Wireless wilderness: Internet access gains favor among campers

Tent? Check. Coleman stove? Check. Laptop? Darn right!

Camping essentials used to include Coleman lanterns, goose-down sleeping bags and water purification kits. But a growing number of campers are adding laptops to that list, and wireless Internet access in the great outdoors is becoming the new must-have.

Private campgrounds across the nation have been adding wireless Internet access in recent years, and state park campgrounds are apparently following suit in a number of places. And while few campsites in national parks offer wireless Internet so far, that could change if demand warrants.

Alan Friedman, CIO of the California State Parks system, said wireless Internet access has already been deployed in about 60 of the state's 85 parks since last fall in one of the first state deals with SBC Communications Inc.

The pilot project began because the state "has an ongoing obligation to provide services to visitors at the parks," Friedman said. "They're a diverse group of people. We were concerned that some people, because of the demands of their lives to be connected, were having trouble getting away to our parks because they lacked connectivity."

Park employees can also use the wireless access to do their jobs, he said.

In the California state parks that offer wireless access, only certain areas are equipped with the service. The hot spots in each park use low-power 2.4-GHz transmitters, which can be affected by interference from trees, buildings and other objects typically found in the area. "We had to really work with what we had in terms of where the facilities are," Friedman said.

The technical problems in getting wireless access to work in an open park is more complicated than offering it at a local coffee shop, especially if you are using a wireless laptop computer, he said. "They work really well in a coffee shop situation, but they don't [easily] work really well in a campground situation, particularly ... if you're far from the antenna."

The state doesn't yet have figures on the number of visitors using wireless access in the parks, Friedman said. But because many are in areas with poor or no cell phone reception, wireless Internet access can help visitors stay connected. That's important for people who travel from state to state in recreational vehicles, sometimes living for months on the road on vacations or after retiring. Wireless access allows them to do all their banking, family communications, bill paying and other online tasks from the comfort of their motor homes or tents in state parks, he said.

Visitors sometimes need special USB-based Wi-Fi adapters to improve Internet access on laptops, while others get better results with more powerful PCMCIA cards that use external antennas, he said. Still other users may find that using their laptops while sitting at a picnic table allows for better reception.

Other state park systems can learn from California's experience, Friedman said. "It really is an exciting technology, and it does make a difference for the people who come to our parks."

Lise Shipley, executive director for Wi-Fi operations at San Antonio-based SBC, which provides the wireless Internet access in California's state parks, said the company began its first campground wireless installations in some of Michigan's state parks last October. Some welcome centers and highways in Oklahoma are also deploying the technology for travelers, she said. SBC is now watching for customer reaction before determining where to deploy next, Shipley said.

"We're wanting to see how this service works out and how we can improve our service," she said.

SBC uses Cisco Systems Inc. routers and omnidirectional antennas to provide coverage in the campgrounds. The routers are connected to DSL or T1 lines available near the campgrounds. Pricing is $7.95 per day or $19.95 per month, while SBC home Internet subscribers can add Wi-Fi service for $1.99 a month, providing access at more than 8,000 locations around the U.S. The daily and monthly fees allow users to travel to any SBC hot spot and connect at no additional charge.

Austin, Texas-based TengoInternet Inc. has been providing wireless Internet access to some 124 private campgrounds in 17 states and Mexico since 2002, said CEO and president Eric Stumberg. The service typically costs $3 to $5 per day.

The private campgrounds typically serve RV visitors rather than tent campers, he said. "These RVers drive in and check in, and they want the same amenities as hotels," Stumberg said. Depending on the layout of each campground, some offer full connectivity across their facility while others offer service in selected hot spots.

Of the 13,000 private campgrounds in the U.S., about 5,000 to 6,000 are considered to be good candidates for Wi-Fi access -- and interest in the service is growing, Stumberg said. In the fall of 2002, TengoInternet served just one Texas campground. Last year, some 500 campgrounds nationwide offered wireless Internet service.

"It's been pretty exponential growth right now, but you still have up to 6,000 [parks] out there, so there's still a lot of growth ahead of us," Stumberg said.

Another Wi-Fi vendor that serves campsite users is Reston, Va.-based LinkSpot Networks, which provides service in 25 states to 80 locations that cater to the high-end RV crowd.

Mark Kaplan, CTO of LinkSpot, said that about 30% of the parks are connected via satellite because their locations are too remote for DSL, cable or T1 lines. The company has been offering the service to campgrounds since February 2002. Users pay $5.95 per day for Internet access, $25 a week or $35 a month, and they can connect at any of the parks served by LinkSpot.

"It began with people wondering why they needed it in their parks and changed to how do they get it in their parks," Kaplan said.

At national parks, however, wireless Internet access is almost impossible to find. The National Park Service (NPS), which is overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior, has a private wired network for park business operations, but it has no plans or intentions to allow the general public to use that existing network wirelessly, said Tim Quinn, telecommunications director of the Interior Department. Some of the 388 national parks, monuments and landmark properties, however, are operated by concessionaires and those facilities may provide their own wireless services for visitors, he said. "We have no problem with concessionaires offering that kind of service," he said.

Wireless networking is not part of the NPS's main IT strategy, he said. Presently, wireless service is prohibited in the NPS core network because of security concerns.

Even so, recent surveys of national park visitors have shown some interest in wireless Internet access at the parks, he said.

Not all states are looking to offer wireless Internet access at their parks, either. Wendy Gibson, a spokeswoman for the New York State Parks system in Albany, said the state does get a few calls a year from prospective visitors inquiring about wireless access. But it's not something that will be adopted there anytime soon, she said.

"At this point, people visit our parks as destinations to relax with friends and family," Gibson said. "If the tide turned, we would certainly look at it. Right now, our campsites are not set up for that, and we're not looking to do that in the near future."

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