A year from now, Grand Teton National Park visitors and employees should have drastically improved cell coverage in places ranging from Beaver Creek to the remote west shore of Jackson Lake.
The improved connectivity will come courtesy of 63 miles of new fiber-optic line and nine cell towers between Flagg Ranch, Moose and Kelly.
The plans, driven by telecommunication companies, have been on the drawing board for years, but they were finally authorized Aug. 15 by the National Park Service, and park officials spread the word this week.
Park spokeswoman Denise Germann described the network as making a big difference for those who live in or visit the 310,000-acre park.
“I can sit in my office, and sometimes at headquarters the internet service has issues,” Germann said Friday. “I think our employees are pretty stoked about being able to have better internet and cell service in their personal lives. It’s huge with recruiting and retaining employees.”
The plan to wire the Tetons has attracted attention because of the scope of the infrastructure proposed, which is unprecedented within the 419-unit National Park system.
“We’re the first park to comprehensively look at fiber-optic and cellular infrastructure,” Grand Teton planning chief Daniel Noon told the Jackson Hole Daily. “Usually, parks in the past have done one proposal at a time.”
That time-consuming, piecemeal nature of approving cell towers individually prompted Grand Teton to explore a parkwide approach.
During the planning phases, there was some pushback, both from advocacy groups and residents who were less-than-thrilled about broadcasting high-speed internet into vast swaths of park where no service exists today.
“Are we losing something here?” Snake River boatman Jim Stanford asked in an interview this spring. “Are these places becoming less wild for the sake of modern convenience?
“Really, it comes down to values,” he said. “What’s more important: being able to make a dinner reservation while you’re on the hiking trail or listening to the sounds of birds?”
The park’s project management chief, Rusty Mizelle, said it’s hard to say how much cellular “spillover” there will be outside developed areas until towers are built, but there will be some in the 225 square miles of recommended or potential wilderness in the park. New signals are also expected to cover portions of the adjacent Teton Wilderness.
But the park is not making a priority out of limiting that spillover, as neighboring Yellowstone has. “If we have bleed-over into other areas,” Mizelle said, “we’re not really concerned about it.”
New towers will be located at Flagg Ranch, Colter Bay, Jackson Lake Lodge, Signal Mountain, North Jenny Lake, South Jenny Lake, Beaver Creek, Moose and Kelly. Today, just two permanent towers stand in the park at Jackson Hole Airport and atop Signal Mountain.
It’s possible that some fiber-optic line work and tower construction will begin this fall, but Mizelle expects the bulk of it to be built in 2020. The park has requested that Diamond Communication, the New Jersey firm contracted to do the work, begin with Flagg Ranch and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, where today there’s a complete hole in coverage.
Grand Teton National Park is not requiring that towers be camouflaged as trees, but the sites of the monopoles were selected with tree canopy and topography in mind. In places where poles will been seen against the skyline, the park may ask cell companies to paint the top 20 feet or so to blend in, Mizelle said.