This has been a contentious issue for years, and now it becomes a reality in 2023, as Yellowstone telecom improvements in the form of fiber optic cable are on tap for installation next summer.
The plan, which received preliminary approval in 2021 after public comments launched in 2020, calls for the installation of 187 miles of fiber optic cable in previously disturbed areas along park roads. Work by the applicant, Diamond Communications LLC, is not authorized to begin until a right-of-way (ROW) permit is approved and issued. The park is evaluating issuance of a ROW permit this year, and if approved, work would begin in the spring of 2023.
The improvements are designed to enhance communications for Park staff, concessionaires and visitors.
Yellowstone’s existing microwave radio system was originally installed between 1979-1990. Telecommunications and data services carried on the system are highly unreliable and do not adequately support the park’s needs for emergency communications, operations, and other forms of communications. The telecommunications services provider repaired the current system a total of 66 times in 2021.
Installation of fiber along the road corridor will enable the park to remove 25 (five reflector panels and 20 antennas) pieces of antiquated and obsolete telecommunications equipment currently located on numerous mountain tops and backcountry sites, while substantially improving the connection speeds needed for management and operations of the park. Plans are proceeding to relocate cell towers from ridgetops to less visible sites in developed areas at Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. Most of the fiber optic cable will be buried in a 1-¼” conduit along park roadways.
About 8 percent of Yellowstone is currently covered by cellular service, which is intended to provide service only in developed areas and not along roadways or in the backcountry. There is no plan to expand authorized cellular coverage beyond existing coverage areas, and no new cellular towers will be installed under this Yellowstone telecom improvements project.
The expansion of cellular service has been a contentious issue in social media since the fiber-optic plan was first announced years ago. Many Yellowstone fans don’t want to see an expansion of service and fear that many visitors will spend more time on their phones than enjoying the many splendors of Yellowstone. Other fans acknowledge that smartphones are a central part of life, and enhancing cell service will allow families to better communicate during their visits. The plan to limit enhanced service to developed areas and minimally impact views with underground cables while also removing cell towers seems to be a way to both improve service and retaining the Yellowstone aesthetic.
Photo of Nez Perce Creek by Jacob W. Frank courtesy National Park Service.