Plan to expand cellular and internet connectivity in National Parks

Great-Smoky-Mountains-National-Park-campgroundThe National Park Service (NPS) appears deeply committed to an industry-sponsored initiative which would change the way many visitors experience national parks, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Plans to significantly expand cellular and internet “connectivity” inside parks have advanced without public notice.

The National Park Hospitality Association (NPHA), which represents concessionaires who operate lodges, stores and other commercial outlets inside national parks, is leading the effort to dramatically hike visitor access to cell and internet signals inside parks – signals from the concessionaires, that is. NPHA laments that “in many of America’s national parks, prized smartphones are little more than cameras because cell and data service, even at visitor centers and lodges and other developed sites, is poor – or worse.”

The organization has the ear of Park Service leadership, which is working with NPHA to –

  • Provide internet access “at all major, developed visitor areas in the national park system” and “basic cell phone service at all major visitor areas in national park units, as well as along most roads and at major sites such as trailheads;”
  • “Deliver timely, park-focused information within national parks through smart phones, tablets and computers…to deliver interpretation and other important information to park visitors;” and
  • In order be “financially sustainable,” NPHA wants “the opportunity to develop and operate these systems” in which they charge fees for services beyond free “landing pages.” NPHA envisions a capacity “which could reduce the need for handing out printed materials and even facilitate fee collection through electronic devices.”

NPS Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell has invited NPHA to nominate the first five parks to be wired, with the final “winners” selected sometime in January. NPS Director Jon Jarvis is reviewing an NPHA-drafted system-wide policy promoting connectivity and a joint “strategy session” is slated for February.

“This would be a giant step toward ‘Disney-fying’ park interpretation, replacing rangers with corporate icons as your guides,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Solitude values of parks will go by the board, as lodges, tents, trailheads and other park locations become just another place to fiddle with electronic devices.”

Editor’s Note:  Would you like to have better cellphone connectivity in National Parks? Would you be willing to pay an additional fee for the service?  Leave your comments below.

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    FreedomPop Offers Public Beta Of WiMAX Service

    WiMax LogoBroadband everywhere is still elusive. While hotspots aren’t that hard to find in urban areas, finding a free hotspot can be tricky. The rest of the time, even with 4G networks, users might be watching how much they use so as not to exceed limits of the plans the carriers impose.

    It wasn’t supposed to be like this, with data hungry consumers worrying about overages. Wi-Fi was supposed to give way to, or at least see support from Wi-MAX. But the anywhere broadband network has remained essentially a promise with little delivery.

    Now, perhaps the promise is about to become a reality. This week FreedomPop CEO Stephen Stokols told The Verge, “We’re really trying to deliver a free internet experience, as frictionless as possible.”

    This week the company began offering 500MB of free wireless data in major metropolitan areas in the United States, and over the next two weeks the wireless MVNO will begin accepting public beta registrations. The company will also provide Wi-Fi hotspots along with tens of thousands USB dongles that will be required for users to access the network.

    Is this too good to be true? That depends. For starters the service runs on Clearwire’s WiMAX network so it is hardly anywhere broadband, and it is an information super highway but one that could be jammed with users and move at speeds resembling rush hour gridlock.

    Cost of the service could vary a bit but it won’t be free. Users will need to put a $49 deposit down for the plug-and-play dongle, while the mobile Wi-Fi hotspot running on the WiMAX network will cost about $89. Those deposits are reportedly fully refundable. FreedomPop will also offer iPod Touch and iPhone sleeves for $99, which will allow direct access to the network.

    The FreedomPop network will run as a “freemium” service, but much like other data plans there is the cap – in this case 500MB of “free” usage. Those who exceed 500MB are charged $10 for each gigabyte of data, with a range of pre-purchase plans available. FreedomPop is even offering a paid option to remove a speed cap.

    Users can further save money by taking part in various promotions the company will offer, but also by referring friends. While the latter sounds a bit like an pyramid scheme of sorts, it could be a way to grow the service quickly – but whether adding too many users will bog down the potentially crowded network isn’t so clear.

    Clearwire is also selling unlimited WiWAX for $49.99 a month, which seem to be competing with what FreedomPop is offering.

    The next step for FreedomPop is a five-year agreement with Sprint that kicks off next year. The agreement will bring reliable LTE coverage to it’s customers.

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