Wi-Fi by the Fire

States test the market for Wi-Fi Internet access in public campgrounds.

by / April 27, 2005
Myra Hudson and her partner hit the road in their motorhome last year to travel the United States. Earlier this year, they found themselves motoring through California, enjoying the perks the numerous state parks offer. When they arrived at San Elijo State Beach on the San Diego coast, they discovered a feature they hadn't expected: wireless Internet access. The state park is the first in California to offer Wi-Fi access to visitors, and the state plans to offer the service in 85 parks by June.

California is just one of several states that will offer park visitors the opportunity to access the Internet while they sit by the campfire. Tapping into a world you've just escaped may seem odd, but the means exist. Before you know it, Wi-Fi access at state parks could become as necessary as a sleeping bag.

Do We Really Need This?
People's attraction to Wi-Fi has been proven time and again throughout the past few years, said Alan Friedman, CIO of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which is why he wants to bring wireless Internet access to park visitors.

Like snack bars, horseback riding and equipment rental, Wi-Fi is a service parks offers to improve visitors' stays, he said.

"While at a park, visitors with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops can send e-mail and instant messages to family and friends; they can share digital photos of their vacation; and they can obtain driving directions or locate hiking trails or nearby restaurants," Friedman said.

Visitors also could learn more about the natural and cultural history of the sites where they're vacationing, he added.

Convincing campers that Wi-Fi access is desirable isn't a problem, but surmounting the geographical obstacles to deploying Wi-Fi in remote areas may prove more difficult.

Many California state parks are located in sprawling rural areas far away from the state's telecommunications backbone infrastructure, said Friedman. "Within a park, there may be thousands of feet between the entry kiosk, ranger station, maintenance yard, visitor center and other park facilities," he said. "Even if copper cabling existed between these facilities, it would often be extraordinarily expensive to use such cabling to extend local area network services from one facility to another."

The challenges associated with improving this access prompted the state to open talks with wireless technology and service vendors to improve the infrastructure, but the state could not assume the cost of doing so.

"Many of these vendors implement a hotspot business model where the property owner is required to assume much of the financial risk associated with the installation of a hotspot," Friedman said. "This wasn't an alternative in view of our state's current fiscal situation. In addition, many of the vendors also focus on meeting the needs of a localized geographic service area rather than an area the size of California."

In addition to the financial concerns, the department was looking for a short-term contract to allow the state to better gauge where Wi-Fi is headed.

"Our long-term concession strategy could be affected by technological changes that will likely occur in the wireless marketplace during the next few years," Friedman said. "The adoption of new wireless standards, such as WiMAX, MiMO and wireless mesh technology, as well as the growing implementation of 3G and 4G cellular data services, could also have an impact on any future wireless strategy for the state park system."

Despite those considerations, the state struck a deal with San Antonio-based SBC, which was looking to expand its FreedomLink Wi-Fi service. SBC already had success deploying similar Wi-Fi Internet access at state parks in Michigan.

SBC installed Wi-Fi infrastructure in Michigan's Holland State Park and Grand Haven State Park last year, said SBC Spokeswoman Jessica Nu
Eliot Cole Contributing Writer