Mount Rainier National Park might be going on the grid. Right now, the mountain's biggest visitor area, Paradise, is a cell-phone dead zone; the views might be Instagram-worthy, but there is no Instagram. The park wants to know—this week!—what the public thinks about new connectivity.
The National Park Service received two permit applications from Verizon and T-Mobile that would grant them permission to install LTE technology within the park. The decision, made by a NPS committee, will be made just after the new year. If the park decides to go ahead with the proposal, there will be an environmental assessment released in January followed by another 30-day public comment period. Then comes the final decision.
If the proposal is accepted, the wireless technologies would be functional by Memorial Day 2017 or possibly fall. Other carriers would have the opportunity to apply for their own permits afterward.
So does this mean a giant cell tower on the top of Mount Rainier? Not exactly. The proposal describes telecommunications equipment inside the attic of the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise—that's the relatively new building, not the century-old Paradise Inn. Antennas would be mounted behind a fiberglass panel that would match the current wooden exterior. Verizon and T-Mobile would foot the entire bill.
Of course, this doesn't mean the entire 369-square-mile park would be instantly available for Facebooking. Wireless connection would be available at the Paradise parking lot—and strongest at the upper lots—and could stretch to hit the southwest Tatoosh Range east of Longmire. And the signal could move; rangers could target service in a particular direction, though it would weaken the signal elsewhere.
Reasons in favor usually cite emergency use. Right now park rangers use two-way radios, but few hikers carry them. Service could mean shortening the response time to distressed hikers. However, service would not reach far into the backcountry, so Wonderland Trail trekkers would still have little or no connection.
But then there are the minuses. Connected phones means visitors might not be able to escape into nature. Imagine the wildflower meadows of Paradise with people texting and sharing selfies; people driving on the park's winding, single-lane roads don't need the temptation of their phones.
In other national parks, similar proposals have been brought and accepted. At Rock Creek National Park in 2003 and Yellowstone National Park in 2008, environmental assessments found that no significant impacts were caused by the installation of wireless telecommunications and the technologies are currently operational.
Submit opinions by clicking on the "Open for Comment" button on the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment website. The period for public comment ended December 12.