Old Faithful Tourism

Tourists gather to watch Old Faithful erupt on Aug. 23, 2016, in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park is forging ahead with cell service improvements this summer despite criticism from some who worry better phone service taints the park experience.

Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk signed off on a telecommunications improvement project last week that includes upgrades to wireless infrastructure at Mount Washburn and a number of other improvements in the Canyon and Lake areas of the park.

The project, first proposed last year, would add to wireless infrastructure already on the tower and would multiply the park’s wireless capacity by 38 times — from about 12 megabytes per second across four towers to 600 megabytes per second, according to Bret De Young, the park’s chief of telecommunications.

Speaking by phone from Mount Washburn, De Young said the upgrades wouldn’t increase the footprint of wireless access but would increase speeds in developed areas like Canyon Village. He said they want people to be able to check hotel reservations or use National Park Service applications on their phones and that improved service is needed for park workers.

But Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national group, has been sharply critical of the work. In a press release sent Thursday morning, the group said the work would expand wireless coverage too much in the nation’s first national park and further degrade Mount Washburn, which it said has been turned into “a massive, unsightly and dangerous telecommunications bunker.”

The release also said Yellowstone’s penchant for expanding cell service “further marginalizes national park policies to protect natural soundscapes, pristine vistas and serenity values.”

“Hiking and communing with nature have become secondary at Yellowstone to sending selfies, receiving texts and playing online games,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director. “The park’s telecommunications planning has been completely captured by Verizon, CenturyLink, and AT&T.”

Verizon is the company behind this project, and it’s footing the bill. De Young did not know how much it would cost.

The company started work at Mount Washburn this week. Park officials shut down a number of trails to keep visitors out of the way. De Young said they hope the work will be finished in October.

Historical preservation work there is also part of the project. Verizon is supposed to repair some windows and do some concrete work on the aging fire lookout, which was built in 1939.

The wireless upgrades approved this week include a new tower at Canyon Village. De Young said that tower will fill a coverage gap in the developed area and won’t be visible to the public. Another new tower will be built at Lake, and an antenna will be added to an existing tower at Grant Village.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.