Wi-Fi Comes to State Parks Across the Country

Published June 1, 2008

State parks are turning high-tech, with many local governments and parks authorities offering wireless Internet “hotspots.” At least one state parks official admits there is no meaningful monetary return on this infrastructure investment.

“The ‘for-profit’ model [of wireless Internet] has kind of gone by the wayside,” said Alan Friedman, chief information officer for the California State Parks system.

Market Possibilities

But for one analyst, the insertion of wi-fi hotspots in state parks could be an example of how public-private partnerships should work.

“[To provide a] public benefit to taxpayers at no public cost by private investment, and any profits to be made by the private investors, … that’s a dream partnership,” said information technology analyst Thomas Lipscomb.

Muni Wi-Fi Quagmires

Not so dreamy is the quagmire large cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco found themselves in after Internet service provider Earthlink backed out of high-profile deals to provide blanket municipal wi-fi coverage in 2007.

Lipscomb urged government officials to use caution when considering adding more such “convenience” services. He strongly recommended they conduct feasibility studies before spending taxpayer money on public-private partnerships with questionable prospects for success.

“No idea [in this area] of and by itself is wrong,” said Lipscomb. “My only problem is if this costs the taxpayers anything.”

More Parks Joining Trend

A USA Today survey published on April 10 found more than half of all state parks offer some sort of wireless access within their boundaries, with California’s topping the list. Of California’s 278 state parks, 51 are “lit up,” Friedman said.

“In the twenty-first century people’s lives have become very, very complex, and people have become more and more tethered to wireless communications,” said Friedman.

“At one of the parks we ‘lit up’ with wi-fi, one of the occupants came up and thanked me, as they managed eBay auctions from the road,” said Friedman.

In 2004 the Michigan state parks system was the first in the nation to offer wireless Internet access at state campgrounds, and California followed soon after, said Sarah Illingworth, an AT&T spokeswoman.

Satisfied Officials

The wi-fi agreement between the State of California and AT&T seems to be one of the better examples of public-private partnerships, said Lipscomb.

For California parks officials the wi-fi installation is a winning situation–employees use the service free of charge as part of the concession agreement announced by SBC Communications in January 2005. The Internet service provider, SBC, offered to install the necessary technology in the busiest of California’s state parks in exchange for the rights to charge visitors a $7.99 daily usage fee, said Friedman.

At the time wi-fi was the “big thing,” and SBC Communications, from a “great marketing perspective,” wanted to send the message that consumers using SBC would get service in some of the most remote locations in California, said Friedman.

Questionable Future

The profitability of fee-based wi-fi is being questioned as the technology’s fiscal viability has been undermined by increasing Internet technology in the cellular phone sector plus the efforts of businesses to lure customers by offering free wi-fi.

“It’s possible that as time goes on that the whole economic model is going to change enough that wi-fi may not be as sexy a technology as it was in 2005,” said Friedman.

In Kentucky, 17 of 53 state parks offer wireless Internet; in Georgia, 13 of 45 state parks offer wi-fi hotspots; and in Texas, 16 of 84 state parks offer the service, according to the USA Today survey. Tennessee and Kansas plan to implement wireless Internet access in all their state parks.

Liz Harrelson ([email protected]) writes from Redwood City, California.