Yellowstone is taking steps to vastly improve cellphone and internet service in the developed parts of the 2.2-million-acre national park.
The National Park Service is vetting a plan to allow Diamond Communications to install fiber-optic cable along 187 miles of road, lining most of the Grand Loop Road, everywhere from Tower Falls to Madison Junction to West Thumb.
“The project is needed because existing communication systems are at capacity and do not function as intended during peak season,” Yellowstone officials wrote in a “scoping document,” now open to public comment.
Park officials touted benefits, including the ability to attach files to emails, faster credit card transactions, more reliable cell connections and text messages that go through during the busiest of times. Those high-speed connections would be restricted to the developed parts of Yellowstone. Most roads would still lack any connection, Yellowstone telecommunications chief Bret De Young said.
“It doesn’t change the footprint of cellular coverage in any way,” De Young said. “The intent is not to cover the roadways or the backcountry, though you get a little bit of spillover, and we’re always trying to manage that.”
But in the developed parts of the park where cell coverage is permitted, the difference will be noticeable — like going from a dial-up to cable or fiber connection. Visitors, for example, would be able to upload videos to Facebook, De Young said.
Currently, Yellowstone’s cell signals rely on a microwave radio system that dates to around 1980. Especially in summer, that system gets overwhelmed, leaving connections dismal at best. That level of bandwidth no longer meets the park’s needs for business operations, employee communications and emergency communications and operations, the park’s scoping document said.
Burying fiber-optic line would allow Yellowstone to someday remove the 40-year-old microwave radio reflectors — visible 28-by-24-foot panels located on mountains and in the backcountry.
Installing the new line would take about three years, potentially starting in 2021. The cable, which would connect with Teton Park, would be installed by a “vibrating plow” vehicle that would bury the line as close to the road as possible, about 1 foot underground.
Yellowstone anticipates that the three-year construction project would cause short, one-lane traffic delays, where speeds would be reduced to 20 mph. Unlike Grand Teton National Park’s big wire-up, which added nine cell towers, no new towers would be added. Teton Park authorized 63 miles of new fiber-optic line between Flagg Ranch and Moose in 2018 and 2019, and much of it was buried this summer.
Yellowstone’s new fiber-optic line would route along the outer ring of the Grand Loop Road, branching into developed areas along the way. Only three segments of primary road in Yellowstone would not see the new line: the West Entrance to Madison Junction, Fishing Bridge to the East Entrance and Tower Falls to the Northeast Entrance.
Yellowstone officials said in a news release that the proposal would not authorize cell connections in new areas and thus stays true to the park’s 2009 wireless communications plan. Essentially, all areas that are authorized to have cell coverage in the park’s plan already have a connection, De Young said.
Comments are due Oct. 21. Submit them at ParkPlanning.NPS.gov/fiber.