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Mount Washburn Fire Lookout

Improved Yellowstone Cell Service On the Way, Despite Objections

Improved Yellowstone cell service is on the way, as trails are closed to allow the installation of new antennas at the Mount Washburn Fire Lookout — but some groups are decrying the upgrades as an unnecessary intrusion into the Park’s bucolic nature.

Popular Mount Washburn trails and trailhead parking lots from Dunraven Pass and Chittenden Road closed Thursday, as the construction work at the historic Mount Washburn Fire Lookout (above) is designed to improve park telecommunications services in developed areas, not necessarily throughout the entire Park. Contractors will build a three-sided antenna mounting structure and repair rock walls and surfaces around the lookout, reduce the number of antennas attached to its exterior, and complete concrete preservation work in and outside of the structure.

The debate over the appropriate level of Yellowstone cell service and potential impact on historic structures has been raging for years, as Park officials have twice sought public comments on the changes to the Mount Washburn Fire Lookout. There are really two arguments here: more antennae at the Mount Washburn Fire Lookout is an unnecessary change to a historic structure, while others argue upgraded Yellowstone cell service would allow more people to spend more time on their phones instead of communing with nature. For their part, Yellowstone officials say the upgrades are geared for folks already using their smartphones in developed areas and communing with huckleberry ice cream, not the wonders of the Hayden Valley, per the Bozeman Chronicle:

The project…would add to wireless infrastructure already on the tower and would multiply the park’s wireless capacity by 38 times — from about 12 megabytes per second across four towers to 600 megabytes per second, according to Bret De Young, the park’s chief of telecommunications.

Speaking by phone from Mount Washburn, De Young said the upgrades wouldn’t increase the footprint of wireless access but would increase speeds in developed areas like Canyon Village. He said they want people to be able to check hotel reservations or use National Park Service applications on their phones, and that improved service is needed for park workers….

Verizon is the company behind this project, and it’s footing the bill. De Young did not know how much it would cost.

The biggest public opponent of Yellowstone cell service expansion has been Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who once again expressed opposition via press release:

“Hiking and communing with nature have become secondary at Yellowstone to sending selfies, receiving texts, and playing online games,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the park has no idea of how many wireless facilities will ultimately be added and where coverage will reach. “The park’s telecommunications planning has been completely captured by Verizon, CenturyLink, and AT&T.”

A decade ago, Yellowstone unveiled its Wireless Plan, stating that “The plan restricts towers, antennas, and wireless services to a few limited locations in the park, in order to protect park resources and limit the impact on park visitors.” Yet without revising the plan, the park has done a philosophical about-face to now “increase the availability of cellular telecommunications bandwidth that currently limits park operations, visitor safety, and visitor experience,” in the words of the Categorical Exclusion.

“Yellowstone seems to have misplaced its mission to accommodate perceived customer demand,” added Ruch, noting that none of the restrictions Yellowstone promised back in 2008, such as “cellphone-free” zones, outreach projects to educate visitors on courteous cellphone use, and pledges to limit signals to “developed areas” have yet to be implemented. “Reconfiguring the monstrosity at Mt. Washburn should not be done without examining how and why we got to this point and whether there is a path back.”

Yes, this is a project that will mainly benefit Verizon and the vendors who purchase bandwidth from Verizon. And yes, it is a done deal. The debate over the future of Yellowstone and teach will likely proceed past the installation of new antennae at the Mount Washburn Fire Lookout, as smartphones are clearly here to stay and how much access users really want. We’re guessing its a little more than PEER thinks it is, so there will be plenty of debate about expanding Yellowstone cell service in coming years.

RELATED STORIES: Public Comment Sought on Mount Washburn Antenna Project; Additional Comment Sought on Fire Lookout Project; PEER Criticizes Yellowstone Over Cellphone Coverage;

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