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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Can you hear me now, Mount Rainier? Cellphone service coming to national park

By Craig Sailor Tacoma News Tribune

Is Paradise lost or has a potential disaster been averted?

Cellphone equipment will soon be installed at Mount Rainier National Park, discreetly hidden in the Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise.

Goodbye: critical gaps in communication. Hello: texting teens.

After completing an environmental review, the National Park Service announced Tuesday that it will permit the installation of limited-range cellular equipment in the park.

Permits, issued to wireless carriers Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, will allow the companies to install their equipment in the visitor center’s attic.

AT&T may be added pending a final review and approval of a separate proposal.

The park service said in a statement Tuesday that cell towers are not part of the project, “preserving the extraordinary scenery at Paradise.”

Instead, park officials said the companies’ equipment would be located in the attic, below the roofline, of the Jackson Memorial Visitor Center. The equipment will be enclosed behind wall panels on the gable ends of the building.

The equipment will function year round and provide voice and data capabilities.

Paradise is the most popular and heavily used area of the park. It had approximately 1 million visitors in 2017. It’s the most popular launching point for the climbing route to the summit.

The lack of cell coverage at Paradise is not a new concern. After ranger Margaret Anderson was shot and killed by a visitor in 2012, a board of review recommended the park update standard operating procedures related to communication during crisis.

In a 2012 interview, park superintendent Randy King told The News Tribune that several agencies responding to the shooting, including the FBI, had trouble communicating in the park because of the lack of cellphone reception. Park officials communicate by radio.

At Sunrise, another popular destination in the park, cellphone coverage is available thanks to towers outside the park.

Many were opposed to the idea of cellphone coverage in the park when it was first proposed in 2016.

The proposal set off a debate about whether people enjoying the park and surrounding wilderness areas should have access to calls, Facebook, Instagram and other technology while communing with nature.

Some said cell service would improve safety and provide a convenience for visitors. Others contend the proliferation of phones would distract from the natural beauty of the surroundings.

Cell service will be strongest in the Paradise area, but cell signals may extend into wilderness areas “to a limited extent,” park officials said.

Some had urged the park to reject the companies’ applications over concerns that signals would spill deep into park wilderness. They said park officials should do more to protect the wilderness character of a park that is designated 97 percent wilderness.

The park service supported coverage in the heavily used Paradise area, where a large number of medical, search and rescue and other calls are made. While there may be some spillover into wilderness, the signal is limited by the installation design and lack of cell tower, the park service said.

The service said it will ask carriers to reduce their signal to the west and southwest, where wilderness character is most expected. It also plans a public education program to address concerns about inconsiderate cellphone use.

A 2017 statement issued by the park said it had received nearly 500 responses, “balanced between those in favor and those opposed to cellular service at Paradise.”

Spokane alpinist Jess Roskelley said he remembers calling home from Camp Muir in 2001 using a Nokia phone, so cell coverage isn’t totally new to the area. Still, Roskelley believes something may be lost.

“It would be nice to have some areas on the planet where you can’t Snapchat everyone,” he said in a message. “But I think those days are coming to an end.”

Associated Press and Eli Francovich contributed to this report.