to a wireless network company earlier this year to propose boosting internet speeds and connectivity in some developed areas of the park.
AccessPark’s proposal to the National Park Service calls for installing equipment to increase internet access in certain buildings managed by Xanterra, some of which are historic. It doesn’t call for any new towers or getting internet service into backcountry areas.
Yellowstone spokesperson Morgan Warthin says the park is required by law to evaluate every proposal and have a public comment period. She and other park staff are in the process of reviewing nearly 3,000 comments submitted last month, which she describes as a “healthy number.”
“We do have Wi-Fi in some of the developed areas. The issue is, as most of the visitors who come to the park realize, it’s just very slow. It’s limited," Warthin said.
Some people worry this is part of a slippery slope to privatize and commercialize national parks.
The Interior Department’s “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee released a report in October with recommendations that included expanding Wi-Fi services, privatizing campgrounds, allowing food trucks, even Amazon deliveries, at camp sites and restricting the use of senior discounts.
The suggestions received strong pushback from conservation groups and AARP, as well as Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
Jeff Ruch, pacific director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, says he thinks the Park Service was influenced by the report. PEER has been outspoken in its opposition to the recent Wi-Fi proposal in Yellowstone.
“Yellowstone appears to have taken on the assumed obligation that the park is responsible not just for protecting scenery and natural soundscapes and the sense of serenity but providing strong signals to visitors,” Ruch said.
Yellowstone spokesperson Morgan Warthin says the park hasn’t made a decision on the proposal. She says Wi-Fi is important for public safety and finding and keeping employees.
“We hear from employees, especially those who live in the interior, that it’s really difficult given the lack of internet to stay in touch with their family, pay bills and the like," Warthin said.
When Yellowstone announced AccessPark’s Wi-Fi proposal on social media last month, the majority of commenters said visitors would end up glued to their devices rather than out enjoying nature.
Only 16 out of 140 comments on the park’s Twitter post were in support of the proposal. Another eight said employees and staff should have better Wi-Fi but not visitors.
That doesn’t match up with Rick Hoeninghausen’s experience. As Xanterra’s director of sales and marketing, he says hotel guests submit complaints about spotty, slow internet on a daily basis, especially in the busy summer months when too many people try to connect and bog down the system.
“Certainly a lot of people want to come here for the specific reason of disconnecting. We certainly understand that and nothing about this changes that. If they don’t want to be available, they can not have a phone, not turn on a phone, not bring a device that needs internet or cell service. The choice is still there regardless of what happens going forward,” Hoeninghausen said.
Yellowstone allows Wi-Fi anywhere cellular service is allowed, with the exception of the Old Faithful Inn and Lake Hotel. But Jeff Ruch with PEER says Yellowstone’s original wireless plan from 2009 didn’t allow Wi-Fi in any historic buildings.
“We found out that in 2018, without telling the public. We had to get this under the Freedom of Information Act. Yellowstone amended their plan to go back on what they promised in 2009,” Ruch said.
Yellowstone spokesperson Morgan Warthin says staff did not open a public comment period in 2018 because it wasn't required by law and because the park says adding Wi-Fi would only minimally affect visitor experience.
Warthin says she isn’t sure when a decision on AccessPark’s Wi-Fi proposal will be made.