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Yellowstone park considers improving wireless service

Associated Press

BILLINGS – Can Old Faithful compete with Netflix? The prospect of streaming wireless service deep inside Yellowstone National Park is reigniting the debate over whether there should be any place off-limits to technology.

Park officials are in preliminary discussions with CenturyLink about installing a $34 million fiber-optic line through neighboring Grand Teton National Park and into Yellowstone. That would dramatically improve connectivity in certain areas for mobile devices.

Details on the Yellowstone fiber-optic project were obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility through a public records request and confirmed by the Associated Press.

The Washington, D.C., advocacy group’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, warned that bumping up the park’s bandwidth will create more electronic distractions at the expense of the park’s natural wonders.

The CenturyLink proposal coincides with a National Park Service campaign to “Go Digital” ahead of its 100th anniversary in 2016. And it comes as concession companies have been pushing for more digital access in national parks, including Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Texas’ Big Bend and Maine’s Acadia.

It’s a notion far removed from the park system’s early days, when President Theodore Roosevelt took a break from a national speaking tour and dropped from the public eye for two weeks to go camping in Yellowstone.

Yet as wireless connectivity spreads into almost every corner of modern life, the social pressures to “whittle away” at the remaining technology-free refuges are immense, said James Katz, a professor and director of emerging media studies at Boston University.

Katz had a firsthand dose of those pressures this summer, when he traveled through Yellowstone with his teenage children. They hit all the main attractions: Old Faithful, Yellowstone Falls, roaming herds of wild bison.

Whenever connectivity dropped off, Katz said, the complaints from the teens would begin.

“They wanted to be in touch with their friends and exchange Snapchat photos – not of the beautiful scenery but themselves,” he said.

Louisiana-based CenturyLink has not submitted a formal application on the Yellowstone proposal, according to park officials and company spokeswoman Michelle Jackson.

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