Cell phone installations may come to Paradise

By Pat Jenkins

The Dispatch

Visitors to Mount Rainier National Park who want better cell phone coverage amid the natural splendor might eventually be able to hook up with the best of both worlds.

Two providers of cell service – Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile – have applied for permission to install wireless communications hubs in the park's Paradise area to improve their customers' phone connections there.

In proposals that park officials are willing to consider, there wouldn't be any cell phone towers, although a tower was once suggested. Instead, the right-of-way permit applications the companies have filed with the National Park Service call for putting telecommunications equipment in the attic of the Jackson Visitor Center. Accompanying antennas would be mounted on the interior of the east and west ends of the building, behind fiberglass panels that would match the structure's wood siding, according to the companies.

Cell phone reception is known to be spotty around Paradise, which is at an altitude of 5,400 feet. The park's most popular and heavily visited recreation area, it's open to visitors year-round and virtually crawls with them in the summer.

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 are asking for the public's thoughts on the proposals. Comments can be made by Dec. 12 – the end of a 14-day public-comment period – at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/ParadiseCellular or to park superintendent Randy King at Mount Rainier National Park, 55210 238th Ave E., Ashford, WA 98304.

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," said Karen Thompson, the park's environmental coordinator.

A final decision could come next year, after a report on any environmental impacts of the proposed project. The report is scheduled to be released in January, followed by a second public-comment period.

Thompson said comments so far have been evenly divided. On one side are people who want more cell phone connectivity at the mountain, "including in the back country," and partly for the ability to call for help. On the other side are those who don't want cell phones to be more prevalent in the wilderness, Thompson said.

Officials have already rejected three options presented 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 guide house.

A fee for the companies' presence at Paradise hasn't been determined.

Verizon's plan for Paradise is tied to a cell tower the company built in the Ashford area three miles west of the park's Nisqually entrance but hasn't yet activated.

Thompson can be contacted at 360-569-6507 for information about the public comment process, which the park announced last week.


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