By Pat Jenkins
The Dispatch
Cell phone service is growing on the border of Mount Rainier National Park and may get the okay soon to be louder and clearer inside the park.
Verizon Wireless announced last week that its 4G LTE service area has been expanded to include the Ashford area.
The coverage, which results from a newly-installed cell phone tower near Ashford, extends from Elbe through Ashford and up to the Nisqually entrance to park, according to a Verizon spokeswoman.
Verizon is the first carrier to provide service to Ashford, which comes on the heels of last year’s announcement of proposed cell service in and around Mount Rainier.
At that time, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile had applied for permission to install wireless communications hubs in the park's Paradise area to improve their customers' phone connections there. Since then, a third cell provider – AT&T – has made the same request. The applications are awaiting a decision by the National Park Service, possibly next month.
Under proposals that park officials haven't ruled out, there wouldn't be any cell phone towers in the park, although one was suggested by the companies in an original proposal. Instead, telecommunications equipment would be installed in the attic of the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. Accompanying antennas would be mounted inside the east and west ends of the building, behind fiberglass panels that would match the structure's wood structure, according to the companies.
Karen Thompson, the park's environmental coordinator, said an environmental assessment – a formal study of the cell phone proposals – is tentatively expected to be released in May for public review. That would be followed by a period for public comment and then a Park Service decision on the companies' applications.
Thompson and Verizon noted the in-park proposal is a separate from the new Verizon cell tower that was erected on private land between Ashford and the park.   
Ashford-area residents didn't previously have 4G coverage, so "this cell tower is Verizon’s effort to further invest in network infrastructure in Washington to provide customers with quality service," according to a Verizon representative.
Within the park, cell phone reception is known to be spotty around Paradise, which is at an altitude of 5,400 feet. Paradise, the park's most popular and heavily visited recreation area, is open to visitors year-round.
Federal legislation (the Telecommunications Act of 1996) requires the Park Service to consider all proposals that it receives for telecommunications installations in national parks. As part of the decisionmaking process involving the Verizon and T-Mobile applications, Mount Rainier National Park officials asked last year for the public's thoughts on the Verizon and T-Moble plans. The initial comment period ended Dec. 12.
Park officials can either accept the accept the applications or deny them. The latter choice is referred to by officials as the "no-action alternative."
Park officials last year rejected a proposal by the wireless providers for locating antennas at Paradise. One was to build a tower, ranging in height from 75 to 130 feet, in the lower parking lot. The others were to put antennas in a cupola on the roof of the visitor center or on interior and exterior walls of the nearby guidehouse.
Thompson said in December that comments were evenly divided. On one side were people who want more cell phone connectivity at the mountain, partly for the ability to call for help in the remote back-country. On the other side were people who want a break from cell phones when they're enjoying the wilderness.
The latter sentiment was shared by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In a letter to park officials, the group said cell equipment and increased cell phone communications inside the park would conflict with efforts to provide peaceful, tranquil wilderness settings. The permit applications should be denied, the group said.
In a separate statement, Jeff Ruch, the executive director of PEER, said, “The essence of wilderness is escaping the electronic tendrils of civilization. Public lands and resources should not be used to subvert wilderness for commercial purposes, especially in a place called Paradise.”
PEER, a non-profit organization of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers and others, is an advocate for the environment and public employees "who safeguard natural resources.”
The group talso is on record in opposition to plans for expanding cell phone service in Yellowstone National Park.
A fee for the companies' presence at Paradise hasn't been determined.