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Glacier National Park’s telecommunications plan approved

If you’re wondering about road closures while visiting Glacier National Parking, chances are, you’ll check your cellphone for information.

Currently, service is spotty at best, or nonexistent, and in many places, that’s part of the point.

But a newly approved telecommunications plan for Glacier National Park means four developed areas of the park could be in line for cell and internet service by spring 2023 at the earliest — with many details to be sorted out.

“The most important thing for people to know is this doesn’t mean there’s going to be all these cell towers going up all over Glacier National Park,” said Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer for Glacier. “That’s absolutely not what is going to happen.”

Glacier’s Amy Secrest, with environmental planning and compliance said: “This plan will not allow cell coverage in the backcountry. Full stop. That’s not what we want to do.”

Rather, it means the stage is set for Glacier to consider cell options in Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Rising Sun and Lake McDonald.

Kerzman said the plan in no way guarantees any particular action, but it does put sideboards around the conversations ahead.

“We may decide to never have additional service at Two Medicine,” Kerzman said, as an example. “But this sets the parameters if we wanted to move forward.”

Last week, Glacier announced the National Park Service approved its Comprehensive Telecommunications Plan, and the park noted the regional director signed last month a Finding of No Significant Impact for the environmental assessment.

Monday, Kerzman and Secrest talked about what that approval means for the public and employees — and what it doesn’t mean.

The bulk of the plan is aimed at updating technology so employees who run the park can complete tasks, sometimes even basic ones, Secrest said. The plan itself explains the need.

“The inability of Glacier’s existing telecommunications systems to support park operations is expected to become increasingly problematic as the park experiences ever-increasing visitation,” the plan said. “The park has made numerous efforts over the years to address the issues, resulting in some improvements. But a comprehensive suite of integrated actions is needed to improve the overall reliability and effectiveness of NPS communications in the park.”

The news release said project areas include existing NPS telecommunications sites and/or developed areas, such as the Loop and Going-to-the-Sun Road.

“Most of the plan is about upgrades to NPS telecommunications technology,” Secrest said. “And we need it for park operations.”

Improved radio communications will benefit public safety and staff safety, she said. Also, in some places, the internet is so slow, it’s hard for employees to share files or even take care of basic communications, and upgrades will help. 

The approval gives Glacier the green light to move ahead with 11 action items, including improving NPS data/internet access and phone systems at Many Glacier (see items No. 1-11 on page six and seven of the plan). It means the park can continue working toward approval for eight additional action items (see items No. 1-8 on page seven of the plan).

As for cell service, Secrest said the plan identifies the four areas as ones for which the park will consider applications from commercial providers. However, the plan does not offer any specific coverage proposals, so details, such as precisely where service might be available, would be ironed out in the future.

“But one thing that the plan does state very clearly is that commercial coverage will not be allowed outside of those developed areas,” Secrest said.

If a commercial provider wants to offer service, that provider will put in an application for a right-of-way permit, and if approved, it will set requirements.

The plan calls for minimizing visible impact to the park, and that includes vertical infrastructure such as towers, the officials said. It also calls for minimal “spillover” into undeveloped areas by providers.

“We’re asking them to limit spillage as much as possible,” Kerzman said.

Currently, a pilot commercial program offers wifi and internet service in the Many Glacier valley because Xanterra, which manages park concessions there, got approval for it from the National Park Service, Kerzman said. But at Rising Sun, for example, wifi is only available to guests in the lobby.

However the park proceeds, Secrest said the public has been concerned about the idea of having cell service across the park, and she said the plan limits consideration of any service to those four areas, Lake McDonald, Rising Sun, Two Medicine and Many Glacier. 

“Sometimes when you’re in the backcountry, you can pick up a random signal from somewhere outside the park, but this plan is not going to add any coverage to the backcountry,” Secrest said.