The “Trouble” with Wi-Fi Hotspots in National Parks

On Tuesday April 29, 2014 Parks Canada announced it will install Wi-Fi hotspots in National Parks.  The response from Canadians is divided; some welcome the ability to access the internet in remote areas, others see it as an unnecessary incursion of modernity into wilderness.   There are valid arguments and passionate pleas from the defenders of the National Parks as un-connected wilderness that generalizes and misrepresents the impact and extent these Wi-Fi Hotspots will have.  A quick read through the CBC’s “Your Community Blog” on the topic is enough to gauge the strong alarmist vein to the reaction the announcement has caused.

Nothing about the Wi-Fi in National Parks news story has surprised me because as a historian of mountain parks – and someone who grew-up on the edge of Banff National Park – I am well versed in the constant conflict between the modern amenities Parks Canada is asked to make available to visitors and the adverse reaction of wilderness purists against those services.  It was only a matter of time before Parks got enough comment cards mentioning the lack of connectivity to justify the expense of installing it in high traffic locations.  When I heard the by-line on the 6pm news I knew the immediate response would come from purists against the incursion of connectivity into the wilderness.  It is all very predictable because of the contested understanding of National Parks: are Parks spaces of untouched and preserved wilderness; or are Parks spaces of wilderness preserved and made accessible for the enjoyment and betterment of all Canadians.  The two descriptions seem the same on the surface but the implications of the two understands are very different.  The first brings about the “how dare you connect a space that is an escape from being connected.”  The second recognizes that alongside preserving wilderness for future generations is the need to give the current users certain amenities they want, like Wi-Fi.

The gut reaction against Wi-Fi in National Parks comes, in part, from optics and perception rather than reality.  Wi-Fi in wilderness threatens the idealized vision of wilderness as a place untouched by modernity, an escape for urbanites weary of constantly being connected and surrounded by man-made things.  This is the urge National Parks were established to fulfill, and the cultural importance of Parks remains shaped by the late 19th and early 20th century anti-modern movement.  The lingering connotations that wilderness means escaping from the man-made reflects the founding philosophy is much deconstructed by academics but it remains the selling feature of National Parks in North America and the illusion of leaving the man-made, modern world of 24/7 connectivity behind is what draws many to visit and explore National Parks.[i]

It is worth discussing in the aftermath of the announcement not that Wi-Fi hotspots will be in National Parks but where these hotspots will go.  Will you, for instance, be able to upload photos from the top of Mount Rundle and Mount Edith Cavell?  Or, will the hotspots be in the trail head parking lots and campgrounds?  This is a key question because the media and commentators would have us all believe this plan will turn Parks in to a giant Wi-Fi hotspot while forgetting to mention or acknowledge one very important thing – the National Parks are REALLY BIG!  Here is a little context of the area of a few national parks in relation to other places in Canada:

Elk Island National Park: 194 km²

Edmonton: 684.4 km²

Prince Edward Island: 5660 km²

Banff National Park:  6697 km²

Greater Toronto Area: 7124 km²

Jasper: 10 878 km²

It is impossible for the Parks Canada Wi-Fi Hotspot plan to turn the entire Parks System into a giant connected zone.  Remember that Arrogant Worms song about how “Canada’s Really Big”?  Well a really big country means really big protected wild spaces too.  Sure there are areas within the Parks that are currently connection-less that will suddenly be connected to the world wide web but there will still be huge swaths of wilderness that have no internet connect or cell reception, areas where you will still need to need a satellite phone to connect to civilization (and help you out of any tight spot you might get into).  The wilderness of Parks will not be obliterated by this plan just like building a highway from Calgary to Banff did not result in a completely paved park.[ii]

The location of the hotspots matters but given the areas described above I find it hard to believe that at any point on a 4 hour hike you will be able to stop, take a selfie, connect to the internet, and upload it before returning to your car.  The logistics and expense of building such an extensive network of hotspots is far beyond what cuts to Parks budget and existing staffing constraints would allow.   Taking a moment to think critically about where these Wi-Fi hotspots might go and it becomes immediately apparent that connectivity will not completely infiltrate the wilderness.  Speculating on locations for hotspots based on a lifetime spent in the Bow Valley I expect the hotspots in Banff National Park and others will be at already popular sites – trail parking lots, campgrounds, and maybe the odd remote tea house.  Thinking about the area around Lake Louise it would not surprise me if in the coming years there are Wi-Fi hotspots in the parking lots for Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, in the village centre,  the Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers tea houses, and maybe halfway up the Tramline trail.  Will there be a hotspot at the top of Mount Temple?  Probably not, the top is covered by a glacier and it is not as popular a hiking route to Lake Agnes or the Plain of Six Glaciers so it would not be worth the cost of installation and maintenance.

Parks Canada has not yet announced where the first 50 Wi-Fi hotspots will be but you can be certain that they are coming.  For the visitors to National Parks whom never leave the safety of the paved or well-maintained paths this plan gives them a little extra connection to the modern world.  It lets them post to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, FourSquare, and various other social media outlets where they are and what they are doing in real time.   For the users of the National Parks who go to escape modernity in the backcountry, this will have little impact on them.  The hotspots will not change how they use the wilderness within the Parks boundaries because they choose to use the space differently than the type of visitor the hotspots are poised to serve.

I find myself neither for nor against Wi-Fi hotspots popping up in National Parks.  The hotspots will not change how I choose to use the parks and they will not take away from my enjoyment of the mountain environment any more than weaving in and out of gawking tourists on Banff Avenue takes away from my enjoyment of finishing a good day of hiking with a delicious Eddie Burger before heading back home to Canmore.


[i] At this point I could launch into a summation of William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” but it is a great read that should be taken whole without mediation of another’s voice, and is available for free on his website.  Also, I am tired of summarizing that article every time I write about National Parks in North America so this time I am not going to.

[ii] There are critics of the Mountain Parks in particular whom would argue these parks are too paved.  To that I say go to the hikes that are not Johnston’s Canyon, Maligne Canyon, Fenlands, Lake Louise Shoreline, etc.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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