Don't panic: Canada won't blanket its wilderness with Wi-Fi

Some backcountry enthusiasts are bristling at a plan that could mean wireless Internet access at a few parks starting this summer. The agency says visitors demand it and need it -- but it'll be limited to areas like campgrounds and visitor centers.

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A Parks Canada plan could bring Wi-Fi to Banff National Park and other parks -- but not beyond high-population zones like RV hookups and visitor centers.
A Parks Canada plan could bring Wi-Fi to Banff National Park and other parks -- but not beyond high-population zones like RV hookups and visitor centers. Parks Canada
Parks Canada has begun a plan that could mean Wi-Fi at top sites like Banff, Pacific Rim, and La Mauricie national parks. But backcountry believers shouldn't worry too much at least for now -- the move doesn't mean people will be watching YouTube videos and posting Facebook updates from the trail instead of admiring the scenery.

The CBC reported Tuesday that Parks Canada has begun seeking input from companies that might install Wi-Fi at its parks and historic attractions. That led to some fretting about misplaced priorities.

For example, user A_Nonny_Moose said, "Parks are needed to get away from the chatter-fest on the Internet, not enable it. Somebody has exceeded his authority, and failed to understand the point of a park."

But the parks agency sees things differently. Internet access is a top demand by visitors, it's helpful for their planning, and it'll be limited only to very populated areas of parks, said Francois Duclos, manager for visitor experience planning at Parks Canada.

"We are introducing new media, habits, and tools, but are doing it in a way that will leave the wilderness unimpaired," Duclos said. "When you picture a mountain range, blue lakes, whitewater rivers, and spruce forests, this is not where Wi-Fi will be found."

Even a little Internet access will change the nature of parks for some people, but Duclos said, "We really care about the nature of these places -- as much as our visitors. We don't want to change the nature of the place, but to adapt to the needs of the market," he said.

The difference of opinion spotlights the difficulties a population can face balancing cultural priorities with new technology. It's not the first time modernity has intruded on natural parks -- electricity, telephones, RV hookups, GPS navigation devices, and smartphones are earlier examples. National parks weren't even invented until about the time that roads and cars made them convenient.

But the Internet spreads particularly virulently. It becomes useful enough at work that people want it at home, then in hotels, then restaurants, then on the highway, then everywhere.

No doubt Wi-Fi will improve some parts of the national park experience, such as picking a trail, identifying flora and fauna, or learning history. Google even offers Street View tours of the Grand Canyon if you want to see what you're getting into, and no doubt more trails will follow.

In his childhood, people planned trips in advance with books, maps, clippings, and such, Duclos said. No more.

"Now people leave home with nothing more than their smartphones and tablets and expect to be able to find information on the go," he said. "What's weather like today? Sunny and no wind? Good day for canoeing. Now, where's canoe rental in Banff?"

Other reasons for Wi-Fi in populated areas of parks include helping people's on-the-go experience sharing on social media -- something that helps the parks' promotional efforts, he said. And for many people, staying connected is now essential.

"What people seem to struggle with more and more as they travel is not staying connected with friends," Duclos said. "This is a need that's getting stronger and stronger."

The parks agency is evaluating whether to install Wi-Fi at 15 to 20 parks for this summer, and will decide based on the need and, secondarily, the cost. The expense isn't just in setting up the hot spots themselves, but also hooking them to the Internet -- something that could require satellite links, he said.

The service typically will be included in the entrance fee for most people in most parks, but it's possible some particularly remote areas or commercial uses will cost more.

Specific locations under consideration include the town of Banff near Banff National Park, its nearby Tunnel Mountain Campground, the town of Jasper next to Jasper National Park and its nearby campground, the welcome facility at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, La Mauricie National Park, and the Fortress of Louisbourg and the Halifax Citadel in Nova Scotia.

Although the Wi-Fi plan isn't certain, it sure seems likely.

"At the end of the day it's like electricity," Duclos said. "We hope people can find the services they need so they can better experience the places."